Chicago Jewish Delegation Stands Up for LGBT Rights in Uganda

Members of the AJWS Chicago delegation delivering letter to the Ugandan Consulate

Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.

This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.

Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:

Dear President Museveni,

I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.

As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.

If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.

I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.

I encourage you to click here to sign a similar letter currently being distributed by AJWS. (If you are a rabbi and you have not yet signed the rabbinic letter, click here.)

It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.

Members of my congregation, JRC, in front of the Ugandan consulate: (left to right: AJWS-Chicago Executive Director Taal Hasak- Lowy, Michael Sehr, Tina Escobar, me, Gonzalo Escobar)

On “Pinkwashing in Israel” – My Response to a Friend’s Blog Post

My friend and colleague Rabbi Gail Diamond recently wrote an eloquent post in her blog discussing Sarah Schulman’s recent op-ed about Israeli “pinkwashing” in the NY Times. I submitted a comment but alas, it was too long to post. So I’m posting it here.

If you’d like to participate in our dialogue, first read the op-ed, then click here and read Gail’s post, then go ahead and read my response below. Respectful comments – on her blog or mine – are always welcome.

Dear Gail,

Thanks for an eloquent post. I’m happy to discover your blog and am grateful that you’re willing to publicly consider these kinds of tough issues.

Re your first response: I couldn’t help but detect a very palpable alienation, isolation and overall spirit of “it’s us against the world” in your and your friend Rich’s words. I know that this feeling of growing isolation from the international community is widespread among Israelis across the political spectrum. There’s no small sorrow in all this, especially considering that Zionism arose in part to solve the problem of Jewish “otherness” in the world. Nothing else to say about this except that politics aside, it’s just so sad to consider the extent to which the Jewish political/national project only seems to have exacerbated Jewish isolation on an international scale.

In your second response, you agree that there is something unjust about the fact that as a gay couple, you and your partner can take advantage of laws in Israel that privilege you as Jews. You add, however, that

The reality is the every country that surrounds Israel has human rights issues. Nothing is black and white, and every country lives with a messy reality. Because Israel is subject to an organized media campaign of de-legitimization, and because Israel cares about its image in the eyes of the western world, for self-serving reasons no doubt, we have people out there making the case for what’s good about the reality here.

With respect, Gail, try though I might, I just can’t accept this argument. Of course nothing is black and white and of course every country lives with a messy reality. But there is messy and there is messy. And I simply cannot agree with the claim that Israel is essentially a healthy Western liberal democracy with some “human rights issues.” I have come to believe that there is a much more fundamental form of oppression going on here.

I respect and celebrate the fact that, as you put it, “the reality of gay rights is directly impacting the lives of many people in Israel – for the good.” But if we’re truly going to calculate the greater good here, it’s difficult for me to weigh the benefits enjoyed by LGBTQ Israelis against the massive injustices Israel committed – and continues to commit – against millions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. It’s just not a level playing field. And unless these inherent injustices are dealt with fairly and directly, I don’t think it’s honest to speak of Israel as an essentially healthy, if blemished, democracy.

I was taken – and somewhat surprised – by your reference to “an organized media campaign of de-legitimization” against Israel. In the first place, I’m just not convinced that the media has nefarious designs on the state of Israel. If there is any “campaign,” I’d say it’s less a media conspiracy than a growing movement of activists throughout the world who are responding to the Palestinian call for solidarity with their struggle. I think it demeans the motives of those of us who are publicly holding Israel to account on very real and serious issues of human rights by saying we are trying to “de-legitimize” the state. This is a term wielded wantonly by Israel’s hasbara machine, and I believe it’s only real purpose is to muzzle honest and open debate on this issue.

You write that “none of us knows where this is all leading.” While this is true, of course, I think we can certainly predict certain general trends. And in this regard, I am truly frightened that in Israel, the direction is moving directly away from democracy and toward the greater influence of the ultra-right and the ultra-religious. (I think you know what I’m talking about, so I’ll spare you’re the links to the op-eds – most of them from Ha’aretz and Israel’s increasingly embattled progressive blogosphere). Unlike you, I’m less sanguine about “the intertwining of Jewish tradition and politics.” I genuinely fear that this particular marriage is leading us all down a very dark road.

Gail, I understand the reality that because you and your partner and are a bi-national same sex couple, your family cannot live together in the US. I realize that for you, this is your life we are talking about. And I deeply respect the courage it took you to publicly air the ways this reality impacts on you and your family. I think I know you well enough to know that you did not raise this point to in any way shut down debate with those outside Israel who don’t share your reality – only that you wanted to sensitize your readers to the deeper human truth of this issue.

I have faith that we can continue to keep this conversation going, as difficult and painful as it is. Thank you for putting yourself and your feelings out there. I hope you know that I offer mine in the same spirit of dialogue and friendship.

Kol Tuv,


The New Jersey Standard’s Editorial Bigotry

Last week, the New Jersey Jewish Standard ran an announcement of a same-sex union – this week, after receiving pressure from local traditional/orthodox rabbis, they have announced that they will no longer “run such announcements in the future.” They defended their action by stating that their paper “has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart.”

Well, I’d say the Standard is about to learn the true meaning of “communal division.” Their editorial decision is particularly appalling as it comes on the heels of the suicide of a gay New Jersey university student who was the tragic victim of cyber-bullying. We’d do well to ask which is more important: the views of a religious minority or sensitivity to prejudice that literally has life or death implications?

Please, please write to the Standard and let them know how outraged you are. If you are Jewish, I encourage you to add that this kind of bigotry has no place in our community.  Click here for the contact info.

Elegy for Janine Denomme

It’s a brave new world. I’ve just officiated at the shiva for Janine Denomme, a 45 year old woman who also happened to be an ordained Catholic priest.

I did not have the honor of knowing Janine personally, but I do know she was a profoundly important spiritual teacher to many. She was active in the Catholic Church and served as a lay preacher, church musician, parish council member, spiritual director and religion teacher. And though she was a gay woman, she consistently considered the Catholic Church to be her spiritual home, and had always dreamed of becoming a priest.

Janine was ordained just this last April by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an initiative within the Catholic Church that seeks to create “a more inclusive, Christ-centered Church of equals in the twenty-first century.”  Tragically, Janine was diagnosed with cancer as she prepared for ordination – but as it turned out, her struggle with her illness gave her a new spiritual calling. She wrote deeply profound reflections on the journey of a cancer patient, primarily through her Caring Bridge blog. I’ve just finished reading “Via Delorosa” – a piece she wrote this past February in which she charts the stages of her chemo treatment using the religious symbolism of the Stations of the Cross.  It’s quite simply as powerful a piece of contemporary spiritual writing as I’ve ever read.

Needless to say, the Catholic Church does not recognize Janine’s ordination in any fashion – and even more painfully, the Archdiocese of Chicago refused to allow her to be buried in her Catholic parish. Her funeral mass will take place in a Methodist church in Evanston this Saturday.

In a final 21st century twist to this story: Janine’s beloved partner, Nancy Katz, is a member of my congregation – and it was my honor to preside over a Shiva service at their home this evening. Truly an interfaith gathering of the most sacred kind.

You can read more about Janine here in the Windy City Times and in this piece from the Huffington Post. May her memory be for a blessing.

Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill: The Plot Thickens

If ever we needed a lesson in how prejudice can fan the flames of oppression, how is this? The NY Times recently reported that three American evangelical Christians visited Uganda last March to give a series of high profile talks:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

As it turns out, just one month after the conference, a Ugandan politician who claims to have ties to evangelical members of the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which among other things, imposes a death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The evangelicals are naturally backtracking, claiming they had no idea their anti-gay ideas could possibly be used in such a way. (One is actually quoted as saying, “Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.”)

I’ve visited Uganda twice with members of my congregation, and I can personally attest to the palpable growth of American evangelicalism in that country. Whether or not this bill bears direct American influence, I can’t help but note the disingenuousness of someone who preaches that “the gay movement is an evil institution” then expresses surprise when others prove more than willing to take him at his word.

Click here for a CNN article on the Ugandan bill, and here for a Human Rights Watch Report.

Pray for Tolerance


Last night I had the honor of participating in a local vigil in memory of the two young Israelis who were killed during the tragic Tel Aviv Gay/Lesbian center last week. The gathering was convened by Or Hadash, a congregation that serves the Chicago LBGT community and was co-sponsored by a number of other local Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Our vigil was all the more powerful coming after a particularly disgusting local demonstration of anti-gay, anti-Jewish hate.  This past Monday a small number of  Fred Phelps’ notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church came to Chicago for a series of protests targeting Jewish groups and synagogues (above.)  Even for Phelps it was a truly sick display: they gathered to demonstrate across the street from Emanuel Congregation (which houses Or Chadash), shouting and displaying signs that read, among other things: “The Jews Killed Jesus,” “Bloody Obama,” and “God Hates Jews.”

Last night’s prayer vigil, needless to say, offered us the welcome opportunity to voice a message of tolerance. It was especially gratifying that our service was attended by an impressively diverse gathering from across the spectrum of Chicago’s religious and political community. The high point for me: an address by Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, who shared a sublime prayer which that was recently written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Dean of the orthodox Rabbinical School Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Among other things, Rabbi Linzer’s inspiring words helped to remind us that traditional religion and intolerance need not go hand in hand.

An excerpt:

Master of the Universe, give us the courage to stand up to and reject all forms of hateful speech and violence. Give us the strength of spirit to refuse to tolerate the rejection of any human being, each of whom is created in בצלם א- לוהים, in Your Divine image. Help us to internalize in our hearts and to manifest in our actions the mandate of the verse in this week’s parsha ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים, that it is our responsibility to care for, to love, and to protect all members of our society, and in particular those who are most vulnerable and most likely to feel estranged and rejected. Help us to value every member of our society for whom he or she is, to care for them, to support them, and to recognize that they are an equal part of our community.

Click here for the full text of the prayer.

Recons Slam Gay Marriage Ban


I’m extremely proud to announce that all three arms of the Reconstructionist movement have released a joint statement condemning the recent passage of gay marriage bans across the country.  Read all about it in this JTA article. It was particularly gratifying to read this acknowledgment in the piece:

The Reconstructionist movement, the smallest of American Jewish religious denominations, has long been a leader in liberalizing Jewish approaches to homosexuality. In 1984, the movement became the first to ordain openly gay rabbis, followed six years later by the Reform movement and in 2006 by the Conservative movement.

Here’s the text of the entire statement:

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College deplore the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar discriminatory initiatives recently passed in Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas. We are saddened and deeply disturbed by the denial of fundamental human rights—to marry, to adopt and care for foster children—to thousands of gay and lesbian citizens across the United States. We are particularly dismayed by the passage of initiatives that have reversed previously recognized equality for same-sex unions.

Beginning in 1993, in a series of resolutions, the Reconstructionist movement has affirmed the holiness of commitments made by same-sex couples. Religious recognition of marriages does not confer the legal and civil rights and responsibilities bestowed by the state upon married couples. We recognize the right of every religious denomination to affirm its own definition of, and limitations upon, the sacred ritual of marriage. No member of the clergy should be compelled to sanctify any union that is contrary to his or her understanding of sacred text and tradition. But neither should any gay or lesbian citizen of the United States be denied the legal rights confirmed by civil marriage.

We call upon leaders of other faith communities who share the commitment to civic equality and to the separation of church and state in the realm of marriage to speak out against bans on same-sex marriage and discrimination against GLBT people in the realm of adoption and foster care. We look forward to the day when all states will grant equal access to the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage.

Next They’ll Be Blamed for Global Warming…

250benizri_ta_baobao1.jpgIn what can only be described as homophobia of seismic proportions, Knesset Member Shlomo Benizri of the Shas Party (at right) has blamed gays for the recent series of earthquakes in Israel.


Explaining his position, Benizri actually offered this earthshaking whopper:

A cost-effective way of averting earthquake damage would be to stop passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the State of Israel, which anyways causes earthquakes.

Ha’aretz has the story here. Read if you dare…

Pushing the Button

The world press is abuzz about the Israeli entry in this year’s Eurovision song contest: “Push the Button” by the Israeli rap group Teapacks. Contest organizers say they may ban the song because of its “inappropriate message.” Seems “Push the Button” is a semi-satirical song that expresses fear about nuclear war and crazy world rulers. (Guess who they might be referring too?)

If you’d like to read more, here’s an article about the controversy from JTA. Apparently the Eurovision folks are going to convene a meeting in Helsinki to figure out how to handle this. (Good lord!!)

Those of you who follow such things will note the irony in all of this: Israel WON the Eurovision contest back in 1998 with “Diva,” a song sung by Israeli transsexual Dana International. Apparently Eurovision’s tolerance extends to LGBT acceptance but not as far as concern over nuclear proliferation…

You can see a performance of “Push the Button” by clicking above. Politics notwithstanding, I personally think it’s a pretty lame song (though I do appreciate Teapacks’ attempt to deal with such a terrifying issue through humor).

For video of Dana International in her moment of victory, click below. (Viva la diva!)

Gays, Lesbians, and Conservative Judaism

glbt-magen.jpgThere’s been a great deal of discussion in the mainstream and Jewish press about the recent rulings by Conservative Judaism’s Committee of Law and Standards on the status of gay and lesbian Jews. (You can click here for a complete news report on the decision. If you’d like to wade through the various Rabbinical rulings in question, they are available on the Rabbinical Assembly’s website.)

The truly historic aspect of these rulings are represented by the following words, which come from the decision by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reiser:

This ruling effectively normalizes the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Jewish community. Extending the 1992 CJLS consensus statement, gay and lesbian Jews are to be welcomed into our synagogues and other institutions as full members with no restrictions. Furthermore, gay or lesbian Jews who demonstrate the depth of Jewish commitment, knowledge, faith and desire to serve as rabbis, cantors and educators shall be welcomed to apply to our professional schools and associations.

In short, this means that three out of the four American Jewish denominations (Reform, Reconstructionist and now Conservative) now sanction the ordination of gay or lesbian rabbis as well as commitment cememonies between gay/lesbian partners. Those of us who have worked for GLBT inclusion and affirmation in Jewish life are profoundly gratified by this important new step. My own denomination, the Reconstructionist movement, has long led the charge in this regard (read here) and it is gratifying to see other movements now following suit. We can only hope these breakthroughs will have an impact upon American religious life beyond the Jewish community.

However, there is one other aspect of the Dorff/Nevins/Reiser opinion that has attracted some attention (or possibly caused some jaws to drop onto the floor):

The explicit Biblical ban on anal sex between men remains in effect. Gay men are instructed to refrain from anal sex.

In other words, the Conservative movement has voted to ordain gay rabbis and sanction gay commitment ceremonies, as long as gays (or at least gay men) refrain from having gay sex. (I know, I know, it must have been as strange for you to read these words as it felt for me to write them…)

Without going too far into the legal complexities of this issue, this prohibition comes from the verse in Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman: it is an abhorrence.” For a movement that views itself bound by halacha, or Jewish law, this particular Biblical prohibition presents a formidable challenge. The Dorff/Nevins/Reiser ruling thus represents a kind of legal middle ground. While the logic of this ruling might seem mystifying or even hypocritical to some, it is nevertheless an important step forward for a movement that views itself as bound by Jewish law and yet desires to be responsive to 21st century American life.

My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Amy Small (who serves Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Chatham, NJ) put it well recently on our Recon rabbinical listserve:

The decision is not what we’d want, but it is also not what many in the Conservative movement want. Given their internal struggles to both hold the movement together in a time of much internal division and their hope of remaining engaged in a halachic process, they may have moved as far as they could for the moment. That movement on this issue, however, is a significant directional shift. I applaud them for that and lend my support to those who will continue to work for change.

Another Recon colleague, Rabbi Mychal Copeland (who serves Stanford Hillel and belongs to a Conservative congregation) described the ruling as part of “the growing pains all denominations deal with at different moments in their evolution.” Mychal shared that she used to serve a congregation that struggled with her being a lesbian rabbi. She added, however:

The relationship progressed so well that when they decided to affiliate with the Conservative moment years later after I’d moved on, it was only under the condition that they could hire a GLBT rabbi if they so desired. That kind of change is how I see the recent ruling working on the ground. Gay rabbis have to be visible in order to change minds.

And at the end of the day, this is what the Conservative movement ruling will help to accomplish: the increasing visibility of gay rabbis and the increasing affirmation of gay Jews. Yes, perhaps it is only one small step. But for all the GLBT Jews who are currently wondering if there could ever be a place for them in the Jewish community, this small step might well make a world of difference.

Where do we go from here? Let’s dream a little. I’ll give the final word to my Recon colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer (Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA):

I personally am looking forward to the time when all of this bizarre negative obsession with homosexuality by the hetero mainstream will be behind us and we can move on to solving problems like world hunger and war, instead of having to defend our basic humanity…