An ally’s journey to and through Keshet UK’s Inclusivity Training
Over the last five months I’ve enjoyed two of Keshet UK’s one day inclusivity trainings. The first, in June 2013, was a cross-comunal day. The second, in October, was focused on the Orthodox community.
I’d been made to feel comfortable right at the start of the first training day, which was important, as my learning started just as quickly. When asked to introduce ourselves, we were asked to state our preferred gender pronouns along with our names. With only a couple of unfazed participants before me, I had little time to process what this was all about, what was being asked for. I quickly learnt the value of the question though. A few people after me, I was taken aback by a person’s name and pronouns, a different gender to what I’d taken for granted would be announced. After more training, personal accounts and other inputs, I feel I have acquired a little insight into what it’d be like going through life not being correctly identified, not fitting one of the boxes our society is set up for us all to fit into for daily practicalities and going through this while some people offer cruel, cutting discrimination and taunts instead of the deep understanding deserved.
Next, we were paired up to explain to each other how we’d come to be there. I went first. I told my story. I think the first clearly identifiable step on this part of my Jewish journey was at my fourth Limmud conference in 2008. I went to a session where Rabbi Riskin spoke of how he’d dealt with a young gay man in his community when he came out to him. I felt he’d been very warm and compassionate to his community member, what I’d want for anybody in his situation. He’d made it clear there was nothing wrong, nothing invalid, about people that God has made with a slightly different nuance of His image, with different desires to some of the rest of us. During the questions from the audience at the end of the session, many questioners turned out to be openly gay – my sheltered ghetto background meant that this was a new experience for me. Having felt so soothed by the warm approach that the rabbi had just related, I was somewhat wrongfooted by the raw and sometimes angry emotion from the questioners, as they told of their battles and challenges in the Orthodox community. Then a guy sitting close to me was picked. We all listened intently to his tragic story, delivered in an unsteady voice, filled with emotion as he successfully fought to remain calm and respectful. He focused on the girl’s life he told us he’d destroyed; he’d been encouraged to form a heterosexual relationship, as a young Orthodox rabbi, by JONAH. I was struck by his lack of concern for his own plight; he was just devastated about his impact on another human being. Many of us there were just so deeply and profoundly moved by experiencing this person’s account and the regrets he now had to live with.
As a single guy though, I felt a definite reluctance to get involved in this area, and anyway, what did I know about it? There were so many issues that needed attention and I was trying to make my contribution to - I could leave just this one to somebody else, couldn’t I?
Over the next few years, I discovered the 4 x higher suicide rate, 10 x higher self harming rate and other issues facing gay people. I learnt a little of where science is at on the issue. I started to understand that it has been shown to make a huge difference to the health and wellbeing of LGBT people if they are accepted by the various important components of their community.
January 2012 arrived. I was sitting in a shul when the rav of the shul explained to the assembled congregation why he didn’t feel attending Limmud was for him. Before mentioning the attendance of left-wing members of the IDF as an additional reason, he told the congregation, easily over two hundred people, that the gay contingent at Limmud irritated him. I couldn’t believe it. I’d heard from people what his views were but to be sitting there, in such a big crowd, with it being so obvious that there would almost certainly be gay people present hearing this, I felt awful for them and outraged. I then knew I couldn’t continue to shirk my responsibility to a sizeable minority of our community. Over the next year or so, hearing less than careful, sensitive remarks from the pulpits of other shuls, I came across Keshet UK and approached them to be a part of my Modern Orthodox Facebook group, to help us make progress. That was how I’d ended up sitting at the first training day, explaining myself to the girl sitting in front of me.
I was taken aback for the second time in a short space of time that morning, when the girl I’d just shared the central points of my journey with, told me she was gay. It’s interesting to realise what assumptions I had always been making in everyday life. This feeling continued through the morning as it emerged that person after person present was adding diversity in various ways to our group. It gradually dawned on me that I, being heterosexual and cis-gendered, was in fact representing the minority. It was quite a moment for me.
Throughout the training, being thoughtfully introduced to some of the issues surrounding inclusion of LGBT(QIQ) people in our community, I immediately saw the similarities with other sections of the Orthodox community who also need progress to be made for them. It’s just that I knew in this case, these issues were as important as it gets. During the expertly facilitated day, I discovered that 72% of gay teenage girls self-harm*.
I grew up in a warm family in the warm Jewish community of North Manchester. I went to a secondary school in Liverpool where I was at the lucky end of the pupils. I knew first hand what a difference how you feel in a community can make. I knew how important it was for people to know it’s unacceptable to sit back and allow vulnerable people to be made to feel unwelcome, out of place.
I spend every second of every day living in a world that’s not set up for me, that I don’t belong in. It’s an omnipresent reminder to try and be understanding and inclusive, however inconvenient it might instinctively feel and how tempting it can be to dismiss issues without genuinely opening yourself up to them. I sometimes wonder if that might be why God put me here, like this, with my eye condition. What my purpose here might be. I find it very inspiring when people who have been given the choice to live a straightforward life, not engaging with other people’s plight, decide that they are going to take an interest, they are going to care, they are going to make a difference. These people often say they are driven by how they understand Jewish values. That connects me with my faith in a way that no exercise in theology ever could. I hope people who could have walked by might take an interest in this area where Keshet UK does such important work, make a difference and be an inspiration.
*Stonewall School Report 2012http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/school_report_2012(2).pdf
(see the section on faith schools too)