By Rabbi Rick Jacobs
As our world commemorates Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) each year, we remember one of the darkest moments in human history: when hate triumphed, leading to the slaughter of six million Jews. The codification of the Nazi ideology of hate first took the form of discrimination laws during the 1930s, which then led to systematic genocide against our people.
A less well-known part of this dark period is that the Nazis also rounded up gays and lesbians, forcing them to wear pink triangles on their clothes so they could be easily recognized and further humiliated inside the concentration camps.
In 1989, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, brilliantly connected us to the geometry of prejudice in his interpretation of the Star of David:
There is another meaning that we can attach to the Magen David. It is an interpretation that any Jewish child with a crayon can tell you: that the Star of David contains within it the triangle…. For those of us who have been willingly blind to the geometry of Jewish life, who would keep invisible the presence of the triangle within the Shield of David: It is time to complete the outline of our Jewish star.
The Reform Movement has long been leading the way in the fight against homophobia and the work to fully include the LGBTQ community within Jewish life. It was under Rabbi Schindler’s watch in 1974 that the URJ (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) admitted its first openly gay and lesbian congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. That congregation still flourishes today.
This past November at the URJ Biennial, our 5,000 delegates unanimously passed the most advanced resolution by a religious denomination on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. This resolution makes a powerful statement of our values and is a reflection of the inclusive reality that already exists in some of our congregations, camps, and other institutions. Through the work of Audacious Hospitality, we’re proactively advancing this resolution through initiatives that center the leadership of transgender and gender non-conforming Jews and increase the visibility of the gender diversity in our congregations and institutions.
For example, URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA, is leading the way in demonstrating how to make Jewish community inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming people. Two summers ago at Eisner, part of our network of 16 overnight camps, an 11-year-old camper, born male, was in the midst of transitioning genders. Under the inspired leadership of the camp’s director, Louis Bordman, the Eisner community demonstrated how loving and accepting a religious community can be, enveloping this little girl in acceptance from her camp community.
Meanwhile we are living through a time when, according to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 34 states just this year. Some suggest that religious doctrine is amplifying this epidemic of intolerance and bigotry, as many of these bills are couched in language of religious freedom. This only fuels a harmful narrative that religion is anti-LGBTQ, something we know is vehemently not true for many denominations and individuals of faith – including Reform Judaism. We believe God created each of us in the Divine imagine – and there are no exceptions.
That’s why we will not stop standing up for LGBTQ rights in North Carolina and other states that want to legislate intolerance. Last week, a group of Reform rabbis descended on the North Carolina state capitol to raise their religious voices against HB2, the state’s attempt to limit the human rights of LGBTQ people. Many of these same rabbis have been leading the fight for racial justice by working to overturn North Carolina’s voter suppression laws. The same is true of clergy and congregants living in other states with similarly offensive pending legislation: With the support and guidance of our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., they’re expressing their strong opposition to these bills and initiatives.
In Mississippi, we face HB 1523 the so-called Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. The director of URJ Jacobs Camp, Anna Blumenfeld Herman, has spoken out against this anti-LGBTQ legislation, which permits state government employees, state contractors and grantees, nonprofit organizations, and even for-profit businesses to refuse to serve – and in many cases, refuse to employ – legally married same-sex couples and their families, transgender and gender non-conforming people, and many others, including single moms and survivors of sexual violence.
As we clarify in our joint statement this week with the Central Conference of American Rabbis and NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, our religious tradition informs our opposition to legalized discrimination, and our abiding commitment to inclusion and equality.
The coming days will see somber commemorations, as we remember the six million Jews who died in the Shoah. The pain we feel as we remember all those unfinished lives is still numbing. The Jewish people have learned well that intolerance and bigotry undermine the sacred core of our communities, and so, wherever we see bigotry and hatred in our world, we are commanded to stand for acceptance and love.
Jewish stars contain within them two triangles, which can awaken us to awareness and activism. This year especially, let us remember all the victims of hatred and intolerance by speaking out against the many efforts underway to legally restrict the freedom and dignity of God’s LGBTQ children. Let our remembrance lead us to act courageously and consistently as we partner with the Holy One in shaping a more just, compassionate, and inclusive world for all. Our God demands nothing less.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is President of the Union for Reform Judaism.