By Rabbi Mychal Copeland
“We are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersections of histories, or between place and place.”- Twilight People, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav [Rabbi Reuben Zellman]
Pride month invites those of us who stand at the intersections of histories to lift up the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) Jews. This June, we celebrate how far we’ve come, fifty years this month since the first Pride parades. As we mourn the lives of black Americans killed by those who were supposed to protect them, we remember what the first celebrations of Pride commemorated. The LGBTQI liberation movement was born out of police brutality and harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, homeless youth, and transgender people of color in San Francisco, New York City and around the country that led to uprisings against systemic marginalization. Not only does Pride month invite us to look back at our struggles and victories; it is also a time when, as a society, we turn our attention to the many ways LGBTQI people continue to be attacked and our rights diminished, through the proposal of anti-transgender legislation, so-called “religious freedom” bills, and the chipping away of adoption rights and access to healthcare. While we just celebrated a major success with the Supreme Court decision protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination, last week (on the fourth anniversary of the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting) the Trump administration announced the elimination of protections in health care for transgender patients. Pride month reminds us that the struggle for our liberation is not over.
As Jewish organizational leaders, we know that June is also a time when those who are coming out look around to see which institutions might know how to support them. Due to COVID-19, this year millions of people will be without this important annual Pride celebration to mark our individual and communal struggle toward liberation and empowerment. In Jewish communities, we can make sure this moment doesn’t pass by unnoticed.
One way we can bring LGBTQI voices to the fore is by hosting a Pride Shabbat or other virtual event during June or into the summer. Since the 1970’s, congregations serving majority LGBTQI communities have been celebrating queer, Jewish life and creating liturgy and lifecycle ceremonies that make sacred the everyday lives of LGBTQI people. In part due to these communities’ groundbreaking efforts, nowadays many mainstream Jewish communities welcome – or even celebrate – LGBTQI people in their midst, and June has become a time to highlight these voices and experiences.
Most of the early synagogues that were rooted in the LGBTQI community are still thriving and innovating, attracting LGBTQI people and others who discover in them a synergy with their values. At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, a Jewish community rooted in Jewish LGBTQI history, one way we harnessed our creative energy was to produce our own siddur. Members authored liturgy that speaks directly to the experiences of our community – prayers for transgender transitioning, marriage equality, creating a family, being single, healing from trauma, remembrances for difficult relationships, questioning sexuality and coming out. We honor the groundbreakers who came before us in “For Queer Elders” and our “Queer Mi Shebeirach.” Especially relevant in this time of COVID is a blessing for caregivers and those caring for ailing parents. And as we mourn the deaths of victims of police brutality, our “Communal Prayer of Remembrance” before the Mourner’s Kaddish calls on G!d to remember those who are “struck down in our cities, in our own time” and those murdered because of their sexual or gender identity.
Like our sibling LGBTQI-majority Jewish communities, we call Pride Shabbat a “chag,” elevating it alongside our most important religious holydays. A special section of our siddur lists liturgy for Pride Shabbat and Transgender Celebration Shabbat, and throughout the siddur, commentary on traditional prayers highlights Jewish liturgy through an LGBTQI lens. Many prayers are offered with options of gender expansive language. Since synagogue services are now virtual, our siddur is available so communities can share our liturgy on screen.
Other great sources of Pride liturgy written by Jewish LGBTQI communities include With All Your Heart from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, Shavat va-Yinafash from Bet Mishpacha in Washington DC, Rabbi Denise Eger’s new compilation, Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual [CCAR Press, 2020], Keshet’s resource pages, and Noam Sienna’s A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 with a forward by Judith Plaskow [Print-O-Craft Press, 2019].
In many locales, inviting a Jewish LGBTQI identified speaker during June may not feel possible. But with the tremendous liturgical resources our communities have produced in recent years, our voices can still be present at these vital celebrations. Don’t let the 50th anniversary of Pride pass your community by.
Mychal Copeland serves as Rabbi at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, California and is co-editor of Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives [SkyLight Paths, 2015].She was formerly Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NY.