By Rabbi Isaac Saposnik
I recently read two articles that, quite frankly, left me somewhat heartbroken.
“Coming Out in the Classroom,” published in Tablet, talks of the decade since Keshet’s groundbreaking film “Hineni” debuted and the ways in which the Jewish community has gotten better at including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and (increasingly) transgender Jews. “Waking Up and Showing Up for our Jewish Youth of Color – Because our Community is at Stake,” in eJewish Philanthropy, outlines the challenges of racism in an increasingly racially diverse Jewish community. While the latter was more painful to read (it’s shocking the things people say, let alone think, in the 21st Century!), it was at least upfront about the challenges. The former, on the other hand, talks about communal growth while, more subtly, still giving voice to a handful of incredibly heteronormative (some bordering on homophobic) ideas.
The line that challenges me most in the Tablet article says that NFTY “sees LGBT inclusion as a social justice issue.” On one level, I agree; as progressive and committed Jews, we must stand up for equality as a matter of social justice. On a much deeper level, however, I think this misses the point. Inclusion, whether of people who are LGBT or those of color or those with special needs or those from interfaith families, shouldn’t be something we stand up for – it should be something we live. Calling inclusion a social justice issue makes it all too easy to see those we seek to include as “other,” rather than as part of “us.” We focus on including “those people” instead of ensuring that all members of our community are seen, heard, and celebrated. We put the focus on marginalized groups rather than on the full community and, in so doing, we continue to “other” those we say we’re working to include.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t easy work. But it’s crucial if we want to change the way the Jewish community approaches being a community. At Camp JRF, we talk a lot about “how we be.” We know it’s not grammatically correct, but it’s a reminder that being an inclusive and welcoming community isn’t a goal or a dream – it’s something we do right now. It’s not something we strive for, it’s something we live. We see each member of the community as a multi-faceted individual with a myriad of experiences to share. Some of these facets and experiences may be apparent and others are more hidden, but that doesn’t mean that, deep down, anyone is more or less normative than anyone else. We’re all “normal” and we all feel marginalized in our own ways, so building community is about recognizing that that dichotomy is part of who we are and “how we be.” Inclusion, therefore, becomes the norm – we work to meet each person as an individual, not in comparison to a cookie cutter view of what “looks Jewish.” (Even with this commitment in mind, it’s important to note that for many Jews who have historically been particularly on the margins, having a network of people with similar experiences can be a significant help and support in comfortably navigating the often challenging waters of the larger community.) Inclusion should be the work of every member of the community – we all need to be included and we must all do the including.
I’m incredibly lucky to work in a place where this kind of radical inclusion is muvan me’alav (obvious / understood). So lucky, in fact, that I sometimes forget that much of the community is still struggling. Articles like these remind us that we still have much work to do. I look forward to seeing the ways in which the Jewish community continues to grow in its commitment to being fully inclusive, and I’m proud that Camp JRF is setting the standard for this inclusion in Jewish camps … and beyond.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is Executive Director at Camp JRF.