Kabbalat Shabbat, or synagogue services on Friday night, is the best part of my week. While I do not abide by the traditional Shabbat laws, attending Shabbat services gives me the chance to refocus myself and my priorities by connecting to my religion and the Jewish community through song and prayer. If I ever have to miss Friday night services for some reason, my week feels incomplete.
At my university, I attend Shabbat services at my university’s Hillel. Now that I’m living in New York for the summer, I’ve been excited to attend Shabbat services at different synagogues around the city. Jewish life in New York seems particularly diverse and vibrant to me -- especially in comparison to that of my home state, Ohio. There are a plethora of traditional and unconventional opportunities to observe Shabbat at various Jewish spaces around the city.
I attended Brooklyn Heights Synagogue’s Pride Shabbat service on Friday, June 14. In addition to the liturgy typical of Reform synagogues, the rabbi integrated a responsive reading that celebrates LGBTIQ folks, as well as a prayer of remembrance for queer people that were murdered or committed suicide because of their identites. After editing a report about conversion therapy during my internship that day, and learning how often religion is weaponized to oppress queer people and their identities across the globe, it was comforting to visit a place of worship that consciously uplifts the LGBTQ community.
The guest speaker at Pride Shabbat was Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a synagogue in Manhattan founded for LGBTIQ Jews. Rabbi Moskowitz is a Hasidic man and self-described religious fundamentalist, as well as a radically progressive activist for the human rights of LGBTIQ people and inclusivity.
Rabbi Moskowitz’s speech moved me to tears. It was extremely empowering to hear the views of a person who has spent years of his life studying Torah and halacha (Jewish law) defending LGBTIQ identities. In his speech, Rabbi Moskowitz revealed that queer identities are, in fact, validated by ancient Jewish texts. This is diametrically opposed to the common beliefs of Orthodox Judaism, which claim that relationships must be between a man and a woman, men and women are inherently different and that traditional gender roles are both fixed and divinely ordained. Thus, it was uplifting to meet an Orthodox rabbi who believes that the Torah validates the spectrum of sexuality and gender, and who also rejects the normalization of heteronormativity and patriarchy that religious fundamentalists often proport.
Being Jewish and adhering to Jewish values is one of the strongest parts of my identity. It drives my social activism, sense of morality and desire to build community. However, this was not always the case. I grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue, which did not resonate with me for a variety of reasons. I distanced myself from Judaism until the summer before my senior year of high school when I attended a pluralistic Jewish arts program called BIMA at Brandeis University. BIMA revealed the brilliant depth of Judaism to me, and exposed me to the variety of ways people observe Judaism and Jewish practices. A year after I attended this program, I started to come out to my friends and reconcile my Jewish identity with my queer identity.
At first, I believed I was less of a Jew because I am not straight, as common interpretations of the Torah dictate heteronormativity. While I would never project these beliefs on anyone else, the Orthodox morals I was taught in Hebrew school as a child made me feel overwrought with guilt about my sexuality. As I’ve come to find teachings and practices that resonate with me through the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements, I have also become more comfortable with my sexual orientation; I now understand that my relationships and religious beliefs can coexist. Even so, it was still extremely validating to be in a Jewish space that was intentionally queer-inclusive.
After services, congregants gathered in the lobby of the synagogue for an oneg, or a community gathering to celebrate Shabbat. As I snacked on rainbow layer cake and multicolored fruit kebabs, I felt incredibly proud to partake in a Shabbat service in which I felt both included and validated as a queer Jewish woman.
Published on June 27, 2019 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization