The LGBT–oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, led by openly gay Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum — a Sisterhood 50 selection — was front and center in the fight to get same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York state. (Kleinbaum also made headlines when she put her arm around an ultra-Orthodox man protesting the legislation, and was spat on repeatedly.) Two of CBST’s most active members, Rose Ann Herman and Jake Goodman, spoke with The Sisterhood about the implications of bill’s passage for the Jewish community and beyond, and what’s next for LGBT activists.
Elissa Strauss: First off, congratulations! How do you feel?
Jake Goodman: It’s an amazing feeling to know that, in terms of marriage, all New Yorkers are finally equal. It seems like such a simple, obvious thing, but clearly, it is not.
Rose Ann Herman: I am indescribably happy for all the young people out there whose lives have been validated by our state; I adore the Republican senators who showed real leadership and courage, and voted for what was right, and beautiful and good.
Can you speak a little about the efforts of the Jewish community in getting this law passed?
RAH: CBST, along with other synagogues, organizations such as Hadassah and the National Council for Jewish Women, publicly supported all rights for the LGBTQ community, including marriage equality, and reached out to senators, and their Jewish constituents, in key districts. In the end it came down to phone calls, letters and photos. And, ultimately, these are exactly the things mentioned by senators Saland as Grisanti, as to what helped them change their hearts and mind[s] on the issue. It was the personal stories.
On June 20th our supporters joined Rabbi Kleinbaum in Albany in a protest. It was intense! We loudly sang “Hineh Ma Tov” and “Oseh Shalom” in the halls, and whenever I had the opportunity, I led press to our table to get our interpretation of the issue. We had to make sure to refute what they were hearing from other clergy.
JG: There are Jewish people engaged on all levels, from leadership to volunteers, of almost every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) organization that comes to my mind. I did most of my work in this effort with a group called Queer Rising, a grassroots organization that demands full equality for all LGBTQ individuals through nonviolent direct action.
How about the efforts on the part of those in Jewish community who wanted to see same-sex marriage legislation fail?
JG: In my experience, many in the Orthodox community may be religiously against marriage equality, but they do not necessarily go out of their way to advocate against it. The same cannot be said for those in the ultra-Orthodox community, alas. It is easy for fellow Jews, I think, to discredit them as being fringe members of the community, but they wield power and influence. They make it difficult for certain Brooklyn politicians to support marriage equality or any LGBTQ issue, because they will simply not reelect that politician. Politicians know this, and they want to keep their jobs….
Do you think the passing of this law will have any effect on the way LGBTQ individuals will be treated by the Jewish community?
RAH: In the “black hat” community, probably not, or at least, not for a long time! The rabbi has to be progressive enough to lead the way for the congregants and the community.
JG: Yes! This sense of equality is both legitimizing and humanizing. Even if we still do not ever want to get married, our stereotypically Jewish parents can now pressure us just as they do our straight brothers and sisters.
What’s next for LGBTQ activists?
RAH: Celebrating our victory, having weddings, baby-namings, and brises. Even though we are talking about a civil right, for Jews in particular, the marriage ceremony is so lovely, full of such beautiful symbolism. Who doesn’t love a great yiddishe wedding? That’s the wedding my son Gabriel and his husband, Dylan, had. Now they want to be among the first couples at city hall in New York City, to make their marriage legal in the eyes of the state.
JG: We still need full equality for all LGBTQ under the law, on a national level. This includes federal marriage equality, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and significant help and resources given to homeless queer youth. GENDA would prohibit discrimination because of a person’s gender identity or expression in the workplace, housing, public accommodations and in lending transactions. As for homeless queer youth, between 5-10% of the American population is thought to be somehow LGBTQ, but between 20%–40% of all homeless youth are queer. And [New York State] just cut the Homeless Youth Services budget by 50%!
Additionally, there are non-legislative issues we need to tackle. Currently, it is permissible in our society and culture to express and act upon queerphobia. Currently, it is more shameful for parents to have LGBTQ children than it is to kick those children out and make them homeless. Currently, it is socially acceptable for religious and political leaders to go on any news station and spread fear/hatred against LGBTQ people — this, despite the fact that the rash of publicized suicides by gay youth last fall proved beyond a doubt the connection between such rhetoric and the violence and self-violence done against our youth. It is unacceptable and we need a societal sea change to stigmatize and end queerphobia.