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Remarks at Pride Shabbat 2014 Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, June 13, 2014

Usually at Pride Shabbat we have invited a member of the community to speak but this year it was suggested that I say a few words as a parent.

It’s not a secret, but it is also not something I have talked about a lot - as to some extent it is more my children’s story than mine.

Jeremy came out to us a few days before he left for a summer internship at the end of his junior year. He had promised himself he wouldn’t complete school that spring without telling us. Part of the delay was just Jeremy, he doesn’t talk a lot about personal things or feelings. At the time, a friend said to me, of course he’s gay, he loves musical theater- which I found depressing. Hadn’t my generation fought for boys to have dolls and girls to have trucks, didn’t my whole household know the words to Free to Be You and Me, more or less by heart. Shouldn’t that also imply the existence of gay men who dress poorly and straight men who love Leonard Bernstein’s Candide? As Aviva says, association doesn’t prove causality.

Or maybe Jeremy was just being kind to us as Shifrah’s coming out was more traumatic. She was in sixth grade. She had a crush on her teacher- but to me that didn’t mean anything- crushes on teachers in junior high are pretty common. Identifying as a gay woman made her feel less than her peers- and she didn’t come out in a full way for six more years, not until the spring of her high school senior year.

What complicated her life was that the crush was handled poorly, the teacher was new and not fully out. I believe she was frightened that this could get her in trouble. The next gay teacher Shifrah encountered, a male drama teacher in high school, was fired, we believe for personality conflicts with the head of school, but it wasn’t clear and to Shifrah it wasn’t encouraging.

Having gay children has made me more aware of how even in liberal Northern California, we have not reached the Promised Land. Negativity and derision are still being communicated.

Having gay children makes me count in every setting. How many teachers are there at this school-100? Where are the ten gay teachers who should be out?

It makes me more careful in speaking with young people. I try to talk about their finding a partner later in life, not communicating that this should be a husband or a wife, depending on their gender.

Speaking with you today is in some ways a reaction to a program Shifrah’s high school held shortly after graduation.  The guidance counselor brought in a number of recent grads to talk to the incoming college freshman about their first year at college. There was a panel on social life for these young women, and it was all about boyfriends. We sat silent in wonderment, as a woman we knew was a lesbian, spoke about being part of a couple at college, never once letting on that her special friend was a woman. This is a kind of invisibility that is chilling-and that makes me determined to speak out and say, hey we are here.

I am grateful that for the first 50 years of my life, before I knew I would be the parent of gay kids, my life put me in touch with people who raised my consciousness. Rabbi Herschel Matt, a Conservative Colleague a generation older than me first suggested publically back in the early 1980’s that homosexuals be treated with respect in the Jewish community as human beings created in the image of God. I am grateful to my successor in my congregation in Brooklyn, who helped me understand why my advice to her- 25 years ago- first let them love you, then you can tell them who you are- was untenable as a strategy for any reasonable rabbinic congregational relationship. I am glad that my children had wonderful role models in their lives, friends, rabbinic colleagues, members of my various congregations, non-Jews with whom I work on social justice issues- all different models of how to be in this world as a gay or lesbian adult. Before and after they came out my kids were dragged along to any number of functions meeting people like Kathy Levinson and Naomi Fine, sponsors of the Marriage Equality film in which I appeared, people who are doing great things in the world.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses convinces God not to wipe out the Israelites by warning that this would hurt God’s reputation. The Egyptians would say that God was not capable of leading his people through the desert.

Rabbi Harold Kushner has a unique interpretation of this passage. He wonders why was this argument persuasive?  His theory is that it wasn’t just that God wants to be convinced as some of the medieval commentators argue. Moses’ suggestion that the Egyptians will think that God can’t lead the Israelites through the dessert, has opened up God’s mind to what it would be like to not be able to do anything you wanted. How would that feel, God wondered, as --not being able to do what you want-- hasn’t been part of God’s experience. This empathy makes God realize that the people aren’t refusing to enter the Promised Land because they are stubborn or ungrateful, but rather because they are scared and with this God’s anger turns to understanding and compassion.

I think we could use a little bit more empathy, understanding and compassion all around. If we, like God, could imagine what it feels like for other people, then perhaps we can act in ways that are more conducive to young people growing up feeling positive about themselves.  Then my childens’ lives, and the lives of your children, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, would not begin in negativity and derision.

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