Growing up isn’t easy. Many young people face daily tormenting and bullying, leading them to feel like they have nowhere to turn. This is especially true for LGBT kids and teens who often hide their sexuality for fear of bullying. Without openly gay adults and mentors in their lives, they can't imagine what their future may hold. In many instances, gay and lesbian adolescents are taunted — even tortured — simply for being themselves. LGBT youth are driven to suicide because of homophobic bullying--bullying that emerges from a culture that constantly sends the message that it's not okay to be gay, to be a "feminine" boy or a "masculine" girl, or to be different. This is a tragedy that we cannot, as ethical Reform Jews, stand by and let happen. But what can we do to counter the pervasive homophobic societal messages?
Thanks to Nicole Lyn DeBlosi and fellow students and faculty members at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, HUC-JIR has now added its own message of hope in the form of a video for the "It Gets Better Project." The Project, created by gay activist and writer Dan Savage, shows young LGBT people that, despite the many cultural messages to the contrary, it is possible to live a fulfilled, happy life as an out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or queer person. HUC-JIR's video features students and faculty members telling their stories of coming out and of integrating their gay or lesbian identities with their Jewish identities. HUC-JIR community members acknowledge both rejection and acceptance by rabbis, teachers, parents, and friends. Overwhelmingly, this is a video of hope: we can be out and proud and Jewish. LGBT people from all over the world have been making videos sharing their experiences and offering hope.
Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Dean of HUC-JIR/New York, notes, “I am immensely proud of the New York campus students and faculty who took the initiative to create this resource for LGBT kids. I hope Reform Jews everywhere will post this on their Facebook pages to help spread the powerful message, especially during the upcoming Pesach season, that HUC-JIR and our movement support LGBT liberation.”
DeBlosi, a third-year rabbinical student at the New York campus, says, “I noticed how many people claimed religion as a hurtful force in their lives: homophobic clergy or rejecting parents claiming that religion or God were on their ‘side.’ I saw an opportunity to voice the truth we know—that one need not choose between being out and being religious, between being gay and being spiritual. We hope the video spreads through religious schools and camps, college campuses and synagogues, demonstrating how far the Reform movement has come—and how far we still need to go—in clearly sending the message that Judaism has room for so many kinds of lives and sexualities and families. We need to continue to counter the message of hate with our resounding song of hope.”
Produced by David Deschamps; accompanist, coach, and adjunct faculty at HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, the video features a message of welcome and encouragement from Rabbi Shirley Idelson; personal testimony of students and faculty members; and a chorus of HUC-JIR community members—gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, straight—singing our message of acceptance.
“It was incredibly moving to work on this video and to hear the personal stories of GLBTQ students and faculty at HUC-JIR,” explains Deschamps. “The most striking thing I discovered is that in a relatively short amount of time, things have truly gotten better at HUC-JIR. This became clear when one considers the differences in the experiences recounted by the older generation of interviewees – who consistently encountered trauma, shame, and rejection in coming to terms with being gay and Jewish – and their younger counterparts, whose coming-out stories are far more positive. I’m hoping that this video is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue at HUC-JIR on the intersection of social justice and homophobia within the Reform Movement. We are eager to use the video as an educational tool at congregations and Hebrew schools that are seeking to make their communities safe and inclusive places where all members — including GLBTQ folks — are treated with respect and made to feel welcome.”
"It Gets Better is a natural project for HUC-JIR to sponsor, and I was honored to participate," says Daniel Kirzane, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR/New York. "I hope that our It Gets Better video will reassure GLBT youth that members of the Reform movement are not only welcoming but also supportive, and I pray that soon, such projects will be only a memory."
Dr. Jonathan Krasner, Assistant Professor of the American Jewish Experience at HUC-JIR/New York, states, “When I initially heard about Dan Savage’s It Get’s Better project, I felt moved to contribute. So when Nicole approached me about the possibility of being part of the HUC-JIR video, I was thrilled. Young LGBTQ folks need to know that the religious community is diverse and that they do not need to choose between their religious and sexual identities. This wonderful video will help to get that message out.”
"It is an honor to be a part of this project and to have been able to have the opportunity to share a bit about my coming out story," says fifth-year rabbinical student Molly Kane, who will be ordained this May at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. "I hope the video reaches kids, teens, and anyone looking for GLBTQ role models and support, as well as Jews questioning how they can be both openly gay and Jewish. 'Coming Out' has never felt like just a finite moment to me, rather it is an ever evolving process and being a part of this video has been a wonderful part of that process."
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, Instructor in Liturgy and Homiletics at HUC-JIR/New York, where she was ordained in 1984 and has taught since 1985, states, “Growing up in the 1950s and '60s and even in college in the '70s, I knew not one openly gay member of any Jewish community, not one openly gay rabbi, not one openly gay person in a committed relationship, not one openly gay person raising children. I couldn’t imagine what it might look like to be gay. Its Gets Better videos suggest to GLBTQ kids what it might look like to be gay. And the videos don’t present only one ‘face’ of our community but rather a wide, wide range of faces, a wide range of options for LGBTQ kids as they imagine how their own lives might take shape. Our HUC-JIR It Gets Better video adds, to that wide array, faces of those for whom Jewish life is important.”
“We have climbed many plateaus of progress. We live in an unprecedented time of openness and newfound legal rights—but not everywhere,” explains Cantor Jonathan Comisar, who was invested at the New York campus in 2000 and now serves as part-time faculty for the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR/New York. “There are dangerous, vocal forces within our society that are working hard to spread hatred and erase the progress and understanding of the last 40 years. In the synagogues where our rabbis, cantors, and educators will serve, there are still overt and covert experiences of homophobia. Kids still taunt other kids with derogatory names and it often goes unchallenged by teachers and clergy. Discussions on marriage, dating, and family often assume the heterosexual model. For a young person struggling with her or his sexuality, the power of a teacher, rabbi, or cantor speaking about all kinds of sacred loving relationships sends a crucial message of acceptance. It would be so useful for straight clergy and teachers to sit down with someone who is LGBT and have a frank discussion about all of this. Ask them: what do you wish you could have heard from your teachers or your rabbi growing up? What would have made all the difference?”