Joel L. Kushner, Psy.D.

Director, Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health; Director, Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity; Director, Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center, HUC/Los Angeles

Joel Kushner

How can I offer inspiration when there are bombings and shootings? Just following the anniversary of George Floyd’s death and recent anti-Asian violence? With anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and antisemitic incidents on the rise?

When I first came to HUC-JIR, gender identity and gender expression were not in our non-discrimination policy, we could not talk about bisexuality, and we didn’t actively support being transgender. Today, we have a class of students where those who are out, queer, non-binary, trans, and more are the majority and speaking their truth. An HUC-JIR student created a video with gentle humor to educate the Jewish community on pronouns, and non-gendered Hebrew prayers are being heard and shared in our t’fillah. The faculty recently participated in a training on LGBTQ+ identities, some the first time, and we are still learning. Some who once said, “Why do I have to add my pronoun to Zoom?” have recognized that if one person is diminished, then all of us are.

A year ago, LGBTQ+ rights and legal protections were being torn away. We will be living with the inheritance of a culture that allowed and encouraged bullying, contempt, and violence for years to come with its manifestations of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and antisemitism.

A year later, President Biden has reinstated significant rights for LGBTQ+ people through executive order. The Utah Supreme Court upheld the rights of trans people to change their name and sex on state records, and there are more stories like this. However, 2021 has seen the most anti-LGBTQ+ state legislation in recent US history, and more work needs to be done to actually pass the Equality Act. Yet there is still holiness and hope in every moment. There will always be dangerous challenges to rights and to learning, but recognizing the opportunity in those times allows us to move forward with empathy and action.

How can I write a message of inspiration in the face of so much pain around us? Because I must. Every generation lives in times of struggle and opportunity, and while it is not for me to complete the work, neither can I desist from it. I am inspired by the work of our students who demand change, by faculty who learn and grow and teach, by staff who model respect and presence, and by alumni and donors who support LGBTQ+ issues. HUC-JIR is a community like any other with our light and our shadow and we can hold that truth. I am inspired by the arc that we are on, as well as where we aspire to reach.