A few years ago, while serving as student cantor at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC, a synagogue for all gender identities and sexual orientations, the trajectory of my professional life was changed in an instant. It was early in my internship when a kind, older gentleman approached me after services. With tears in his eyes, this man said, “I can’t believe that someone your age can stand in front of a synagogue as an openly gay cantor. I just came out a couple of years ago. I’m jealous of you.”
I was taken aback by his comment. I couldn’t believe how open and honest this man, a stranger to me at the time, was being with me. Above all, I couldn’t believe that he was jealous. Jealous? Of me? Of what? In my mind, I was standing in front of the congregation a nervous wreck. I was a young cantorial student trying desperately to make sure I sang each and every note correctly. To him, I represented an image of openness and pride.
Every June, the U.S. celebrates Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. During this month, we honor those in our community, and those in our not-so-distant past, who have furthered the rights of the queer community in our nation. (For the sake of maximum inclusivity, I have chosen to use the word "queer" to encompass all those who self-identify as being part of the LGBT community). The first officially recognized LGBT Pride Parade occurred in New York City in 1970 as a partial response to the Stonewall riots that occurred a year earlier, and was then known as “The Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade.” Fast-forward to today, when cities across the nation are filled to the brim with the entire spectrum of queer life, as well as their family, friends, and supporters. They (and we!) march on the streets and declare our unapologetic presence. Some Reform Jewish synagogues even have what has been coined as “Pride Shabbat.” We sing melodies and chant liturgy specific to the notion that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).
Let us spend this time with immense pride in how far we have come. An increasing number of states, as well Washington, D.C., legally recognize gay marriage. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has been overturned, and a sitting United States president has openly denounced the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act.” The speed with which change is occurring is breathtaking. The media’s singular focus on marriage equality, however, has pushed out of the news cycle the myriad other issues that profoundly affect the queer community. Whether it is immigration inequality, hate crimes, the rights of children of same-sex couples, or queer youth who are at a higher risk of suicidal thinking, members of the queer community face struggles that their heterosexual counterparts simply do not. There are still countless states, even today, where one can be fired solely on the basis of being queer. While coming out of the closet can be a source of pride for many, for others, openly stating that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender can have profoundly damaging personal and professional ramifications, causing some individuals to lose their families and their jobs. I imagine that many in our congregations would be shocked to realize all of the inequalities the queer community faces - issues that have nothing to do with marriage equality.
So what can we do? Religious leaders and faith communities have the unique platform to, at the very least, bring these issues to light. The first step, as hard as it may be at times, is to fight bigotry and discrimination with love and understanding. We have the ability to fight for our cause while still embodying the same values we are fighting for. After that starting point, I believe that the answer is different for all of us. For some of us, lobbying in our state capitals for our LGBT equality is the way we can influence change. Being loud and making noise for issues that are important to us is our responsibility. We can’t overlook, however, the truth that sometimes just standing in your own truth, in your community, is the most influential way to affect change. I believe that congregants need to hear their clergy – in their sermons, in the classrooms, and in off-handed conversations – unequivocally support queer rights. We have the power to de-stigmatize the words “gay” and “queer” just by our ability to speak them with ease. In a political environment where our society is being bombarded with messages that God, religion, and the Bible denounce homosexuality, the power is squarely in our hands to teach that God is synonymous with love, and that the world that we believe in, inspired by Torah and our ancient tradition, celebrates life and love. There must not be any confusion about whether we are pro-equality, in all of its manifestations. While there is an appropriate way to speak about different issues with different age groups, there is not an age too young or too old to know that our religion teaches that every soul is made in the image of God and is entitled to the same rights and respect as everyone else.
I believe that a synagogue is where one should bring their most authentic selves. Sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to a person’s understanding of who they are and how they experience the world. We must not ask anyone in our congregations to leave any part of their identity at the door of their synagogue. Time and again, we see how our synagogues are strengthened by those whom we welcome into our communities. Reform Judaism can provide a spiritual home for the queer community where their lives are not merely accepted or welcomed, but celebrated, and our communities will be made stronger in the process.
I was once asked whether I considered myself a gay cantor, or a cantor who happens to be gay. I have always found this question to be a bit absurd. Though the fact that I am gay does not, and should not, define the entirety of my cantorate and the entirety of my being, being gay is inextricably linked to who I am as a person and how I witness and experience the world around me. My experience as a gay child helps to inform how I understand the “coming out process” of people in my congregation as well as life cycle events that are unique to people in the queer community. I strive to bring this sensitivity to congregants of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
So as I celebrate LGBT Pride month this year, my mind returns to that kind man who approached me years ago. He taught me that it was not just the melodies I sang that mattered, but the messages – and the messengers – behind them that did. I wish in that moment I would have had told this man what he didn’t realize: I could only be who I am, because of the sacrifices and struggles of his generation and of the generations that preceded him. It is now my role, and our role, to make the world more just and more loving and accepting for the next generation, no matter what their sexual orientation of gender identity might be.
As our tradition states, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21). This quote embodies who we are as a people. We are a people who, in partnership with God, endeavor to make the world a more just place for the generations that will succeed us. May we have the strength, patience, love, and forward thinking, to strive to make our world as beautiful, lively, colorful, and diverse… as a rainbow.
Check out these song selections, which inspire us to ensure that we live in a world in which people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are respected, celebrated, and loved.
- True Colors, Performed by Cantor Jason Kaufman and Matt Long, Pianist. Composed by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
- Make Them Hear You, from the musical “Ragtime.” Performed by Cantor Jason Kaufman, Matt Long, Pianist. Music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Minor lyric changes by Cantor Jason Kaufman.
- Hinei Mah Tov, U’manayim, Shevet Kulanu Gam Yachad How good and wonderful is it for all of us to dwell together.” From Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha Performed by Cantor Jason Kaufman and Matt Long, Pianist and Arranger. Music based on “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Albert Tindly.
Cantor Jason Kaufman received Cantorial investiture from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), in New York City, where he also received a Masters in Sacred Music in 2010. He is a member of the American Conference of Cantors. This July, Cantor Kaufman will join the clergy team at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, VA.