By Jacqui Benson
The evening was distinctive, the conversation was far from the usual and the energy was palpable for the nearly 60 people who gathered in the auditorium of the Hatfield Street Campus at 6pm on Thursday 24 May.
Coming Out. The Jewish Experience, the brainchild of Jacqui Benson and Dan Brotman, proposed a need to highlight the unheard voices in our community — the voices of those who identify as LGBTIQA+. The SAJBD understood this need and came on board to facilitate.
Talking publically about sexual and gender identity is not something we usually do in the Jewish community, never mind people addressing their very personal experiences when they have to confront that they are ‘other’. The fact that they do not conform to society’s norms and that many pretend to be heterosexual (cisgender) completely denies them any real sense of personal freedom.
Stop for a moment and imagine: You put on a mask every day before you leave your house, because you believe that is the best and safest way to fit in to the world around you. For some, wearing a mask in your own home is necessary because you are afraid of being rejected by the people closest to you, the ones you love. That is a real and lived experience for most LGBTIQA+ people all the time as they navigate the road of coming out, a journey they are on for a lifetime.
Rabbi Nissen Goldman set the tone for a very frank and authentic discussion when he acknowledged how ‘nerve-wracking’ it was to be speaking on this topic. He shared with the audience that halachically the Torah actually forbids bigotry and therefore homophobia. Little mention is made of homosexuality in the Bible and then only in relation to men, but there is no mention of treating LGBTIQA people differently. Instead the Torah has a strong focus on Ahavat Yisrael — unconditional love. What we need to confront is how we elicit the best of our humanity to contribute to a Torah environment that is happy and wholesome. The challenge put before us as a Jewish community is how to remain connected to one another, in spite of theological differences, and support one another in this process.
Feedback from audience members acknowledged the panel of Fiona de Kock, Ross Levin and Dr Anastascia Tomson, for the tremendous courage they showed sharing their personal stories so openly and allowing the audience to engage with their lived experiences. Each speaker illustrated dilemmas they faced as they came to terms with the impact of their coming out on partners, families, friends, their relationship to their Judaism and their experience of the Jewish community, and even the impact on their work and careers. They all shared how in having negotiated their own path, they wanted to ensure that this is now easier for those who follow, and why this evening was so important.
Our panel facilitator Marlene Silbert highlighted this. She cited examples of how great strides are being taken in Jewish communities around the world to create safes spaces for LGBTIQA+ people to be themselves and address issues that are relevant to them, the work is just beginning. She emphasised the need for training in sensitivity that is required at organisational level, particularly in schools and the education system, as young people in grappling with identity issues often face backlashes such as bullying from their peers, and how there is a high incidence of suicide amongst LGBTIQA youth.
In summation of the evening, I invited everyone present to come out as an LGBTIQA+ Ally. That they would be a much needed voice for those who were still living in fear of speaking their truth, and in fact there is a responsibility not just in the Jewish community, but as South Africans, who have privilege to stand up for the rights of those in other communities where hate of LGBTIQA+ people has ended in violence, ‘corrective’ rape and murder.
If you would like to know more and follow this conversation, please feel free to email Jewishnqueerincpt@gmail.com