IN what was described by one panellist as “monumental”, an Orthodox rabbi, a Reform rabbi, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists came together last Sunday to discuss the place of LGBTI Jews in the Jewish community.
The panel was hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia’s NSW division and was attended by more than 150 people.
“The impetus for this forum emanated from a number of people who are [LGBTI], who do not feel welcome or valued in this community,” moderator and CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Vic Alhadeff told the audience.
“Many have been rejected by their own families. Some, tragically, have committed suicide.”
The experience of LGBTI Jewry was relayed to the audience by activists Dawn Cohen (co-founder of the Jewish LGBTI group Dayenu), Justin Koonin (chair of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby) and Brandon Srot (founder of Young Dayenu and young adult director at The Shalom Institute).
Cohen reflected on what she felt has been, up until recently, the Jewish community’s attitude of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to LGBTI identities.
“If we were gay, we were meant to hide it from our parents,” she explained. “We were cut off from the village that raised us.”
Both Koonin and Srot spoke of the discrimination faced and isolation felt by LGBTI people, especially within faith-based communities and organisations.
The Great Synagogue’s Rabbi Benjamin Elton assured the audience that LGBTI-identifying Jews have an unquestionable place in the Jewish community.
“The truth is that we are all members of the community, and some of us identify as LGBTI. It’s not a case of making room, it’s not a case of allowing in – they’re part of our community,” he said.
“You’re a person, you’re a Jew, you’re welcome. That’s all there is to it.”
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio from Emanuel Synagogue echoed this, explaining that the place for LGBTI Jews “is right in the centre, alongside everybody else”.
“We are all sacred and holy reflections of the divine, and that includes our sexuality.”
The panel also discussed how to improve the community’s attitude and approach to its LGBTI members.
In this respect, Rabbi Elton condemned any hateful language espoused by Orthodox rabbis in the public sphere about LGBTI people.
“The rabbis who write in such a way don’t speak for what I can safely say is the majority of the Orthodox rabbinate in Sydney,” he said.