Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Do Not Hold Back: Notes from a Gay Congregation
by Sharon Kleinbaum
"Enlarge the site of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes." -- Isaiah 54:2
Isaiah demands of us that we "not hold back" when it comes to the welcoming capacity of our tents. For the past thirty-seven years, we have been working to do this at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Originally founded by a group of gay men, we have grown over the years, stretched our tent curtains wider, and are stretching wider still. The site of our tent is now a place of trans folks, lesbians, bisexuals, children, interfaith couples, and a sizable number of straight allies.
All work of tikkun olam, of mending the world, happens in community. It is in community that we find ourselves. It is in community that we find power. As members of groups who have not traditionally found space in the tent, community can be a terrifying concept. Communities have been the source of so much of our pain, so much of our brokenness. As Jews with varied and violent histories of persecution, we have a hard time trusting others, let alone each other. As queer and trans Jews, as Jews of color, as working-class Jews, we have often had experiences within Jewish communities that amplify that distrust, pushing us out of communities and into isolation. Too many Jewish communities across the country are moving further to the right in their politics, and those of us on the left are feeling the danger of this shift. We feel the tent curtains narrowing, squeezing us out of where we know we belong.
It is easy to turn our backs on our roots, on our communities, and our traditions. In doing that, we risk losing too much. It might be tempting to go rogue in our pursuit of justice. There's a certain glory-appeal in it, to be a lone activist fighting the good fight and transforming our world into a place of liberation. I think this is a common pitfall for many of us who are politically inclined. As activists with strong ideological commitments to justice -- commitments forged within specific theological and political contexts -- we feel injustice deeply and personally. When we come across communities who do not seem to share our vision for a just world, it is tempting to walk away. But those of us who can stay inside need to do so for our own benefit, and for the benefit of the world.
Without reproducing anti-Semitic myths of Jewish world domination, I think it is important to recognize the power that Jewish communities have access to across the country. It is our responsibility to remain accountable to those who have not been welcomed into the tent. We cannot hold back. We need to work within our communities, push them to enlarge the sites of our tents, to stretch the tent curtains wider. It is only by enlarging it that we will be able to lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes. God knows, the stakes are high.
Rabbi Kleinbaum serves as the spiritual leader of CBST and is regarded as one of the most important rabbis in America. The national Jewish weekly the Forward named her as one of the country's fifty top Jewish leaders, and the New York Jewish Week identified her as one of the forty-five leading young American Jewish leaders in New York.
Source Citation: Kleinbaum, Sharon. 2011. Do Not Hold Back: Notes from a Gay Congregation. Tikkun 26(1): 51