pronouns: they, them, their

Small and Consistent Steps


Rev. Chani Getter

June 19, 2020

A Pride Shabbat Reflection

My partner and I wrote and delivered this D’var Torah about an hour ago on Zoom, for Pride Shabbat at our Synagogue. 

A child was walking along a beach littered with starfish washed up by the tide. As they walked the beach they kept picking up starfish after starfish and tossing them gently back into the water. An older person watching them asked, What are you doing? There are thousands of starfish covering the beach, you will never be able to get them all back into the water. It won’t make a difference. The child picked up yet another starfish and placed it back into the water, and responded, “It made a difference to THAT one”.

This weeks Torah Portion is Parshat Sh’lach, the Torah tells us about the story of the Meraglim, a dozen men – one respected person from each tribe that Moses sends to scout out the land of Canaan to see if the Israelites can conquer it. Of the 12 spies sent only 2, Caleb and Joshua, come back hopeful saying “We shall surely overcome it” (Numbers, 13:30). The other 10 say that it’s impossible. Stating “we came to the land …it does indeed flow with milk and honey…. However the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:27,28) …they go on to say “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in theirs” (Numbers 13:33).

Of all the ways the spies could have reported the situation they chose to say “we were like grasshoppers in our eyes” as if to say, because we perceived ourselves as being not up to the task we imagined that we appeared that way to others as well. 

When Rabbi Steiner sat down with us almost 6 weeks ago to select a date for a Pride Shabbat celebration we saw that this weekend was Juneteenth AND Parshat Sh’lach we thought it would be a good fit. As many of us have recently learned. It was on this very day, June 19 th  in 1865, that a union soldier read the Emancipation Proclamation, to the last enslaved African Americans in Texas, granting them their freedom. We celebrate not the conception of the freedom which had been written over two years earlier but rather the application of that freedom throughout our land. 

Throughout the US and in some parts of the world the month of June is celebrated as Pride month. This is because 51 years ago the LGBTQ+ community grew tired of being harassed, threatened, and marginalized simply for trying to live their lives in a way that society felt threatened by.  As is often the case in uprisings, accounts vary, but most go something like this…On June 28th, 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn in NYC. They arrested people for the crime of dressing in a way that differed from society’s norms at that time, or dancing with someone of the same gender. Among those arrested that night was Storme DeLarverie (stormy; de-LAR-ver-ee) who was born to a black mother and a white father. She dressed and performed like a man for most of her adult life. As they pushed her into the police wagon. She yelled out the growing crowd on the street, “Why don’t you guys do something?” that is when Marsha P Johnson, an African American drag-queen threw the first brick, and the uprising began. 

So very much has changed in 51 years…

I still can’t believe that I have the right to marry my partner, that we have found an amazingly inclusive synagogue and community that not just accept but celebrate us as a couple and family.

JRS: Despite the incredible win for LGBT employment rights from the Supreme Court this week. In ALL 50 states, if you work for a religious organization you can be fired for being LGBTQ.  Seven years ago, my partner and I moved in together. That meant I had to give up my job as a teacher in a religious school. Despite being a tenured teacher with excellent administration reviews, despite being the head of my department, despite being active in extracurricular events on campus, being the union representative… they could fire me because of a morality clause in my contract – even if that clause was exercised when the school wanted to get rid of some one and ignored when they didn’t exercise.  I have been working 2, 3 even more jobs for the last 7 years – and I am still making 10% less than I did then.

Chani: I grew in the Ultra orthodox Chasidish community. I left the community with no education, 3 children and very few of my hundreds of family members speaking to me. My ex-husband knew that I was gay – I figured it out while we were still married. It was never an issue for him in terms of my parenting. In 2009, 9 years after our divorce, I was the willing subject of article in the Forward, where I was open about being gay and still very Orthodox. When it became public knowledge under pressure and with the substantial financial backing of the community he sued me for custody of my children. As a naive 23 year old without legal representation I had signed an agreement in the Bais Din or Jewish Court that I would continue raising my children ultra orthodox, unbeknownst to me this agreement was binding in New York State Family Court.  Luckily, I had evidence that my children had been living in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox schools for many years, and I did not lose custody of my children. I do not delude myself for a moment, that it was sheer luck and providence that kept my children from being thrust under the control of a community that doesn’t value individuality or individual freedoms. 

Chani continues: I have spent the past 7 years working to keep that from happening to other parents both in New York and here in New Jersey who are sued for custody often based on their sexuality, or gender presentation.  

We share these painful vignettes from our lives, not out of a desire for compassion, or pity, but with the hope that it will help our amazing community to understand that while we have come a long way in 51 years, we still have a long way to go.

So what does this have to do with Parshat Sh’lach ? We get to decide for ourselves each day “What now?” Do we want to be like the 10 scouts who cried to Moses, we are like grasshoppers, this is too much for me, for anyone… The state of the world and the injustice in it, it is too much… Or do we want to be like Caleb and Joshua and keep the faith that “We shall surely overcome it”? Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote the Serenity Prayer also wrote “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”  

It is about taking one small step at a time, doing one small thing at a time, saving one starfish at a time consistently even when it seems like those efforts are futile. The Temple will be sending out an email shortly on how we can get involved in support of Black Lives Matter. 

For LGBTQ+ rights, there is one small thing that you can ALL do after Shabbos, if you aren’t already doing this. You can start by adding your preferred pronouns at the end of your signatures in your emails or on Zoom. You may notice that Chani goes by (ALL – so you can call Chani, He, She, or They). I go by (She – Always  no matter whether I’m wearing heels or hiking boots)

How does that help anyone? You may wonder.

The construct of gender being binary causes a great deal of pain and suffering to those who don’t fit that mold. Gender based pronouns are a huge part of that suffering. When we take for granted that everyone named Jonathan goes by “he” and everyone named Jennifer goes by “she” we contribute to the perpetuation of a binary gender construct. It may not sound like a big deal, but imagine if your name were Jonathan or Jennifer, but you preferred to be called Jon or Jen, because the name you were given at birth never spoke to you. Now imagine if you couldn’t sign your e-mails as Jon or Jen and you had to try to verbally correct people as you go along. That would be frustrating, wouldn’t it?

Now imagine that you were discriminated against at work, at school, in housing, in receiving services or accommodations and healthcare because you wanted to go by Jon or Jen.  How likely would you be to correct people about what you prefer to be called? The simple gesture of adding your gender pronouns, says to the individual who is struggling with their preferred pronouns, that YOU don’t expect everyone to fit into the mold, that YOU are a safe person, that YOU hold a safe space for them to question their identity. 

We can only do one thing at a time, we can only help one starfish at a time, but then hey, it makes a difference to that starfish, and before we know it, we are no longer grasshoppers but giants making a difference. 

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