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PresenTenseLA 2014: Supporting ALL of Our Jewish Families

This post is a part of a series highlighting the social entrepreneurial ventures that each of the 2014 PresenTenseLA Fellows will be unveiling at Launch Night on May 21st. The Fellows were given the prompt “What’s so Jewish about your project?” and over the course of the series we will be sharing their answers and exploring the very nature of Jewish change-making. Today we are highlighting PTLA Fellows Joshua Cohen and Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, who are each creating ventures that aim to support those in our community with unique needs – rabbinic families and LGBT Jews.

What’s So Jewish About the Rabbinic Family Network?

What’s more Jewish than being married to a rabbi? (Besides, of course, actually being a rabbi)

When I fell in love with the woman who became my wife, she was in her third year of rabbinical school. I was excited, and a little nervous, about creating a life with someone who would probably one day be “married” to a congregation, or at least the Jewish people. I didn’t know what it would mean for me: raised a Conservative Jew, culturally Jewish but non-practicing. I had no idea what would be expected of me, her lucky but untrained “rebbetzman.” The main question I had was; would I have to start going to services all the time?

Creating the Rabbinic Family Network is my way of addressing these questions. It is a contribution I can make to a Jewish community fortunate enough to have my wife as their rabbi. And in turn, it will help so many spouses, partners, and children of clergy, too. As I have said all along, “happy rabbinic family equals happy temple community.” I am a partner in my wife’s success. And as a team, our goal is to help shape and nurture one another so that we – but mostly she – can shape and nurture a Jewish community.

As our relationship has deepened, I’ve begun to understand the Torah in a deeper way, too. Throughout the book of Genesis we see example after example of fragmented family melodramas. We see miscommunications and manipulations. We read about the stealing of birthrights, the selling off of siblings, and the near-sacrifices of sons. We read about love and death and marriage and children. The bond of family runs through it all.

Family means everything, as challenging as it can sometimes be. It is what roots and sustains us. It is what we fall back on and go home to at the end of the day. And our Torah spends a great deal of time teaching us just how complex and influential family life can be.

The mission of this venture speaks to the soul of a community – those who shape our Jewish community, but especially their families who love and care for them. The Rabbinic Family Network’s aim is to strengthen the bonds of family life, increase communication and acceptance, and educate the family unit so that they can be their happiest and most fulfilled. What’s more Jewish than that?

I am personally so excited to begin putting what I’ve learned and created in this Fellowship into practice when my wife begins her rabbinic career at Temple de Hirsch Sinai in Seattle this July. I’m looking forward to navigating the many highs and lows and learning curves of being her “rebbetzman.” I already have a plan to make challah for her coworkers on our first Shabbos.

I look forward to sharing this venture with you on May 21 at the PTLA Launch Night.  By that time, I will have been a “rebbetzman” for three whole days with a whole lot left to learn!

PTLA Fellow Joshua Cohen, 2014

What’s so Jewish about the JQ International Warmline?

Genesis/Bereshit, Chapter 4, Verses 8 – 11

8. And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him. 9. And Adonai said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I don’t know; Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10. And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.11. And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand…”

ח   וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיָּקָםח   וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ: ט   וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי: י   וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִֹיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן־הָאֲדָמָה: יא   וְעַתָּה אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן־הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה אֶת־פִּיהָ לָקַחַת אֶת־דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ מִיָּדֶךָ:

One of the most poignant moments in our Torah comes at the beginning of chapter 4 in Bereshit. Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel. God demands, “Where is Abel your brother?” And Cain answers with the chilling words, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We learn the right answer to Cain’s cruelly dismissive reply from how God punishes him. God decrees that Cain will be a fugitive and a wanderer for the rest of his life, never having a permanent home.

As a tribal people we know how horrible this punishment is. And it teaches us that the answer to the question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is a resounding ‘Yes!’

At the JQ Warmline we say, “We are our siblings’ keepers. We are taking care of each other.”

There are too many LGBTQ Jews who have no one to take care of them. Their families don’t understand them because they’re Queer; their queer friends don’t understand why Judaism is so important to them when its own texts have been consistently used against them.

And worst of all there are too many LGBTQ Jews who don’t know how to accept all parts of themselves.

The Warmline provides our siblings the resources and social service referrals that will help them find their place in the Jewish and Queer communities. It also gives them the chance to be part of the entire JQ International community, to participate in our Shabbat dinners, our holiday parties and seders, our social gatherings, like Single de Mayo. What starts as a call for help from an LGBTQ Jew can end with that person’s involvement in our larger LGBTQ Jewish community.

It may be that LGBTQ Jews are marginalized in the wider world, but they don’t have to be marginalized in our LGBTQ and Jewish communities. It is because JQ International and its Warmline exist that we can clearly hear the voices of our siblings crying to us from wherever they are.

PTLA Fellow Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, 2014

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