These past four days I was attending the ISJL Education Conference, the ISJL being shorthand for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the organization that provides Hebrew school curriculum and other services to over sixty congregations in thirteen southern states. It was a gathering of at least a hundred, if not two hundred, Jews from more cities than I’d ever heard of and it was wonderful.
We had a fellow from the ISJL who visits every few months. It’s just part of the program, you could say. One thing she told me often is that I must, that I absolutely without a doubt had to meet the ISJL staff rabbi, one Rabbi Marshal Klaven. He was unlike any other rabbi I’d ever meet, she said, and I’d like him.
I did like him. And he really was unlike any other rabbi I’d ever met.
Let me add some color to this portrait. The typical picture of a rabbi is tall and slender, perhaps with a bit of weight around the tummy, middle-aged with white hair, a beard born of a hundred days, weathered skin worn rough with tefillin and shoulders softened from tallitot. He’ll be balding, somewhere, with a patch perfectly tailored to be covered by a small round yarmulke stuck atop his head.
Rabbi Klaven was none of these. He’s a head shorter than I am, has about as much hard muscle mass as three of me and then some, head shaven, goatee, prominent features that might seem at first thought blasphemous to be on the face of a rabbi. And when he speaks he’s welcoming and enthusiastic. And when he leads prayers, his voice is harmonious and amazing. After a couple days of passing him hither and yon in the hall, of hearing him speak and having short conversations in passing, I found that although he’s unorthodox in almost every sense of the word, he’s an incredible rabbi in every way I could imagine.
So back on Sunday morning when I first met him, we were talking very casually. I was answering some question he had posed, saying something about college, and I said I was very involved on campus. I about choked inside: I was “very involved”? What happened to my fearless, gopher-it attitude? Had it suddenly died in silence without inviting me to the funeral? I came into the conference knowing the south is, well, the south, and knowing that Jews are, well, Jews sometimes, and that if I could touch one person, change one mind about gay people, I’d have done a massive mitzvah, in the colloquial sense of the word. So when I was face-to-face with this rabbi who without a doubt would have been accepting and welcoming, I choked, swallowed my words, and said simply that I was “very involved on campus.”
In effect, I didn’t say anything. I felt so frustrated, so ashamed. I had an opportunity, the obligation, to share myself, to spread understanding, rewrite misbeliefs, change souls forever, and instead I said nothing. I twisted my words to hide the truth, I turned myself over in seconds, flipped my identity off, siphoned half my soul into a genie bottle for later, and I regretted it. I despised it. It infuriated me. It made me want to try harder next time.
So later during the conference, on Monday afternoon, I was sitting outside around the pool with a guy named Jeff who I had decided was one of the most attractive men at the conference (because, well, things like this are things we innately pick up, not that we’re out looking or anything–it’s just normal for our eyes to find the ones we like to look at, how when placed outside you’re naturally drawn to face the most beautiful flower or the most amazing sunscape you’ve ever seen–it’s only human to be drawn to see the beauty around you, just so we’re clear). We were talking, though the context escapes me because we had slipped off on a tangent from the main body of the conversation continuing on alongside us which I was still somehow paying attention to even if most of my attention was now fixed on Jeff, and I was talking about college and told him I had been president of our Gay-Straight Alliance.
Good. There. I’d said it. I was free.
He excused himself and had to go.
I wasn’t sure if I had said something wrong or if he just had to go wash for dinner, because he had caught me on his way back to his room after leaving the fitness center. So I steeled myself, prided myself for having said something, but chided myself for having taken the easy way out–I said I was president, you see, I hadn’t explicitly said I was gay. Although, at least as far as that’s concerned, I suppose it’s only gay people that ever think to ask, understanding that it is a gay-STRAIGHT alliance, after all. In any case, I melted back into the other conversations, which had quickly shifted topics into politics, and became so deeply engrossed in it, as we all had become, that we were quite nearly late for dinner.
And who should be at my table but Jeff and his older brother? I was uncertain, but pleased within a few minutes: There could not have been a more accepting pair at the entire conference than the two of them. In fact, so open were they about the whole issue that we were quickly discussing the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York and the currently in need of defending state of no marriage in NC (the abridged version is this: Same-sex marriage is currently illegal, but proponents of hatred are trying to amend our constitution to make it even harder for that to change. They can’t be happy with knocking us down, they have to hit us while we’re down, too). And our table, let me tell you, was packed–and by the time we’d finished dinner, I was open and comfortable with all of them.
That evening (although evening might imply it was much, much earlier than it was), Jeff and I and a few of the others sat down for a beer and a great talk about all sorts of things, perhaps joking more than anything. Jeff even tried to hook me up with one of the hotel employees he’d found who was gay, a kind gesture of a sort no one has ever offered before that I kindly turned down, although it left a lasting impression nonetheless. And while we were with him, another attendee came and made a comment about me being Reform, so I happily corrected her, and only a few minutes later he was telling me how awesome I’d been, to just flat-out tell her that I was Conservative. It hadn’t really donned on me when I’d said it, that I was being so much myself in that single moment, but I guess I’d leaned on him to give me strength to unabashedly be fearless, to gopher-it without thinking. It was great.
By the end of the night, Jeff’s great personality and instant inclusiveness and open welcoming of me entirely had elevated him in my view to one of my closest friends–all within the course of a day’s time, and only part thereof if we’re being critical, which we could be, if you’d like. And all of this brings me to today’s point:
H is for Ḥaverim, and Ḥaverim is Hebrew for Friends. Friends give us strength and hold us up, and they help us keep going when we’re standing and still fighting to climb. Friends give us strength and help us get back up when we’ve fallen. And friends give us strength and company enough to be ourselves no matter who we’re with.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people, gay people, have been saved by finding there are others like them, by building bonds with them that cannot be broken. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone,'” (Gen. 2:18), and there’s few things truer than that. And Hillel, my most favorite rabbi of all-time, hailed community as one of the saving graces of Judaism–a persecuted minority among peoples.
The LGBT community is also a persecuted minority among peoples, and I think we benefit and innately understand that same importance of community that has been and always will be a defining characteristic of Judaism. I think, as a gay Jew, there’s a lot of parallels between being gay and being Jewish that many might not think of from the outside looking in or from one side looking to the other, but I think it’s this closeness in circumstance that has helped me, time and again throughout the years, to more fully and openly embrace being both Jewish and gay.
Of course, this is but one story of friendship, and I have many more than just one friend, of course. I could speak of that time in Israel, when I was outed to everyone in the camp, but within days was ecstatic for the revelation because–as Jeff had said whilst we shared a beer, “it spreads like wildfire”–and I was able to be open and make more friends than I could count in six weeks. I could speak of those first few people I ever shared my feelings of attraction with and how we’re still friends after many years and hardships. I could sing praises of my friends in college, who have shaped me and shaped my life more than they might believe.
But today, I’m simply singing for friends. For ḥaverim. For those we couldn’t live without.