Rabbi’s message – Orlando, Ourselves (reprinted from The Shofar)

This appeared in the most recent issue of Oraynu’s Newsletter: The Shofar

Like many of you, I have been shattered to hear the news about the mass shooting in Orlando. The fact that the target of this crime was gay people, and Latino people, makes it especially egregious. We as Humanists honour the sanctity of all human life and we find it horrific when any population is the victim of hate and violence.
At Oraynu’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) this week, I spoke about how, by chance, we have been together on the date of some horrific global events. On the night of the Paris attacks, we had our “Passing the Torch” evening, saying goodbye to Rabbi Emerita Karen Levy and officially welcoming me as your congregational rabbi. On the night of a large event we hosted discussing and debating Israel, we heard of the attacks in Belgium. And our AGM was held in the wake of the news from Orlando. Each time, we have said that we are happy to be together during difficult times; we draw solace and support from one another. And each time we wish those who are in pain and mourning the strength and courage needed to get through it. At the AGM I quoted Audre Lorde who said, in a very different context, “without community, there is no liberation.” We are one another’s community, and that is significant and meaningful during wonderful and difficult times. But this time, to be honest, repeating the same words of hope did not feel like enough. Many religious groups come together to pray at times like these. We don’t, for we don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. Rather, we believe in the efficacy of human action. Yet, what action can we take to prevent these horrific atrocities? What can we do? 

The Society for Humanistic Judaism reissued its previous statements on support for gay rights and support for an American ban on the legal purchasing of assault rifles. Ours is a public voice of which we can be proud: we have been a leader in fighting for same sex marriage, honouring and appreciating LGBTQ leadership in our communities, and providing Jewish homes for families who have felt excluded elsewhere in the Jewish world. But, still, for me, this hasn’t been enough. Not this time. Not after seeing the faces and reading the stories of all of those young, hopeful, beautiful lives that were lost. And not after learning that the assailant, who frequented that same gay bar and had contacted people using a dating app for gay people, was likely dealing with his own internalized homophobia, not knowing how to manage the feelings that he might be gay himself. 

We have to do more to name the very real issues that confront our society. As Canadians, it may be tempting to assume these problems are American in nature. But, truly, we have our own societal issues with racism and xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, and a deep cultural contempt for, leading to violence against, women, all of which were part of the story of Orlando.

As Humanistic Jews, we care about our own community and the broader human community. But let’s not let our record of being on the right side of justice make us complacent. The very very hardest work to do when it comes to social justice is pursuing the hidden and internalized assumptions, biases, and internalized prejudices within ourselves. The full Audre Lorde quote is: “Without community, there is no liberation… But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” And this is, I believe, where and what our work is now. How do we think about and manage difference? For in ignoring it, as individuals and as a society, we can see that we give rise to terrible, terrible suffering. 
This issue I challenge us to think about racism in Canada in the Oraynu orates section. What did we think of the Black Lives Matter protests this past spring? I was moved by them. I was also moved in the past few months, particularly in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial and the news coverage of the Stanford rape, to consider how pervasive the contempt for women still is in our society, and how “rape culture” is emboldened by it. Yes, at a place like Oraynu, led by three female rabbis and enriched by many strong and wonderful women, it can be easy to think such issues do not affect us. But they are us. All of us have internalized misogyny — women and men — and all of us need to work on it. 
Finally, as I write this, the Pride celebrations are ramping up in our own city and around the world. Pride in Toronto has always been a special time. My first Pride marches were in the late 1990s when I joined PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and held up signs for “AIDS Action Now.” Toronto’s Pride celebrations then were certainly a party, but they were also decidedly political. In the years since, we have seen tremendous progress on gay rights. We have legalized same sex marriage. LGBTQ people are more visible, and welcome in all spaces, than ever. Pride in Toronto went from being an event for the marginalized to the very mainstream. We boast over a million people at our Pride parade, one of the largest in the world. It is both a symbol and celebration of how far we’ve come. And, yet, we have Orlando. This year, Pride takes on once again that more political tone. Yes, it’s a party, it’s a celebration, and it’s filled with joy. But it’s also certainly an act of publicly taking up space. The old chant goes: “We’re here, we’re queer.”
And it’s the taking up of space that concerns me and us now. We need to be present, vocal, and wholly engaged with these political issues of our time. We need to do the hard work of unlearning our own internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. And we need to educate others to do the same. As Jews, as Humanists, as citizens of the world who wish to come together and not have to mourn. Not have to repeat the same words to build solace and strength. Words are not enough. We need action