Surat Rathgeber KNAN, Rainbow Jews Founder, Liberal Judaism.
You’re a Jew, a Rainbow Jew, you’re out and allowed to be proud of it, too!’, belts out comedy bard Daniel Cainer at the bursting-at-the-seams London School of Economics Atrium Gallery.
This month marked an historic milestone for the Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community: the launch of Rainbow Jews, Britain’s first ever archive of LGBT history on 6 February. And I’ve had the pleasure of running this pioneering initiative for the past 18 months.
Standing amid the heaving reception crowd, I found myself thinking of the journey I’ve been on and the astonishing and diverse people I have met.
My eyes wander over the 300 or so revellers, chatting excitedly and sipping wine. And a single phrase emerges in my mind: Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Ba’zeh or “all Israel is responsible for one another” (Talmud, Shavuot 39a).
This Jewish principle tells about communal responsibility. It means that each of us must take action and inspire others to create a community in which we can all take pride. In other words, if we create a better world for other people, we improve our own world as well.
Surely this principle also applies to the inclusion of LGBT people in communal life? Is a Jewish community not that much stronger and more vibrant when all of us bring in our full selves and live openly, honestly and freely?
I recall a little episode from late last year.
I had handed out some Rainbow Jews information to a middle-aged lady. She read it and with a hint of contempt and said: “I’m not gay.”
I replied: “Oh, you don’t have to be gay to join,” but that didn’t change her mind, and so I left it at that. Now I think engaging her in the idea of collective accountability might have made a difference.
And then my mind returns to the reception hall. I see LGBT and non-LGBT people, members of the various strands of British Jewry, non-Jews, people of all ages and abilities – a true human mix from all walks of life. And, so many of them, gay or not, contributed to the success of Rainbow Jews.
Cainer sings on: “If you’re straight that’s great, if you’re not, that’s great too. We’re all a Rainbow Jew.”
Could it be that Jewish life has, after all, begun to recognise the relevance of LGBT work to the mainstream Jewish community? Could non-LGBT allies be central to inclusion work? Do they have the power and credibility to shift the paradigm of exclusion?
Alma Smith, a co-convener of the LGBT activism group Keshet UK, describes herself as a non-LGBT ally. She believes diversity issues have relevance beyond the specific groups to which they relate. During an interview with the Rainbow Jews oral history project, she said:
“I do get asked a lot why I – as a straight, cisgender woman – volunteer for an LGBT organisation. Ultimately, I feel it’s a community issue beyond LBGT inclusion; there’s so much we need to be doing.”
In fact, while there are many more causes for celebration – such as the impending same-sex Marriage Act – even today, many LGBT Jews still struggle for acceptance within their communities and in themselves.
In her oral history testimony, Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah notes that today, the issue of gender identity exposes substantial and existing prejudice: “We must support trans people, but at the same time recognise that there is gender variance. There needs to be more of a debate about this within the Jewish world.”
Transgender Jews are not the only ones who have expressed a need for stronger advocacy within the British community. Rather than being ‘twice blessed’ many Rainbow Jews interviewees speak of a deep conflict, a feeling of ‘double alienation.’
This is especially true outside the more progressive community life, where LGBT people from more traditional backgrounds have struggled for acceptance.
Esther, who left Stamford Hill to lead a more secular life, told Rainbow Jews: “It was like living in a bubble. I knew if I wanted to live that life as a lesbian I couldn’t do it in that community. I would never be accepted.”
‘Jewbadour’ Cainer hammers away on his keyboard: “Look at all the shapes and sizes, shades and colours of creation, and all of them invited to join this congregation. You must be what you must be, you must do what you must do. You’re a Rainbow Jew.”
• The Rainbow Jews travelling exhibition runs until tomorrow at LSE Atrium Gallery. More information at www.rainbowjews.com