About 30 members of Jewish Detroit’s LGBT community gathered at Ferndale’s Local Kitchen and Bar to listen to how three Jews from different generations have embraced their Jewish and sexual and gender identities and share their own stories at NEXTGen Detroit Pride’s Sept. 14 program, “Navigating Jewish and Queer.”
Pride co-chairs Sam Dubin, 25, of West Bloomfield and Steven Davis, 37, of Ferndale are hoping that events like this create a “new kind of Jewish family” and open dialogue of being LGBT and Jewish. They want others to know that these identities need not be mutually exclusive.
The panelists, ranging from their 50s to their teens, discussed how much has changed in terms of acceptance over the decades. With the onset of LGBT-friendly youth group chapters, Birthright trips to Israel and gay-oriented interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, they spoke of how far the Jewish community has come, yet at the same time, how far it should go to welcome LBGT Jews.
One step can be as small a gesture as placing a safe sticker or displaying a rainbow flag in the office of a synagogue or a Jewish day school.
When attendee Lee Epstein, 31, of Ferndale, started working at Hillel Day School this fall to facilitate spirituality and song and prayer leading, he simply put out a rainbow flag in the corner of his office.
“Just by having that flag out, some students have approached me to say they are glad to see I have this flag, and that is enough,” said Epstein. He said he has lived in Orthodox Jewish communities where some “very frum” friends muse they observe 612 commandments. “We need to come to an age of co-existing realities. Yes, you can be an observant Jew, and you can be gay at the same time.”
Panelists spoke about how coming out is a continual process, whether it be to family, friends or co-workers.
Ron Elkus of Huntington Woods, the oldest of the three panelists at 57, said that things have come a long way since he came out in college.
“Back in my teens, queer was such a derogatory term, and now it is a word of empowerment,” Elkus said. “When I sat my parents down to tell them I was gay, they thought I was going to tell them I was dating a non-Jewish girl.”
When it comes to dating, the panelists expressed that they all wanted to find a Jewish partner, and they have no easier a time at it than do their Jewish heterosexual counterparts.
Jessica Leuchter, 25, a Ph.D. pre-candidate in chemistry at the University of Michigan, said there are many more men looking for men on Jewish online dating services than lesbians. However, she said that she is happily dating. In her life, she has been active in United Synagogue Youth and Hillel on campus at Wake Forest University and now heads up a Jewish grad student group at U-M.
“Carrying on Jewish traditions into my adult and someday into married life is very important to me and has nothing to do with my sexuality,” Leuchter said. “And when I am ready, my rabbi even said he would officiate my wedding. But I’m not ready, not just yet.”
Jayson Olson, 17, of West Bloomfield said he has never lived in a time when there was not social media, and this has its pros and cons as a transsexual. The College of Creative Studies student who founded the first gender-neutral BBYO chapter in Michigan embraced his Jewish adulthood twice: first as a bat mitzvah and then again as a bar mitzvah when he transitioned into becoming a man.
“When I find a YouTube video of a trans adult living out their life, holding down a job or owning a home, I have hopes that this can be my life someday,” Olson said. “I am thankful for the generations of the LGBT community who paved the way to a more accepting society for those of my generation.”
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer