Guest speaker Amy Pakett Bornstein delivered these remarks during Shaare Emeth’s Pride Shabbat Service on June 25, 2021.
Good evening and thank you, Rabbi Bearman, for that warm welcome.
I am very honored to be speaking tonight. I would like to thank the Keshet committee for their invitation and for their important work in making Shaare Emeth a welcoming space for all.
To start, let’s recognize that maybe 5, definitely 10 years ago, Pride Shabbat was not a thing for most congregations. There were no Keshet committees, no rainbow logos, no branded banners saying “all are welcome.” So why now? What changed?
I’m going to channel my inner-rabbi and answer that question by directing us back to the Torah… specifically to a portion that we read a few weeks ago called Shelach L’cha. Here’s what happens in that parashah:
● God asks Moses to send 12 people to scout out Canaan to see if it is a viable land
● They report back that the land is flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 of the 12 say that they are fearful of the people who inhabit Canaan.
● God decides that this generation of Israelites are not ready to inherit the land. These Israelites are ruled by fear and panic. They could have inhabited the land, but, because they doubted their abilities, they would not be given that opportunity and instead, God has them wander in the desert for 40 years, until a new generation is born.
● Moses’ successor, Joshua, eventually sends a new group of people to Canaan and they report back a completely different story. They meet the inhabitants and do not fear them. Was the land or its inhabitants any different? No, but the people and their points of view had changed.
● Sometimes old habits are so ingrained they don’t go away easily, much like the Israelites who were traumatized as slaves and were not able to see past their fear of the inhabitants of Canaan. Sometimes change takes a long time to happen. In this parsha, change waits for a whole new generation, one not captive to the fears and assumptions of an earlier time.
● Let the lesson be that the only things stopping us from being the community that we wish to be are the limitations we impose on ourselves.
I am so glad that Shaare Emeth has been on this journey to become the community we wish to be. A community that embraces individuals for who they are and how they show up. A community that welcomes diverse voices onto the bimah. It may seem obvious to act in this way, but I am sure you know this is not the case everywhere. Let me tell you about my experience growing up at our family’s synagogue.
I am from Northern NJ and my family was very VERY involved in our synagogue. I always found our congregation to be warm and welcoming, but looking back — I cannot name one gay kid at hebrew school, I can’t picture any same sex couples holding hands at Rosh Hashanah services, and am almost positive there has never been a Bar or Bat Mitzvah of any kid from a queer family. Now you can say that is because LGBTQ families were less prevalent in the 90s, but we know that isn’t completely true. It was just not as safe to be a publicly queer family.
The lack of visible LGBTQ people in my community didn’t phase me growing up, but decades later it made things really hard for my parents. Back in 2015, when I told them about my new girlfriend, Emily, they had no frame of reference for what to expect, how to react, or even what our future would look like. None of their friends or fellow congregants had out gay kids. And this was 2015 – NOT the 90s. In those first moments, my parents were like the first generation of Israelites. They couldn’t see what our future would look like, and while I never doubted they loved me, I could see that they were constrained by their concerns and doubts.
Fortunately, and I’m very glad to be able to say this, my family didn’t need 40 years to move past their fears. After a few months, when my parents were able to come to St. Louis and meet Emily and really see us together, they became very supportive of our relationship. And Emily’s parents, Lisa and Barry Bornstein, are just about the most incredible, understanding, and supportive parents and in-laws you could ever imagine. Emily and I are so lucky to have the unwavering support of family and friends. Rabbi Bennett officiated at our beautiful, loving wedding in 2018, and we welcomed our baby Evan into the world, amidst a pandemic, in May 2020. We are also fortunate because beyond our family units, our colleagues, supervisors, and professional peers have always treated us with kindness and respect.
But the love of our friends and family can’t protect us from everything. In Missouri, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is completely legal. That means there are no protections for the queer community against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations – as there are for people in other protected categories like race, sex and national origin.
I love the St. Louis community, but it is very difficult to know that my family is not protected in the same way that other, heteronormative families are. Luckily, there are people who are trying to change this. The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, also called MONA, lists sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. But it has been pending in the state legislature since 1998. It is painful to know that for 23 years, there have been lawmakers that are actively fighting AGAINST my rights, to make sure my family does not see those protections. To make sure my family is not safe.
I know that it can be hard to understand how this lack of legal protections could manifest in our real lives. Hopefully these examples will help: If our place of work did not have additional, specific protections (which, yes, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis does), I could be fired for displaying a wedding photo on my desk at work. When we applied for a mortgage, the bank would have been entirely within their legal rights to deny our loan or foreclose on our home. I could go on and on with these scenarios, which may sound dramatic to you, but are very real possibilities for many LGBTQ individuals. The reality is that, right now, when Emily and I go to work, we have more rights inside the Kaplan Feldman Complex than we do when we drive out onto Lindbergh.
Let me tell you another story. In November 2020, Emily and I went to (virtual) court to petition for Emily to adopt Evan, a process we had begun in since he was born. You may be thinking, isn’t Evan your baby? The answer should be simple, but our state makes it complicated. Emily and I are legally married, I carried Evan and Emily came to every OB appointment, and we have raised him together since the minute he was born, so you would think that it should be assumed that Emily and I are his parents, right? But for us, as a queer family, the risk of relying on that presumption is too great. Had we not gone through this process, if something happened to me where I couldn’t care for Evan, a court could appoint my parents as legal guardians before Emily. Even though marriage equality is recognized nationally, specific state statutes have not all been updated. So a doctor could refuse to let Emily make medical decisions about our son and instead defer to a blood relative before his own parent.
Now it is Pride Month, and I am all for celebrating with rainbows and glitter. But our celebration should always include work as well. So you might wonder, what can we do? I am going to share some ideas, and challenge you to see if you can implement any of these in your daily life:
● Advocate for our rights, and I don’t mean just at the state or national level. In your organizations and in your businesses, check that there is a nondiscrimination policy in place that is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. Make sure forms are using inclusive language, such as offering gender options outside of the binary male/female to make nonbinary and transgender individuals feel welcome. I know that this is one of the projects that the Keshet Committee has been leading at Shaare Emeth… and everyone here should know about their work and celebrate their efforts!
● Take in the media of LGBTQ individuals—TV, Books, Articles, Art, Music. If you need recommendations, let me know! But especially during Pride month, mainstream media highlights the works of LGBTQ individuals so pay attention.
● Don’t assume the gender or sex of someone’s significant other and stand up for non- traditional households and family constructs
● Actively use peoples’ pronouns both when they’re around and not around. If you feel comfortable, add your pronouns to your email signature or include them when you’re introducing yourself. Both of these actions help normalize people sharing how they would like to be referred to.
● If you are met with an identity you don’t understand, ask questions and educate yourself. I know, the terms are always changing but language is powerful and it’s important to have the right words to communicate with each other. You can visit the Keshet page of the Shaare Emeth website, which has fantastic resources, or ask questions and have conversations with the rabbis and cantor. There are so many resources within Shaare Emeth!
While I can only speak from my own lived experience, and I am in no way a voice of the entire LGBTQ community, I do want to say thank you to Shaare Emeth for creating this safe space here today. For personally making me and my family feel welcome. For providing a place for our child to grow up and see other queer children and families. For advocating for legislation that would give my family and families like mine more protections. And for celebrating Pride Shabbat and lifting up the Jewish principles that honor the beautiful diversity of humanity.
All of this advocacy, all of this celebration, all of this study brings us closer and closer to the Promised Land, where all people can live authentic, whole lives and know that they will be safe and celebrated, a land where we are no longer limited by our fears, a land where children grow up seeing themselves reflected in their communities.
We do not need to wait another 40 years, like the Israelites, before entering Cannan. We’ve already begun. We’ve already gone so far. And we can link arms, right now, and continue, together, into our Promised Land.