National Coming Out Day and Lech Lecha

National Coming Out Day and Lech Lecha

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National Coming Out Day Address

By Sophie Needelman

26 years ago today, members of the LGBT community marched on Washington for Gay and Lesbian rights, expressing the dire need of the queer community to be recognized, validated, and made equal to other civilians of this country. It is in honor of this historic march that we celebrate National Coming Out day on October 11th all throughout the country- it is why we are gathered here at Hillel today amongst open mindedness, inclusivity, and rainbows.

3,756 years ago today-ish, God told Abraham “go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you”. God encouraged Abraham to take those challenging first steps toward transcending that which was comfortable or familiar to him, experiencing what lies beyond, and fulfilling his potential as the patriarch of the Jews by outwardly searching for, communicating, and owning his identity. It is in honor of this legendary transition of Abraham and the fateful events that followed that we recognize and read Parshat Lech Lecha amongst good friends, great food, and the burning Jewish tradition of community and knowledge sharing.

— 3,756 years ago today Abraham highlighted coming out as a Jew. 26 years ago today political activists in Washington highlighted coming out as gay. Today- today we come together to celebrate National Coming Out Day as Jews, and to honor Lech Lecha as members and allies of the Queer community. Today we come together to honor not only the mutual presence of Gay and Jewish identity in many of the individuals in our own Hillel community, but the beautiful and rich intersection of these very identities.

Because Hillel is one of the spaces home to these powerful identities as well as home to their vital interaction, we come together today to honor Hillel as a safe space and ally to the LGBTQ community in Berkeley by hanging rainbow flags in its buildings’ halls, offices, lounges and lobbies. Berkeley Hillel is committed to promoting inclusivity of the queer community into its own Jewish identity and supports the healthy relationship between the Jewish and queer/ally identities of its community members. On October 11th, the day we honor the march on Washington for Gay and Lesbian rights and Abraham’s march on Canaan, Egypt, and eventually Israel in Lech Lecha, we now also honor Berkeley Hillel as an ally to the LGBT community.

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Torah Queery: Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, we read of Abraham’s transition away from the comfort and familiarity of his home as he follows God’s riveting command: “Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.” Abraham is moved enough by his belief in God- his belief in a Jewish identity which he has not yet outwardly exposed as well as his belief in a community greater than himself or that of his birthplace- to venture beyond confines of safety. The command “go from, go to” emphasizes a sense of action, a sense of ownership and progress and transition. The growth offered to Abraham by God also relies on a freedom from the known; it is not until Abraham abandons his sense of familiarity that he is able to fulfill his potential as an outwardly-identifying Jew.

In honor of National Coming Out Day which we celebrate every year today on October 11th, it is interesting to think of this transition of Abraham’s as a “coming out” of sorts. The events that follow in the rest of Lech Lecha are key features of Abraham’s coming out as a Jew- not only of being a Jew but actively, outwardly, and proudly identifying as a Jew which then allows him to lead the Jewish community. Many of us here have experienced a similar coming out process either of ourselves or our friends during the transition into college. Sometimes it takes being out of our comfort zone to reach a place of freedom, openness, or even desperation to outwardly identify as gay. God’s call to Abraham to “go from, and go to” is essentially a version of “come out”- come out as a manifestation of your true potential as a human being by even engaging with the aspects of your identity that may set you apart or be difficult to understand. Without discomfort and exploration, there is no potential for growth- and in the case of both Abraham and many members of the queer community this comes at the cost of a beautiful Outing of the most vibrant part of one’s identity.

During God’s call to Abraham, he also promises to make Abraham the leader of a great nation- the nation of the Jews. This emphasizes that Abraham’s actions of “coming out” don’t only affect himself but also have the potential to affect others for generations to come. We are reminded here that every time we own and celebrate our true identites we set an example for those around us to do the same and encourage authentic expressions of who we are. Throughout history, there have been times that coming out has come at a huge cost; Jews and Gays alike have forever been persecuted for their identities, for owning who they truly are and what they truly identify as. In many parts of the world this is still the case for Jews, as anti-semiitism is rampant and tones of the Holocaust still linger in our memories. This is also true for the LGBT community; although we may not feel it violently here in Berkeley homophobia is a serious issue globally and there are still many costs of coming out as gay.

Recognizing these costs, this presence of suffering on behalf of working toward a larger and greater good, is part of the very coming out process. This is also something God emphasizes to Abraham about his own transition into Canaan; God promises Abraham the land of Israel but only when the time is right and often after grave amounts of suffering. Like in the case of Abraham, the coming out of the LGBT community also has happens and continues to happen in due time. Though the time doesn’t always feel right for all of us, we must remember that “coming out” of any sort is a process that extends far beyond us in time and space. Knowing when the time is right, when the benefits outweigh the costs and when suffering becomes the means to a greater end, is a key part of any transition and is respected in Lech Lecha just as much as where Abraham is going from or going to.

Toward the end of Lech Lecha, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah- there is an outward expression of this claiming of their Jewish identity. The effects of this coming out transition, or whatever the transition may be, are something we always carry with us and if we are lucky something we get to outwardly celebrate amongst a community of family and friends. Just as Abraham and Sarah forever change their names to reflect their changed identities, we outwardly celebrate the work Berkeley Hillel and its community members have done to honor the queer presence deep at work here. The presence of rainbow flag throughout the building, a queer Dvar torah and lasting dialogue around intersection of gay and Jewish identity as a permanent part of the Hillel programming is one of the ways we as the gods and goddesses of Hillel, the brains and heart of this organization, can outwardly change the face of Hillel as well as change its legacy as a leader in Jewish inclusivity.

May you continue to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and queer Jews everywhere with your own “coming out”.