A red-haired young man approaches Rabbi Shira Stutman of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue to ask for directions to the nearest restroom.
“Straight down the hall are all-gendered,” she says. “If you want individual, you have to go upstairs!”
It’s standing room only for National Pride Young Professionals Shabbat Dinner, located in the non-denominational, non-traditional congregation’s social hall. Queen Esther, a drag queen dressed in a strapless gown, weaves through rainbow-decorated tables while hosting a round of LGBTQ-themed trivia. The first category? Gay television.
Friday’s National Pride Shabbat, which preceded DC’s Capital Pride Parade, was the fifth annual collaboration between Sixth & I, Bet Mishpachah — a congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews — and the Kurlander Program for GLBTQ Outreach & Engagement (GLOE) of the Edlavitch DCJCC. More than 350 LGBTQ members and allies attended.
For Rabbi Stutman, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Jewish tradition represents a platform for new ideas and understandings of gender, science and sexuality — not a barrier. Stutman says Pride Shabbat is a calendar highlight for her — a special time for her congregation to celebrate the many identities of its membership.
“When I was growing up, if you said to me ‘well what are you?’ I would say, ‘I’m a Jew, and second maybe I’m a woman, third maybe I’m an American,’ Stutman says. “But for at least a lot of the people we work with at Sixth & I, they would be like ‘do you have five minutes?’”
“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some struggles,” she adds. One of her recent challenges involved finding a witness to the mikvah ritual of a congregant undergoing the process of converting to Judaism. The challenge: the congregant identifies as agender, which is used to describe a person who does not identify as either male or female. Traditionally, a woman’s mikvah ceremony must be witnessed by a woman, and a man’s must be witnessed by a man.
“We had to find the type of mikvah attendant that was right for them,” Stutman says. But she emphasizes that it wasn’t much of a conflict at all: “It took us an extra three emails.”
Josef Palermo, director of GLOE, says he spends a lot of time working on ways to open the Jewish community’s eyes to injustices within. “I think the biggest challenge that we face is just trying to remind people that there is a reason why we still have a long ways to go as a community for inclusion on so many levels,” Palermo says. For instance, Palermo would like GLOE to help rewrite bathroom and locker room policies at the DCJCC to promote inclusion of trans and gender non-conforming members.
But the evening wasn’t centered solely around the American Jewish LGBTQ community; Shabbat services featured a sermon from a representative of the Russian LGBT Network, who remains anonymous due to safety concerns. The representative spoke of the severe oppression of the gay community in Chechnya — where government authorities are currently arresting, kidnapping and torturing gay men. More than 100 men have been kidnapped and at least 3 were murdered since the start of the campaign in May.
Palermo says he feels a particular calling as a queer Jew to raise awareness of the oppression of the LGBTQ community on a global level.
“As queer Jews in particular I think we have an exceptional moral imperative to really bear witness and speak out on those injustices, and those injustices are actually looking like pogroms and concentration camps all over again,” Palermo says. He is currently planning programs to educate community members on atrocities against the LGBTQ community in Uganda and the Islamic State, in addition to Chechnya.
But the mood on Friday evening was one of pride and celebration.
“I feel really connected, more so than I typically do because we’re really focusing on intersectional pride,” Peter Fox — a graduate student from New Jersey — says. “It’s not just about LGBT Pride, but it’s that sense of Jewish pride, and inherent in Judaism is the idea for social justice, so I feel like it really blends together perfectly.”