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Pride and Privilege

Alma ReiselFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

We are all privileged in many ways, often in ways we don’t even notice. This talk is about becoming aware of those privileges, and using that awareness to make the Jewish community more inclusive for everyone - a place where all can feel proud of who they are. As one of the directors of Keshet UK, I have been involved in delivering LGBT inclusion training to Jewish communities in the UK and abroad. This talk makes brief reference to self-harm and suicide, which can be distressing. For confidential support in the UK, contact the Samaritans For a Jewish counselling service, contact Raphael

Alma Reisel is one of the directors of Keshet UK, the Jewish organisation promoting the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Jews in every aspect of Jewish life. Alma believes passionately in the capacity of the UK Jewish community to make every member of our community feel valued and respected as the sacred beings that they are, but does not think we’re quite there yet. When she isn’t volunteering for Keshet, Alma is a social worker working in East London and a long-time Limmudnick.


TWITTER:  @almareisel / @keshetuk


When I die, I’m sure that my synagogue’s burial society will honour my wish to be buried alongside my partner. If I bring my partner to family occasions, nobody pretends that my partner is just my friend. People don’t ask me what my genitals look like or what medical procedures I may have had done. My gender and my family structure are both listed as standard options on my synagogue’s membership forms. Nobody’s ever said to me that loving the person I love means I should seek therapy.

We are put into many categories: gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, class and more. We all are advantaged by some of those categories and disadvantaged by others. For example, as a white person I am 7 times less likely to be stopped by police. As a woman, my risk of sexual assault is 10 times higher than for men. An anti-racism activist that I really admire was one of the first people to use the word ‘privilege’ to define these hidden advantages. Peggy McIntosh defines privilege as an invisible weightless backpack and that backpack is filled with special provisions, things like maps, passports, codebooks to decipher the world, tools and blank cheques which we can count on cashing in each day, but about which we are meant to remain oblivious. And it’s that last part that I think is the hardest to get our heads around, and yet it is hard to keep hold of the privileges we have, that awareness, even once we have become aware. McIntosh wrote that until she physically wrote down the list of privileges she as a white academic had, she kept forgetting them. And that’s how it works, that’s how, without meaning to, we sustain systems of privilege, because in areas where we have privilege it can be really hard to realise and notice and remember that others don’t, they’re the things we take for granted. Like the fact that nobody has ever told me to stop holding my partners hand because there are children around. I’ve never been told that my sexuality makes me confused, that I should just choose men or women. I’m confident that when I get older, if I want to go into a residential home for the elderly, I’ll be able to share a room with my partner. People don’t regularly ask me when I first knew that I was a woman. To be honest, I’m never asked. And usually most people make the correct assumptions about my gender and my sexuality – I don’t have to come out in each new setting.

Except that when I’m volunteering for Keshet UK, the charity promoting the full inclusion of LGBT plus Jews in all aspects of Jewish life, people are often surprised that I’m not lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. When I volunteered for a charity fighting slavery, no-one once presumed that I used to be a slave. But at the moment there is a misconception, that standing up for the rights and inclusion of LGBT people should be left entirely to LGBT people. And we kid ourselves that when the kids at cheder say ‘oh, her shoes are so gay’, they don’t mean it like that. Or we forget that all of the LGBT members of our community stopped coming because they didn’t feel safe around us. Or we use the one transgender member of our community as the example of our inclusivity, not thinking we might be outing them. Or we think, we should do something about this, just not yet, because it isn’t the right time. But people are hurting now and this isn’t just about a few individuals, this is about making communities that are safe for everyone. Because the boy who likes drama and gets called names, knows that homophobia hurts. And the parent whose child has come out and doesn’t know who they can turn to. And the child with two mums who keeps getting inappropriately asked ‘which one’s the real mum?’ knows that homophobia, transphobia and gender bullying hurt and we can do something because this is our community.

As an ally, there are things I can’t do. I can’t speak here from my own experiences of being an LGBT Jew. I don’t have those experiences. I can’t give a Jewish ‘it gets better’ talk. The It Gets Better project aims to prevent suicides among young people by having LGBT adults share their stories online of how life gets better, can get great after the teenage years which can be particularly hard. And it can be so powerful for a young person who is struggling to live their life openly, to hear someone say, ‘I have been where you are, it will get better’, to have that role model. I can’t be that role model, but that doesn’t let me off the hook from creating communities where everyone is safe. If there is someone listening – and I imagine that there is – thinking, ‘you just described me. I’m finding life so hard right now and don’t think anyone will accept me.’ I will say please, stay with us, your life is so important to me, and to this community, which is only as beautiful as it can be with full diversity, represented at every level. So if anything I have said or am about to say is distressing or painful, I’m flashing up the numbers of the Samaritans, a 24 hour phone support service, and Rafael, the Jewish counselling service. Please do what you need and contact one of these organisations for support.

When I was at university, I made two friends who I think of often, when I’m volunteering for Keshet UK. I think of their brilliance, I think of the tea I drank with one of them, her offer to teach me to play squash, something I still have to learn. I think of the lunch I ate with the other the last time I saw him, our discussions about his plans for the future, his pleasure when he was able to legally change his name to the only one I had ever known him by. I also think of the stories they told me of pain, of rejection, of homophobia, transphobia, and the distress that it caused. Both of these friends eventually died by suicide, and the world has been deprived of two phenomenal individuals with so much to contribute.

Nearly a ¼ of LGB young people have already attempted to take their own life. The rate is twice as high for trans young people. More than half of LGBT young people self-harm. It’s too much. It’s more than I can bear. It’s urgent. These statistics are us. They’re our families, they’re our rabbis, our youth leaders, our children, our nieces, our nephews, our friends, our students and ourselves and we can do something, because this is our community. Going to the youth leaders in your synagogue, or the governors of a local Jewish school or your rabbi and starting a conversation about how children are being taught about gender and relationships, saves lives.
I recognise that not every person and not every community is going to feel ready to reach a fully inclusive place right now. And so I encourage you to start with this. This is Keshet UK’s inclusion rainbow, see where you are, see where your family is, your school, youth movement, synagogue, Jewish organisation, your Jewish communities, think of one of those communities and how you can use the privilege that you have to move it into the next stage. Intolerance can be characterised by explicit discrimination, hurtful remarks often said from a position of authority, but also at Shabbat lunch and in the playground. Moving to tolerance: there we find silence, the discrimination is less explicit, but it also isn’t challenged, and that silence can be internalised as prejudice and rejection and do a lot of harm. Accepting organisations and communities are troubled by the fact that so many of their LGBT members feel unwelcome, they want everyone to stay and join in with activities, they offer emotional support to individuals and families and they state publicly, and regularly, that homophobic and transphobic bullying are unacceptable and against Jewish tradition. The next step is actively welcoming everyone, there is public support for the rights of LGBT people, institutional values and behaviours are truly examined, the leadership is trained in diversity. When welcoming communities get their attempts at inclusion wrong – and they will, we all will – they apologise, recognising that intention and impact are not the same thing. Finally celebration, diversity is seen as a value in itself, life events are celebrated, Pride Shabbat is in the calendar, children are asked about their parents and carers, not their mum and dad. And the community has found a way to read and teach Jewish sources so that every person is accorded full and equal dignity and again, when mistakes are made, these are acknowledged and seen as opportunities for learning. It can be easy to forget our privilege, forget our invisible backpacks, forget that not everyone can feel pride within our Jewish community. But at the moment, too many people feel unable to be part of the Jewish people at all and too many are unsafe. So for the sake of every Jewish person, let’s start by recognising some of the privileges we have, and let’s do something positive with that recognition. Let’s commit to working together to move each part of our community one step further on this rainbow.

Thank you.

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