This past Purim, I had the privilege of writing, producing and acting in a Purim shpiel performed for Jews and non-Jews alike. I have always thought of the Purim story as a lens through which contemporary people and their struggles for justice can be viewed, so this year I focused on the #MeToo movement. Haman was depicted as Harvey Weinstein, and it was women and the LGBTQ community at risk of destruction.
It is not lost on me that in my shpiel, Haman was a Jew. I feel deep pain when I see news stories of sexual harassment in Jewish summer camps, sexual assaults in Hollywood by Jewish producers, and rabbis committing grave abuses. These stories add to events I have personally experienced or witnessed in the Jewish community and in the workplace as a gender queer Jewish educator.
As we create pathways to actualize the goals of #MeToo and #GamAni (the Israeli iteration), I consistently see a void both in the Jewish community and in the broader movement — an understanding of how misogyny and sexism deeply affect the LGBTQ community, and the importance of creating safety and inclusion for members of this community.
Specifically, when talking about ending sexual harassment, misogyny, sexual assault and rape culture, we need to be talking not just about the violence and harassment cis women face, but also the violence and harassment that LGBTQ individuals face.
Dominant American culture frames gender as binary — male and female — yet we know that even in our Jewish culture, gender has never been just male and female. The Talmud mentions six genders and our current experiences include members of the Jewish community that identify outside of the binary system.
We exist. We have stories that are part of #MeToo and #GamAni. And we have experiences that include being silenced and excluded by the organized Jewish community.
A person can experience multiple levels of oppression. For example, a Jewish trans woman of color will experience in her lifetime sexism, transphobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism and racism.
Imagine the experience of this person in a synagogue when someone asks her, “So how are you Jewish?” Or in a workplace, when someone uses the wrong pronoun for her. Think about how she feels when she is at a Shabbat dinner sponsored by a well-established Jewish organization and someone asks her to bring them coffee, inferring that she is a staff person. Put yourself in her shoes as she tries to use the restroom and is stopped by a rabbi who insists she use the bathroom that matches her sex rather than her gender, creating an unsafe experience for her. In her workplace, her boss tells her she should have her hair and nails done to look more feminine and to fit in with how “real” Jewish women look. At a dinner for the Jewish organization she works for, a donor hugs her for an extra long period of time and comments on how attractive she is and asks for her phone number.
All of these examples are actual experiences that occurred within the Jewish community. Not only are marginalized people harassed within their own communities and workplaces, but they are also subject to violence from strangers, which leaves them unsafe in all aspects of their lives.
The impact of these experiences causes real physical, spiritual and emotional damage. And many synagogues, Jewish workplaces, organizations, summer camps and schools have no idea how to create safe and inclusive environments for members of the LGBTQ community. So often, this community still struggles for full acceptance, equal rights and full inclusion in Jewish spaces, and is left out of rituals, leadership positions, services and community resources.
There is hope. Jewish organizations, workplaces, summer camps, and schools can reach out for help. They do not need to be alone or feel shame or guilt for not knowing how to create change. There is a path forward. There are resources and educators ready to make a difference.
In addition to being an LGBTQ inclusion trainer, I am proud to be part of a group of Jewish educators trained in a curriculum called “Safe and Respectful Workplace,” made possible by grants from The Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.
This is a training curriculum designed to stop sexual harassment before it starts. There are currently 12 Jewish educators trained to take this curriculum into Jewish organizations, summer camps, day schools, synagogues and other Jewish spaces across the country. We will train supervisors, employees and board members in how to create an environment that is healthy, respectful and free from abuse.
I am hopeful that the Jewish community will be willing to identify where it is failing women and the LGBTQ community and work hard to engage in trainings, education and activism to be at the forefront of the #MeToo and #GamAni movements.
May so much work be done in the Jewish community to end gender-based harassment, assault, and misogyny that the next generation is able to pick a different justice angle for its Purim shpiel. Amen.
Ariel Vegosen is a gender and diversity inclusion expert, Jewish educator, and founder and director of Gender Illumination (www.genderillumination.com) an organization dedicated to creating safer spaces for trans and non-binary people through education and policy reform.