Daniel Bahner grew up in a politically and socially conservative part of Ohio, an area without many Jews. He said he always got teased because he was effeminate. He knew he was gay by the time he was a preteen but also knew it had to be his secret.
“I didn’t have the role models that kids have today,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t be out, so I was in the closet.”
His synagogue, where he spent three days a week at least through his bar mitzva, was not outwardly homophobic, but homosexuality “wasn’t talked about,” he said. “I feel like the synagogue should have been a welcoming, proactive space. I didn’t see a reflection of gay and Jewish at the same time, and I never had thought of doing them together.”
Today, as national director of education and training for the Jewish LGBT advocacy group Keshet, he is working to make synagogues and other institutions “safe and inclusive” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews.
Bahner met on Jan. 12 with congregants at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville and on Jan. 13 largely with teens at The Jewish Center in Princeton. At both training sessions he shared the nuances of language used by the LGBT community and engaged in brainstorming about how to make synagogues more comfortable for LGBT Jews.
Keshet, a national Jewish organization that focuses on LGBT issues, is working toward full equality and inclusion in Jewish life.
Adath Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Adler, saying it was time for Conservative synagogues like his to address the issue of welcoming and including gay congregants, asked, “How do we take it to the next step and make our community fully inclusive, fully welcoming, fully inviting?”
When he was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Adler recalled, gays and lesbians were not allowed to become rabbis or cantors. Along with other rabbinical students, he spoke with faculty members to advocate for inclusion, which the faculty eventually adopted.
After the vote, a colleague told Adler he could publicly acknowledge that he was gay. “He was already accepted by all of us in the class,” Adler said, “but now he could be open about his identity.”
‘A lost generation’
In his presentations, Bahner explained the nuances of language within the LGBT community, distinguishing among sex, which relates to biology; gender, which relates to self-identification; and sexuality, which has to do with how one person expresses sexual desire for another.
He focused in particular on the word “queer,” which for some is a slur, and which others have reclaimed as a “social, political, and cultural statement.”
Bahner then elicited from his audiences suggestions for ways synagogues can be more inclusive and made some of his own.
He said synagogues tend to operate on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. One way to combat this, he suggested, is to create at least one unisex bathroom so that transgender Jews will feel comfortable. On registration forms, rather than asking for “father” and “mother,” they might request “parent 1” and “parent 2.”
Synagogues, he said, might also include images on posters and announcements that are not “heteronormative.” He explained, “If I saw two women with two children, I would instantaneously know what that is.”
Synagogues can also infuse LGBT content into the tradition, he said. Examples include holding Passover seders with a civil rights theme, or inviting speakers who can teach about Torah from an LGBT perspective. Lessons for young people might include Purim Superhero, a book about a child with two dads.
Keshet provides resources like posters of LGBT Jewish heroes, among them San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, who was assassinated 11 months later. A synagogue can also register in Keshet’s searchable “Equality Guide.” Rabbis and cantors can also indicate on the site their willingness to perform LGBT weddings.
Bahner said, having felt so left out in his Ohio synagogue community as a youth, “Maybe I am part of a lost generation. Maybe I will never feel a desire to go to a synagogue.”
But he expressed hope to the largely teen audience at the Jewish Center that through their activism things might be different. “You have access to learning about people different from you. You have a lot of power as young people to change the future,” he said.
But despite recent changes, entrenched attitudes remain. One ninth-grader at the Jewish Center told NJJN, “At my school you are either ‘straight’ or a ‘faggot.’”