It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

Blood donation drive
Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  — “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 

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It’s June: Thank you, LGBTQ Pioneers!

King David Street, Jerusalem, June 2003

This blog post originally appeared on Tzeh U’Limad, the Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning published by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion as part of its Continuing Alumni Education program. I follow that blog, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in “continuing Jewish learning!” 

It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mom. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot [shuttle] from Ben Gurion Airport and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, & Gender Identity, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah, thank you very much. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.

Bother the Rabbi!

Red phone
Call your rabbi!  (Photo from Wikipedia)

I work primarily with unaffiliated Jews: Jews who have chosen for now not to have a congregational home. So, when someone contacts me about study one of my first questions is, “Are you a member of a congregation?” Sometimes people say, “No,” and we go on to talk about what they want to learn. Sometimes they say, “Yes” and then my next question is, “Why don’t you give your rabbi a call about this?” Inevitably, the answer is, “I don’t want to bother the rabbi.”

Here’s the deal, folks: your rabbi LOVES to be “bothered” by people who want to learn. He is also waiting for the call that says you need a rabbi because you are sick or your aunt died or your kid is driving you crazy and you don’t know what to do. She is busy, yes, but these conversations are the reason she studied for the rabbinate: she wants to help / hang out with / learn with / listen to Jews like you!

People join congregations for lots of reasons. Many join with a particular kid-centered project in mind: religious school for the kids, bar or bat mitzvah, or something similar. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind that when you join you get other things with that membership besides religious school. One of them is a network of people and resources when you are in trouble, and when you want to learn. Then all you have to do is give the office or the rabbi a call and say, “Hineni [here I am!]”

If you want to learn, or you are in trouble, and you have a congregation, you are in luck: you already have what you need. (If you don’t have a congregation, by all means call me. I can use the work.) But don’t ever worry that you will “bother the rabbi.” Your rabbi is waiting for your call.

When Queer Moms Come Out

A sense of humor is essential for good activists.

 

This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010.  In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.

___________

I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final.  A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life.  It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.

I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.

Was I going to mess them up for life?   Was I going to lose them?  Should I just declare celibacy and give it up?  I wrote to  an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears.  She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them.  Do whatever they tell you.”  Then she said my kids were going to be fine.

I did, and they are.  But there’s much, much more to it than that.

The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck.  My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988.  My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did.  On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him.  To his credit, it has never been an issue.

I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl.  They liked her.  Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball.  Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?

The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered.  Surely this was my private business.   Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.”  So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best.  And that’s where I went wrong.

Aaron began getting into fights at school.  The teacher called.  I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor.  The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf.  He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.

I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?

“You are what?” she gasped,  and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal.  Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.

Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area.  I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.”  I was privileged to have the means to check out every private school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler.  [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah.  I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]

God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School.  When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.”    In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs:  individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.

But the damage was done.  My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust.  I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe.   His big brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”

And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.

Yes, things are better now than they were in 1988.  They need to be better still.  Our opponents don’t seem to understand that anti-gay policies hurt the whole society:  the collateral damage is horrendous.  The lack of same sex marriage rights means that the children of queer families  grow up knowing that they, the children, are less in the eyes of the law. The courts are just now figuring out that the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] means that lesbian and gay couples can lose their home to the IRS when one of them dies, unlike straight couples, who are defended against death taxes.

When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it.  When are we going to figure that simple fact out?

Memorial Day

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008

Today is Memorial Day.  For many Americans, it’s “the official beginning of summer,” with backyard barbeques and   sports on TV.  For other Americans, it’s a much heavier day:  it’s a day for visiting cemeteries, for laying wreaths, for remembering fallen brothers and sisters in arms. Public America straddles the gap between those two, ostentatiously paying lip service in front of the cameras: bits for the evening news, to prove that we “support our troops.”

It is high time we stopped accepting the lip-service of politicians about “support for the troops” when actual men and women who have served this country in war are hungry or homeless.

I am no lover of war.  I wish that no American ever again had to go to war.  But once we accept an oath from a person volunteering to serve in our military, to give up their freedom in order to defend ours, we as a nation have responsibilities to them. And should they serve in a theater of war, and suffer the emotional and physical damage that war inflicts on everyone in combat, our debt to them and to their families soars.  These are debts that nothing can cancel out.

This Memorial Day, I am conscious that I have two sons, both of whom are alive and near to me. I am also conscious that there are parents all over America who sent children off to war who never returned, or who returned broken and hurt.  I am grateful for what I have, and I want to be properly appreciative of the staggering contributions others have made to our national life.

Their contributions — their lives, the lives of their loved ones — are a continual reminder that while we may see ourselves as a nation of “rugged individualists” we are in fact a society interconnected to the core. The freedom of my life is possible because others have given theirs.  Their sacrifices must not be forgotten, and must not simply be an excuse for a politician — or anyone else! —  to make a cheap sentimental point: we must remember them in the way we treat their families, and in the way we treat their fellows who are still living, and in the way we choose to exercise the precious freedoms we have been given.

Rearranging the Furniture

Coffee Shop Rabbi is an experiment in Jewish outreach, and as such, I’m constantly watching to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved.  This fall big changes are afoot:  I am going to offer “Intro” classes of various lengths in four different cities in the SF Bay Area:  Oakland, Palo Alto, San Rafael, and Lafayette.  Three of the classes are sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, and one is sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Lafayette.

Two of these classes are my road-tested Intro to the Jewish Experience, 24 weeks, revolving enrollment, an ongoing process of building and learning about Jewish community.  The San Rafael class will be much shorter, a three part series of four classes each, exploring the practical aspects of Jewish spirituality and life.  The final class, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, will be their Exploring Judaism class, and it will follow a year’s arc with the life of that congregation.  I’m excited to expand my own learning about adult Jewish beginners in new settings and formats.

L’hitraot!