Saturday, June 18, 2011

I attended services at CBST

Never Done: I attended services at CBST

I had a tough two days from a time perspective. On Thursday, I arrived to an appointment in Manhattan -- an appointment I had to cancel another appointment for -- only to find out that the person I was meeting wasn't there to meet with me. It was due to a sudden and significant family illness, so of course I understood, but it did mean that I lost 4 hours from my work day and I missed fitting in a triathlon training workout for the day. The following day, I arrived at a follow-up doctor's appointment with the lung doctor, and the office was locked. I called the answering service and found the doctor had left 3 hours earlier. Once again, I lost hours -- not just the travel time, but on both days it didn't make sense for me to go all the way back to Brooklyn because I had commitments in Manhattan later that day.

I tried to be diligent; I tried to be patient; I tried to remember how much I wanted to do the things that came later (in both cases, I really did want to do them) but ultimately I just ended up frustrated. I hadn't brought a book or computer; I couldn't get a date with friends; I didn't have a way to go for a swim, bike, or run; and perhaps most frustrating of all: my battery on my cell phone never lasts through the day, so I couldn't even make any of the dozens of phone calls that I owe friends and family. You get it, right? Not the end of the world, but frustrating. Also, did I mention it was raining?

By the time I got to Friday night services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) I was ready for a break between the week and shabes. CBST is the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world. When it started in 1973, the congregation met largely in secret, to protect the members who were not able to be out. Now it's grown to such prominence that it's about to buy a $7 million building. This trajectory makes me incredibly happy.

I went to services because my good friend Alex, who has been the social justice coordinator at CBST for the past 2 years, is leaving for rabbinical school. I think it's a little sad that I've been meaning to go for years, and it took a goodbye to get me there. But I am so glad I went. It's a deeply musical services, with readings and rabbinic talking interspersed. One of the first things the rabbi said was that she always urges people to stay as connected and central as they can. If you know a song, sing along. If you don't, then hum, or sing lalala. Don't stay apart from the rest of us. I found this to be incredibly moving, because both Jews and LGBTQ people have been so marginalized from society that we've developed tendencies to marginalize ourselves. I loved that she reached out to bring us in to the center, and I found that I remembered that she'd asked that of us, and again and again was able to join in with everyone.

The congregation was starting to celebrate Pride, and had invited Gilbert Baker to be the guest speaker. Gilbert created the rainbow flag, the symbol of the LGBTQ community, in 1978. A Methodist from Kansas, he let us know that this was the first time he'd attended Jewish services. (I said a silent Shehekhianu for him.) He then told us that he used to dream, like Dorothy, of somewhere over the rainbow, where it would be safe for him to be gay without being pathologized, and that in fact, the Wizard of Oz was the inspiration for the rainbow flag. Listening to him, I remembered a story that my friend E told me once. She is a lesbian who lives in Mississippi and was training to become a paramedic. Her study partner was a young man who had had little to no exposure to gay community. For weeks and months they studied together, and the young man didn't ask anything about her life. Until one night, when he sheepishly said,
E, can I, um, ask you something?" E said yes. After a significant pause he finally asked, "Is it true that y'all have your own flag?"

I have always loved this story of a young man trying to figure out who is the other, and how to connect to us. (If we have our own flag, does that make us a nation? Could he possibly move there?) After services I thought about how the rabbi urged us not to stay apart, and so I went up to Gilbert and I told him this story. He listened thoughtfully, and then broke into a giant smile when I came to the end. And that's how a queer New York congregation built community between a Kansas Methodist vexillographer with a couple of gentile Mississippi paramedics. Omeyn.

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