Pride Sermon/Parashat Nasso – Rabbi Eli Freedman

This Sunday, the first ever session of Camp Indigo Point will begin. Camp Indigo Point, according to their website, aims to offer traditional camp experiences — such as canoeing, archery, swimming, sports, arts & crafts, and outdoor excursions in rural Makanda, Illinois.

So what’s the big deal? It sounds like lots of camps that many of us went to as kids…

What makes Camp Indigo Point unique is that it is a camp specifically for LGBTQ+ youth to build intentional community with each other. Again, according to their website: 

Camp Indigo Point seeks to give LGBTQ+ youth the chance to experience a community of peers in a fun, exuberant, affirming environment. We hope that by creating a space where LGBTQ+ youth can share their hopes, fears, and stories, we can empower young folks to carry the feeling of queer community wherever they go.

Clearly this camp was filling a need as within a few weeks, the camp was full and already had a 50 person strong waiting list. Camp Indigo Point is not a Jewish overnight camp. So why am I talking about it tonight? Well, first – it’s Pride Month! And second, the camp was started by a Reform rabbi and a Jewish summer camp song leader. 

Shira Berkowitz was building a career in Jewish camping when a camp told them not to return. Berkowitz told The Forward in a recent interview, [quote] “It got around that I was that was queer, and that that wasn’t appropriate for me to be a program director for girls. And that was really harmful to my identity. I went back in the closet for a few years.”

Berkowitz’s career and personal identity recovered, and they went on to work at Camp Sabra, Missouri’s biggest Jewish overnight camp, which they described as far more accepting. Berkowitz continued, [quote] “But I was also very aware that there was almost no queer staff, except for myself and one or two other people,”

Berkowitz and longtime camp friend Daniel Bogard, a St. Louis rabbi who is raising a transgender child, dreamed up the camp late last year, as the Missouri legislature was gearing up for a session in which three anti-trans bills were introduced within the first month.

It’s no surprise that alumni of Jewish camps are leaders in the effort to create inclusive camps. Jewish camp has long been recognized for the leadership skills — problem solving, communication, creativity, independence, critical thinking — which are developed and refined as a camper or as a counselor. And most importantly, recognizing, honoring, protecting and providing for the queer community is a Jewish value. And we see it in this week’s portion, Nasso, from the Book of Numbers. 

This week, we read about the famous Birkat HaCohenim/The Priestly Blessing. 

Adonai spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May God bless you and keep you! May God’s light shine upon you and may God be gracious to you. May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and may you find peace. Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

This powerful blessing is now used at various services and life-cycle moments in Judaism. I offered this blessing just moments ago to little Asher and tomorrow Cantor Hyman and I will bless Drew and Rachel with these same words. In a moment, I want to delve into this blessing and how it speaks to our need to celebrate and protect our LGBTQ community but first, let’s start at the end. The most profound element of the blessing lies in the concluding sentence: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

In the ancient world, magi, oracles and soothsayers were held to have the power of blessing. They were able to invoke supernatural forces. Next month we will read the story of Bilaam and Balak about an evil king who hires a sorcery to curse the people of Israel. There was a real belief in ancient times that certain people had the power to bless and curse. 

But it is clear from our text that it is not the priests who bless the people, but God. In themselves, they have no power. They are intermediaries, channels through which God’s blessing flows. Similarly, we as clergy are not special – we have no magical powers. It is not just clergy or cohanim (the descendants of the ancient priests) who can offer this blessing. Traditionally parents also offer this blessing to their children every shabbat. We are all agents of God’s blessing – we all have the ability to bring God’s blessings into this world. 

Our threefold benediction is simple yet powerful. It begins, [Heb] “May God bless you and keep you.”

The word for keep, shamor, can also mean to guard; it is about protection. We, this very community, acting as the metaphorical hands of God, have the power to shamor, to protect and guard our LGBTQ community against those that seek to curtail their rights. We have the power to bring security, safetly, the ability to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. To be free to live full lives without fear. We can protect the most basic fundamental rights that are enshrined in our sacred Torah and in our constitution. But words are never simply enough – blessings inspire us to act. To truly bless and guard our LGBTQ community we need to show up. 

Consider joining me next week on June 14th for a program co-sponsored by Keshet (an LBGTQ Jewish advocacy organization), WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism), and the RAC (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) called, “Active Allyship: Reform Jews Showing Up for Fundamental Rights”

At this online program, we will learn how current trends in anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion legislation and threats to bodily autonomy are interconnected and how we, as Jews, can be active allies and fight against these bills. Plus, hear from a Jewish transgender teen, an educator, and a medical provider about how the current political landscape is affecting their lives. Advocating for LGBTQ+ rights is a mitzvah — join us to act upon and live in our Jewish values fully this Pride Month.

The second line of the blessing is, [Heb] “May God’s light shine upon you and may God be gracious to you.”

Ya’er – to light up, to shine a light on. This is about being seen. Representation matters. This is about using the correct pronouns for people, about ensuring that our bathrooms and other signage is inclusive and representative. This is about avoiding heteronormative langauge that assumes all people are straight and cis-gendered (meaning their gender identity is that same as their assigned gender at birth). We see this part of the blessing being lived out in RS pRiSm programs like “Our Queer Jewish Journeys” where we lift up and shed a light on the variety of queer experiences within our diverse Rodeph Shalom community. 

Shining a light on our community is directly connected to the second half of this line – may God be gracious to you. We understand – chen, grace to mean God’s unconditional love, a spontaneous gift from God to people, generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.  What would it mean in our world for us to be instruments of God’s grace? To love all people unconditionally, without regard to their sexuality or gender – or even more with regard – not in spite of, but because of their uniqueness, because we celebrate the divine and the diversity in all people – created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. 

And lastly, the final line of the blessing, “May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and may you find peace.”

Peace, shalom. Not as in an absence of war, but rather wholeness. The Hebrew word Shalom comes from the root shin, lamed, mem, meaning completeness, fullness, wholeness. Ultimately, this is one of the greatest gifts any of us can hope for in this life; to feel whole and complete. To be seen for the whole of our being and to be included. 

As I think about wholeness this year in Philadelphia, I am heartened to know that our own Pride Celebrations this year are much more whole. After reports of racism and transphobia, Philadelphia Pride organizers disbanded and started anew with a much more inclusive vision of what pride month in Philadelphia could look like. The new and improved Pride is much more inclusive of the trans community and black and brown members of the LGBTQ community. 

But we still have a long way to go. Our aspirational Birkat kohanim/Priestly Blessing implores us to be God’s angels, to be messengers of the divine. 

Pride is about celebrating – I love the rainbow flags, the parties, the parades.  But as so many of you know, the first pride was a riot. A riot led by mostly trans people of color. Pride month is about activism and protecting the most vulnerable among us. 

Speaking about the need for Camp Indigo Point, not just in times of crises, Shira Berkowitz said:

We believe that LGBTQ+ youth deserve a place and environment made specifically for them in community and safety with lgbtq+ adults to thrive as kids: have fun, build lasting friendships, take risks, and build joy. 

Camp Indigo Point, the new reimagined PHL Pride Collective, and our own pRiSm group at RS, are amazing examples of living out the priestly blessing in meaningful ways. These are organizations that are truly working to bring God’s blessings to our community. May we all continue to partner with God to shamor/to protect, to ya’er/to enlighten, v’asem l’cha shalom, and to bring shalom/wholeness to our LGBTQ community and to the world. 

Ken Yhi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will

Shabbat Shalom!