At Pride event, young adults discuss being LGBT and Jewish today

Shira Berkowitz, an organizer of Q Jews and director of advocacy and communications at Central Reform Congregation, waves a flag during the PrideFest Parade downtown on Sunday. Photo: Philip Deitch

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Danielle Zemmel looked comfortable sitting on a bench in the backyard of a University City home, sipping a craft beer with a rainbow label among fellow young LGBT Jews. 

The colors on the can and the Shabbat barbeque organized by Q Jews were in honor of PrideFest, the annual celebration in St. Louis that takes place on the last Sunday in June and features the city’s second-largest parade. Thirty-two area Jewish organizations, including many synagogues, participated in Sunday’s PrideFest; many of the 200 or so parade-goers that were part of the local Jewish contigent waved rainbow-colored flags emblazoned with a Jewish star and wore T-shirts depicting the phrase “But first, love,” which was this year’s Jewish community anthem.

Zemmel’s girlfriend sat a few feet away. Some of Zemmel’s family members don’t know her sexual orientation in part because she is concerned about how an observant uncle will react. She is considering writing relatives a letter but said they may also now find out from this article.

While Zemmel, 28, was raised as a Reform Jew, she is no longer active in the Jewish community. But she added that as someone who identifies as bisexual, she largely feels accepted among Jews in their 20s and 30s. 

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That acceptance is not the case across all parts of the Jewish community. While local Jewish LGBT advocates say they are encouraged by the progress made over the last decade, they contend more work remains.

“I think we have seen the Jewish community become a lot more inclusive because of conversations” on topics such as integrating transgender students into classrooms and summer camps and creating safe spaces for all students, said Shira Berkowitz, one of the organizers of Q Jews and director of advocacy and communications at Central Reform Congregation. “I think that a lot of synagogues are doing that well, I think a lot of spaces are doing that well but I definitely don’t think that we are there yet.”

Orthodox Jewish groups and synagogues are often the focus of the conversation when discussing acceptance — or lack thereof — of gay and transgender individuals; Orthodox rabbis do not officiate same-sex weddings and the movement does not recognize such marriages.

But still, Berkowitz and others say the rest of the Jewish community isn’t wholly inclusive either.

Started in 2011 by LGBT individuals and allies of the community, Berkowitz, who identifies as gay and gender queer, says Q Jews was formed “so a group of us can become great friends and show other Jewish organizations that this population exists and eventually not need an exclusive organization at all.”

The group has since held happy hours, Shabbat dinners and a drag show, among other events, many of which often attract dozens of people. More than 30 people attended the recent barbeque, which was held at Moishe House, a Jewish residence that holds activities for people under age 30. Despite that success, Berkowitz still sees a need for Q Jews. For example, she would like to make sure discussion of gender identities and sexual orientation is included as part of Jewish education. She’d also like synagogues to have bathrooms that are not gender specific. Currently, there is legislation proposed in Missouri and elsewhere concerning which bathrooms transgender people can use. 

As to the Orthodox community, Berkowitz says synagogues she has approached about events like PrideFest “have politely declined working with us, and I completely understand from a spiritual perspective. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.”

In 2013, Bais Abraham Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, held Shabbat services followed by a panel discussion aimed at building inclusion around LGBT Orthodox Jews. 

“From my perspective, I think the Orthodox community gets less involved in the politics of advocacy but we have to work very proactively in being welcoming because Jews are a family and I believe all Jews need to be welcomed,” said Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abe, which is located in University City and has LGBT members.

Shafner does not officiate same-sex weddings, but also said,  “if two people are of the same gender and have a Jewish family together I welcome them in the community. I don’t think it’s our obligation to check what is going on in their bedroom.”

Zemmel, who grew up in Creve Coeur, says she is reluctant in part to tell her uncle, whom she described as Conservative/ Orthodox, because he has a daughter who came out and “he doesn’t have a relationship with her because of that.”

“I’m fearful that if I were to come out to him as bisexual, our relationship will cease to exist,” said Zemmel, a chemistry technician. But she also doesn’t intend to continue hiding her romantic relationship.

My immediate family “is very accepting and supportive and that’s what matters most to me, but I still would like to have a positive relationship with my aunt and uncle and I think I would still have a relationship with them; it would just be changed. 

“I have gotten to the point where I want to be my authentic self and don’t want to keep hiding it. If that means that certain relationships with family members will be strained, then so be it.”