Rodeph Shalom Offers Haggadah Guidance for LGBTQ Community

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Attorney and LGBTQ rights activist Ellen Poster with her husband, Stanley Poster (Erica Silverman)

This is the time we tell the story and we put ourselves into the story, Senior Rabbi Jill Maderer told members at a recent Passover workshop at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

“The story of Passover is a story of freedom that lifts up gender justice,” she said, encouraging seder participants to reflect on the larger themes of emancipation and redemption, and to explore their own feelings of persecution.

The workshop educated members about the meaning and preparation of seder symbols and foods, creating kid-friendly seders and, perhaps most importantly, how to select a Haggadah, the written guide to the Passover seder.

The workshop featured a session called “Tell It Your Way: Choosing a Haggadah That’s Right for You,” led by attorney and LGBTQ civil rights activist Ellen Poster, a 71-year-old Rodeph Shalom member.

“The seder should come alive in us and the Haggadah is designed to be meaningful and bring joy,” Poster said, estimating that there are about 7,000 versions of the Haggadah in use.

The session featured “Ma Nishtana, A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah” in which the modern struggle of the LGBTQ community for recognition, freedom and acceptance is paralleled to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt.

“Ma Nishtana” includes sections of the traditional Haggadah, alongside LGBTQ-sensitive interpretations of those sections, such as the story of the four children. “Ma Nishtana”’s alternative version adds, “The following are questions a person at the beginning of the coming out process hears as they encounter a wise person, an evil person, a simple person and one that does not know how to ask a question.” The wicked child asks, “Have you tried dating someone of the opposite sex?” while the simple child asks, “What does it mean to be gay? Or transgender?”

The wicked child in the traditional text separates himself from the Jewish people and denies God, and the wicked child in the alternative text denies the identity of the gay or transgender person, Poster explained, while the simple child’s questioning remains pure in both texts.

“The story of the Jewish people and the story of the LGBTQ community have a lot of parallels, such as surviving persecution and violence,” said Rodeph Shalom member Ash Von Neida, 42, who attended the workshop wearing a rainbow kippah. “I have seen a sharp decline in safety and acceptance in our society,” she said. She and many LGBTQ members are looking for gender-neutral language in a Haggadah.

The Passover meal is only complete when the afikomen is found, and the “Ma Nishtana” text uses this as a metaphor for someone in the LGBTQ community revealing their full identity, said Poster, who has a transgender granddaughter.

Poster also suggests Haggadot.com, a comprehensive and user-friendly resource while the LGBTQ Jewish organization Keshet hosts a robust collection of gender sensitive and LGBTQ-friendly Haggadahs on its website.

Heshie Zinman is a board member at Rodeph Shalom and serves on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs. He estimated 15-20 percent of the Rodeph Shalom community identifies with the LGBTQ community. Gender-neutral bathrooms and a rainbow mezuzah will soon be added to the synagogue, he said.

“The Hebrew word for Egypt literally means ‘at a narrow place,’ and our society is still in a narrow place because the gay community is being denied basic civil rights and freedoms,” Maderer said.

Members of the LGBTQ community experience much higher rates of workplace discrimination, poverty, and violence, particularly sexual violence often starting in childhood, than the general population, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, which included nearly 28,000 respondents nationally.  Forty-seven percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, according to the survey.

In Pennsylvania, 21 percent of respondents experienced housing discrimination in the past year, such as being evicted or denied a home or apartment because of being transgender, while 29 percent have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Thirty-one percent were living in poverty.

The Haggadah workshop is just one of the ways the congregation is being responsive to LGBTQ concerns.

Poster, Zinman and the Rodeph Shalom community are advocating for the passage of the PA Fairness Act, a proposed law to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The update to Pennsylvania’s nondiscrimination laws would ensure that no one can be fired from their job, turned away from a business or evicted from their home just for being gay or transgender. Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to the sign the act, which may reach the state legislature for a vote this year.

On May 29, Rodeph Shalom will host a briefing with state Reps. Brian Sims and Malcolm Kenyatta on current equality legislation. It starts at 6:30 p.m.

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