First published on our previous site on Jan 3rd, 2019.
Inspired by an experience at Limmud Festival 2018, one of our members writes about their revelations of how and where safe spaces are made
Last week I attended Limmud Festival, a week-long Jewish learning conference which attracts over 2000 participants. The programme boasts several options of sessions at any one time, run by the Festival-goers. One that I went to was hosted by a man who purposefully chose a controversial topic (drug law reformation) and pushed knowingly antagonistic arguments in what I considered quite an aggressive manner, interrupting people and bulldozing questions. As the session went on, I had a strange epiphany about “safe spaces”.
At first glance, the audience seemed to me to be quite homogenous – middle-aged, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered men. As more people made comments and asked questions, it became clearer to me that the people who had come to this session were the kind who often scoff at safe spaces, who ask on International Women’s Day why there isn’t an equivalent for men, and who have never had to seek allyship in commonplace environments. With time, more opinions were forced at us, more questions were fired back, and the host continuously stabbed at the audience’s integrity with his polarising views. For example, he accused a barrister of being a criminal because he profited from putting dangerous and violent drug dealers in prison, saying he was “corrupt” and “the problem” with the drugs industry.
I was getting more and more frustrated until an Orthodox Rabbi stood up and tackled the speaker using wit and inverted questioning to disarm his arguments. As the Rabbi pushed back, others in the crowd joined him to form a resistance group which clapped back against the presenter. It was an odd but awesome moment, to see how one antagonistic bully could cause people who had never had to justify a minority position, become defendants of their beliefs in a hostile space, something with which I am all too familiar. Apparently so self-assured at the beginning, in adversity they banded together to form a small resistance group, which got me thinking about safe spaces.
After the session, the Orthodox Rabbi remained in the room, chatting to the barrister. Hovering nearby, they invited me into their conversation, following up on a question I had asked the presenter. Soon after we invited a couple of bottles of whisky into the conversation as well, and conversation moved on to general Limmud experiences. I mentioned, in a moment of tipsy empowerment, that I was going to the Laviot queer session that evening. What followed was a conversation that I could not have expected to have with an Orthodox Rabbi in my wildest dreams.
I explained what Laviot does for LGBT+ Jewish women and non-binary people, and he was surprised to hear that Friday night dinners and services were our best attended events, and that so many of us are just people in the LGBT+ community and Jewish community who want those traditional experiences but struggle to find it in mainstream London Jewish culture. His reaction was bittersweet, in that he was happy people wanted to connect and there was a space to do it, but he also was saddened by the fact that we had to move into a new space to do it. For me this was a novel and exciting event: having a conversation with a person who followed halacha strictly but also had a deep desire to include everyone in Jewish life and openly discussed topics like same-sex marriage.
Having been to many of the LGBT+ panels and sessions and engaging with KeshetUK and queer circles, I came away from Limmud feeling really positive that the Jewish community was moving speedily towards a more liberal outlook of people who identify under the queer umbrella. I found allyship across age groups and religious identities, and I felt like I was riding a wave of empowerment. On multiple occasions people came up to me to congratulate Laviot for carving this space and pointing the wider community in the right direction. After the week I realised a queer-friendly bubble had formed around me and I carried those high feelings home with me, to a Reform-affiliated family, a community where progressiveness and tolerance are central to the ideology. Yet it was at home where my bubble popped, hearing my parents talking about the recently released film Disobedience, whose blurb contained nothing about lesbian attraction and so my parents were expecting something more of a “return to the derech” story. When they came home, they said that they felt they had been conned into watching something “disgusting” and “grotesque”. Though these comments weren’t directed at me specifically, because I haven’t come out to them, but I thought they were moving towards a more tolerant position as their TV shows wrote in more queer characters, so it was an unpleasant shock to hear their true, unfiltered reactions. And if that’s their response to a fictional story, how does that translate to their reaction to their own child?
Home should be a safe space and where you’re met with unconditional love, and yet I’m hiding a part of myself from my family. Limmud is a gathering of over 2000 Jews with over 5000 opinions where I’m relatively anonymous, but it created for me a space that made me proud to be myself with confidence. Where after being misgendered in a bathroom, I was listened to and supported by people who I know are trying to resolve such issues.
Spaces that protect and empower are created solely by people. It takes one person to turn a discussion into a hostile attack, and it can take one person to shut that down and return a room to an accepting environment. It can be hard to tell which of those people is going to be an Orthodox Rabbi and which is going to be a progressive-leaning, modern working woman. Appearances aren’t enough to go on. We have to be outspoken. This year, make it your goal to create safe and brave spaces wherever you are, and to stand up against hostility.