“I heard about the horrific shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, while our synagogue in Washington was celebrating Shavuot,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld writes in a new think piece published by The Jewish Chronicle Online. “Even though the holiday is a happy time, I cried as I recited our prayers.”
Rabbi Herzfeld leads Ohev Sholom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. After the shooting, he says about a dozen or so members of the congregation approached him and said they wanted to show solidarity with the victims and their families.
So they did something that, for them, was pretty crazy. They planned a visit the Fireplace, a popular gay bar near Dupont Circle.
“We did not go to recruit members that night or to express any new theological ideas,” Herzfeld writes. “Our goal was simply to try to connect, build bridges, heal a little and be with a community in pain.”
“I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years,” he continues. “And I had never been to a gay bar. But we all realized that we had to act. Our country was in tremendous pain–is still in tremendous pain. We wanted to try to connect and offer support.”
Herzfeld says he understands that “the intersection between the gay community and Orthodox Judaism is obviously a work in progress” and that there’s still a lot of gray area between the two, but if ever there was an opportunity to find common ground, this was it.
The experience proved more eye-opening than he even anticipated.
“We walked inside and just by standing there with our kippot I felt that we were embracing a community that was looking for an embrace,” he recalls.
“That night I felt both the pain and the reassurance in the room,” he adds. “I felt pain when I stood in that bar–pain that I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend without being there.”
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
In a word: Empathy.
“As an Orthodox community, we need to communicate a message of unconditional love and unconditional safety and protection to all of our children from as young an age as possible,” Herzfeld writes. “We need to communicate a message that actively challenges homophobia and transphobia–and to actively assert that such harmful messages will not be tolerated.”
“For some children,” he concludes, “this can be a matter of life and death.”