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15 Years of Trembling Before G-D – Guest Post from Sandi Dubowski

Join Sandi for 15th Anniversary of Trembling Before G-d,
April 26th, IFC Center – Happy Passover Joy & Liberation!

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Many of you have seen me filming over the years at Lab/Shul. I am excited to invite you to a special upcoming movie event. Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 26,th, we will hold the 15th Anniversary screening of my film, Trembling Before G-d at IFC Center.

The timing with Passover, the holiday of liberation, and Amichai’s Rabbinic ordination at JTS, an institution that only welcomed openly gay and lesbian rabbis in 2006 (in part catalyzed by Trembling’s movement) feels apt. It is a powerful moment to reflect on the possibility of change.

Trembling Before G-d shatters assumptions about faith, sexuality, and religious fundamentalism. Built around intimately-told personal stories of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who are gay or lesbian, the film portrays a group of people who face a profound dilemma — how to reconcile their passionate love of Judaism and the Divine with the drastic Biblical prohibitions that forbid homosexuality. As the film unfolds, we meet a range of complex individuals — some hidden, some out — from the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to closeted, married Hasidic gays and lesbians to those abandoned by religious families to Orthodox lesbian high-school sweethearts. Many have been tragically rejected and their pain is raw, yet with irony, humor, and resilience, they love, care, struggle, and debate with a thousands-year old tradition.

All faiths in the 21st century are deeply struggling with gender and sexuality, but with Trembling Before G-d, for the first time, this issue became a live, public debate in Orthodox Jewish circles, and the film was and is both witness and catalyst to this historic moment. What emerged is a loving and fearless testament to faith and survival and the universal struggle to belong.

An Orthodox female friend of mine showed the film to her fiancée. He watched it and turned to her afterwards and said, “I can’t marry you. I’m gay.” Religious parents who had disowned their gay or lesbian children started speaking to them after seeing the film. Orthodox rabbis who had blasted gay people from the pulpit, were confronted with the staggering pain of so many and made 180 degree turns away from certainty and condemnation and said, “I don’t know what to do.”

There was pushback. In Baltimore, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians together protested the film when it opened for the theatrical release at The Charles Theater. Screenings were cancelled by the Jewish establishment in Mexico City, in South Africa. The ultra-Orthodox organization, Agudas Israel, criticized the film calling it “Dissembling Before G-d.”

But the key to this work was in-person dialogue. I conducted over 800 Trembling Before G-d screenings and face-to-face discussions around the world — often with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. We traveled across the U.S., Israel, UK, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Ukraine, Mexico, Holland, Australia, South Africa, Poland, Czech Republic, Uruguay, and Hungary. Over 200,000 people participated in these live programs and an estimated 9 million people have seen the film.

With Orthodox therapist Naomi Mark, Dr. Jack Drescher, and Shlomo Ashkinazy, we organized the first-ever Orthodox Mental Health Conference on Homosexuality. We flew in fifty Orthodox and Hasidic/ultra-Orthodox mental health professionals from sixteen North American cities to NYC. For many of the participants, this was the first time that they had an opportunity to discuss therapeutic issues directly with an Orthodox gay person. As many took a great risk to attend, the conference and those who attended was kept secret. They returned to their communities to create gay-affirmative therapy practices.

In Israel, Rabbi Greenberg, Tanya Zion, and I Iaunched the Israel Outreach Project. To prepare for the mainstream Israeli television broadcast of Trembling on Keshet/Channel Two, we trained 11 facilitators in Jerusalem who conducted private screenings and post-screening dialogues in pairs with over 2,000 principals, teachers, superintendents, rabbis, school counselors and youth workers throughout the nation and in the secular and Orthodox school system. The response dramatically exceeded their expectations and was truly a groundbreaking accomplishment in a system where silence has been the rule.

We organized hundreds of screenings in synagogues, Jewish communal organizations, film festivals, cinemas, and Hillels at universities. Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), the open Orthodox seminary for a new generation of Orthodox rabbis, set up as an alternative to the flagship Yeshiva University, included Trembling Before G-d in their pastoral training. After the Baltimore protests, Trembling was invited a year later to screen for Baltimore’s first Orthodox synagogue screening at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. More and more Orthodox synagogues now in the U.S., Canada, UK and beyond have invited Trembling Before G-d to screen in the synagogues and invited Orthodox gay people to tell their stories

Even the flagship Yeshiva University has been moved. A week after Trembling Before G-d opened at Film Forum, a group of Orthodox and ex-Orthodox gay and lesbian teenagers and 21+ year-olds founded a new organization that thrives today — JQY — Jewish Queer Youth. JQY organized a panel discussion at Yeshiva University Wurzweiler’s School of Social Work sharing their struggles as young gay and lesbian observant Jews. In 2009, the Wurzweiler School and Yeshiva University’s year-old Tolerance Club organized a standing-room-only public forum called “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World.” An estimated 600 to 800 people attended with more than 100 turned away for lack of space. The event featured gay YU students and alumni. Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at the school’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, served as moderator of the program. It was the first time a flagship Orthodox institution held a public forum on the issue.

In July 2010, another landmark event occurred. A “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” was published and now signed by hundreds of Orthodox rabbis and educators. It affirms that “all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited,” it included advances for Orthodox religious leadership including no humiliation, no dangerous reparative therapy trying to convert gay to straight, and no encouragement to marry someone of the other gender.

In 2015, a civil lawsuit on behalf of three members of JQY accusing JONAH (Jews Organizing New Alternatives to Healing) with consumer fraud for claiming to convert gay people to straight resulted in victory and $72,400 for each plaintiff.

It was not only the Orthodox community that was powerfully affected through this work. At the 2002 Conservative Rabbinic Conference at the movement’s 100th Anniversary, I began organizing efforts with a special screening of the film to target the movement’s top leaders. After years of Trembling Before G-d screenings and intense discussion and debate, the conservative movement made a bold and historic policy change in 2006: legalizing the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and the ability to perform same-sex unions – which allowed Amichai to enter as an openly gay rabbinical student. In 2012, the movement fully endorsed same-sex marriage in Jewish law.

Now with all these successes, Eshel which works with Orthodox parents of GLBT children, did a survey of 100 self-selected parents. 27% viewed their rabbi or community as a homophobic and over 73% said there were no public forums or classes on GLBT Jews in their community. Only 9% of those willing to seek help felt comfortable discussing the issue with their rabbi.

But Trembling Before G-d has gone way beyond what any of us ever dreamed or imagined and the work with the film to impact social change continues. Orthodox GLBT organizations are thriving — JQY, Eshel, GLYDSA, Ma’agal, Or Chayim and in Israel, Bat-Kol, Havruta, HOD, Jerusalem Open House. The fight and the impact continues…

Join Rabbi Steve Greenberg, David, Michelle, Naomi Mark and director Sandi DuBowski from Trembling Before G-d at IFC Center.

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