Choosing to be Chosen (2019)

♫ ♪ ♫ [Music] ♫ ♪ ♫ [Music ] According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder …prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” I love Judaism’s use of prayer blessings and ritual for even the most mundane things The washing of ones hands, for waking up in the morning It reminds us that all of these things are important. Everyone is B’Tzellem Elohim, or in the image of God. And everything and everyone is important to that mystery that animates all beings. Sha’ar Zahav was started in the 70s by three gay men who wanted a place to pray. Sha’ar Zahav is located in the Mission District and it has a school and it has a great… really one of the most diverse communities I’ve ever been involved in and really welcoming and at the same time really focused on core Jewish values of repairing the world and teaching and learning and I’ve really discovered that Judaism has a very rich tradition about conversion. In fact one of the heroines in the bible, Ruth is a convert and she’s, you know, the great-grandmother of King David. I think it is complicated because I would like, I mean I would like for those things to be totally intertwined like I would like to have a religious community that is open to and understanding of my sexuality and my relationships, things like that but it also has to be one that speaks to me deeply on a spiritual level so those things don’t always interconnect. So it’s interesting too, in the ways in which the search for that and the need for that spiritual connection can lead me to probably expanded my group of people that I interact with more outside of the queer community than I ever probably would have if I was not needing that or seeking that. Maggid Ramer: Walking this journey to chosenness is really powerful. I’ve chosen many things in my life I almost converted to Greek Orthodoxy in my 20s, to Islam in my 30s I didn’t feel like I had to convert to Buddhism for my 40s and much of my 50s but that was my journey. At some point I came back, but I work with people who started out in other places and chose to be Jewish. And that to me is really moving. And many of the people that I have met and worked with are actually transitioning and converting at the same time. There’s this notion for some people that you’re absolutely recreating yourself. My conversion was a lot like transition with it’s gatekeepers, social, medical or legal aspects. It was a big trip how similar they were. And the beit din was inside an office in the mikvah, or ritual bath. Where I eventually immersed in living water, said some blessings and came out Jewish. When I was in the water, that part, My friend Jonathan was the observer, as the shomer, or witness. And he is another Jew by Choice. A Black Jewish , a trans Jew by Choice. So, you know I headed in there watching this, like whoa. Jonathan’s here watching me and he yelled “Kosher!” You know… Martin [ laughing] : I can imagine that in my head. And I was just… like I was just… And I didn’t want to get out. I was just under there for a lot longer than I had to be. And they were singing outside the mikvah. And it was just the blast of all blasts. To be there with all of them. And the mikvah and t he hatifat dam brit were very physical experiences I wanted to not just convert mentally, and spiritually and emotionally but like physically convert to Judaism The mikvah was actually a very spiritual experience and it took a while to sink in Also because the day I did the mikvah was also the day of the beit din and I was, my nerves were kind of wracked and I was nervous about the process. It was like weeks after that I realized that was a realy spiritual experience. I remember when I was under the water I opened my eyes. The water is supposed to envelope you altogether and I thought that opening my eyes in he water would make me see things in a Jewish way in my mind it’s how I felt about it. It was very spiritual and I am glad I did it. The hatifat dam b rit was also It is a very stressful experience. but I’m also glad I did it it gave me a sense of authenticity about the process, like physical physically feeling conversion so I’ m glad I did that too. I started crying a little bit about it. And it felt great, you know. Martin: And your two boys went in with you? Will: Yes! Yeah, and that’s actually made it more, you know, meaningful. I’m, not saying that it would’t be meaningful by myself, but I had the two boys doing it at the same time. And afterwards, it was so funny too. because Shai goes, “Oh, you’re a Jew now.” [laughing] It wasn’t like I wasn’t Papi or anything, But you know, he was like “You’re a Jew now. You’re really part of us.” And that also made it really great. I mean durning my conversion process I actually went around to different synagogues and, you know just experienced what it was like to be in another different synagogue but is really matters in a big way to identify with the community I mean the ritual is one thing but having people and faces behind it is another thing. Leo: Once I found out like there’s some trans thing going on here growing up in a Jewish neighborhood I didn’t go to shul. Plus, I could learn how to translate the bible for myself and read it for myself and finally figure out what the bible beaters are trying to say. ♫ ♪ ♫ [Music] ♪ There are verses that concern me♪ ♪ as a pious Jewish queer.♪ ♪ So I looked into the Talmud♪ ♪ which would surely make it clear.♪ [ laughter] It was Hanukkah just a few days after I got back from my trip to visit my mother. And I came into Sha’ar Zahav I had called Andrew and said “Well can I come with you to services?” and he said “Oh, yes. Bring a Menorah. It’ll be great and there’s lots of kids and candles.” So, I came and as I was filling out my name tag. Andrew rushed down the stairs and said “No, no, no, I want to write your name tag.” And so, he wrote Jim Van Bernstein. And I still have the little paper label that he made for me. And so I just was so happy. And when I came to services I thought well maybe now that I’m a Jew I’ll feel a little less of an interloper and I will be less uncomfortable with not knowing the songs or the blessings, or the rituals and that was only true a tiny little bit. And I felt like okay well there’s a reason I’m here I’m not completely crazy. And sometimes it’s marvelous this is my group. When I walk into this building I feel like oh I’m at home. All kinds of people drive me crazy and I drive them even more crazy but this is my family. And so for queer people who so often, and hopefully less and less in time, but so often disconnected from our families of origin because we’re rejected because we’re excommunicated because we have to leave because we’re closeted because we must move to the other side of the continent to fulfill who we know we are but we can never tell our family. Something happens when you step into a faith community and you’re welcomed and you make a choice that is marvelous and is transformative and is healing. I had sort of, you know, an epiphany during that service. Imagining similar services all over the world throughout time. And this one being, seeing families of whatever creation, people of every gender, people of every race, young, old, I don’t know how many generations and everybody was singing and laughing, and dancing and lighting candles. And I just thought wow this is the future. ♫ ♪ ♫ [Music] ♫ ♪ ♫ [Music]


  1. Thank you Martin for making this. I hope Sha'ar Zahav appreciates this promotional video! 😉 As a queer Jewish convert I relate to this no end!

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