Building Community through Queerness

While our nation celebrates the historic Supreme Court ruling embracing marriage equality nationwide for same sex couples, it is worth pausing to remember that love and community are built in many different ways and often not in marriage. This past weekend, along with about 80 others, I learned that community can be built through queerness.

My niece, Gabriella Spitzer, has had a profoundly loving relationship with the man she lives with, Sandy Johnston, for 5 years. My wife and I first met them when they were undergraduates in New York City, and quickly noted how much they loved each other. After their graduation, they moved in together where they now live in Albany. They both come from very observant Jewish families, but the concept of a traditional marriage simply did not fit their very unique personalities. As they wrote in their Siyyumfesto:

We…chose a format that doesn’t ask us to fit our…expansive selves into narrow boxes…For Sandy, that means honoring his introversion, and making a retreat that celebrates our learning with a ritual that reflects our teaching….For Gabriella, that means honoring their queer and genderqueer identities and not asking them to contort into genders or sexualities that simply do not fit well.

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Instead of a wedding, they asked their families and friends to join them at a lovely camp in the Berkshire Mountains in upstate New York for a weekend long Siyyum, this past weekend, and my wife and I are were pleased to be able to join them. A siyyum typically marks the completion of a course of study or the writing of a Torah. In Gabriella and Sandy’s case, they chose to study Jewish texts together and present what they learned to their family and friends in lieu of a marriage ceremony.

But, before the siyyum’s conclusion, they created an environment which built community between and among their families and friends. They did so in many ways, from hosting communal meals together, convening Shabbat services, and organizing 16 workshops during 4 sessions, for their friends and families to learn from each other. I was honored when Gabriella asked me to teach a workshop on disability law. It was with great pleasure that I attended her sister Leora’s workshop on Theater of the Oppressed where she taught us about how she engaged in this process with students at the Ferguson High School. Sandy’s Aunt Karen led a wonderful meditation workshop which I enjoyed. Gabriella’s grandmother (my mother-in-law) Gloria Spitzer led an enlightening workshop on Volunteerism, tzedakah and philanthropy.

There was so much beauty and joy during this entire weekend. By having us share meals and learn  together in a pastoral environment, we all got to know each other better, and truly built a community through queerness. As you can see, happiness enveloped both of their families.

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So, thank you Gabriella and Sandy for providing us an opportunity to learn from you and with you. You opened our hearts and minds, and built community for all of us. May you be blessed with many years of love and learning together, continuing to build communities wherever you go.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

My Wife is My Best Friend

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine, Ruth Brooks, passed away, after a long struggle with multiple ailments.  As soon as I found out she had died, I called her husband, one of my dearest friends and mentors, Michael Brooks, to extend my condolences, see how he was doing, and reminisce about Ruth.

I have known Michael & Ruth for over 40 years.  When I first met Michael, I was in high school and he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan.  We met because he was my Hebrew high school principal and taught a number of my classes.  We quickly bonded and have remained close friends ever since.  In fact, he officiated at our wedding over 32 years ago.

Although Michael mentored me in many ways, perhaps the important way is the way that he and Ruth opened my heart to the possibility of a loving & respectful marriage. Unfortunately, I grew up with parents who did not love or respect each other and between watching their dysfunctional relationship and observing our media’s portrayal of so many dysfunctional marriages, before I met Michael and Ruth, I was convinced that marriage was something to be endured for the purposes of procreation and social acceptance, but not to be enjoyed.

That changed when I moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan and regularly visited Michael and Ruth’s home, often for a Sabbath lunch.  I marveled at their love for each other and the way they respected each other.  At one point, I told Michael how his marriage impressed me tremendously.  He responded by saying that, “my wife is my best friend.”

This truly stunned me as this type of marriage was completely foreign to my existence, and I told him so, to which he responded, “I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”  This heartfelt declaration which Michael and Ruth lived with such great mutual fulfillment for so many decades truly opened my heart and mind to the possibility that I, too, could find a woman who could be my wife and my best friend.

A few years later, I fell in love with Sheryl who has now been my wife and best friend for over 32 years.  Here we are celebrating our anniversary a couple of months ago.

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When Michael & I spoke about Ruth and I reminded him of this story, he told me that the last words she said to him was to thank him for making her life more exciting than she ever could have imagined it would be.  In turn, he thanked her for keeping him more grounded than he would have been without her.

This type of mutual assistance is critical to a strong, loving, respectful relationship that allows a marriage to endure the trials and tribulations of life.  In the case of Sheryl & I, we provide many things to each other, but to boil it down, I believe that Sheryl has softened my approach to life and I have helped her gain self-confidence to speak up for herself when necessary.  We both hope to live and stay happily married to each other at least as long as her dearly departed grandparents, Eugene & Lillian Fishgoll, who died 2 weeks apart at the ages of 98 & 92, after 74 years of marriage.

A happy, healthy marriage is good for the couple and any children they may have.  In this era of high divorce rates, reminiscing with Michael about his marriage to Ruth and reflecting on my own fulfilling marriage with my dear wife Sheryl, helps me get over my grief of the loss of my dear friend.  I am forever grateful to Michael & Ruth’s example.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.