By Shelly F. Cohen, October 2013
The first time I stood on the bima was when I became bat mitzvah in a Conservative shul. At that time, 40-some years ago, it seemed likely that would be the last time I'd be on the bima as well - there were no women clergy (that I knew of) and few lay leaders outside the Sisterhood. And surely I would never be permitted to wear a tallit.
When I came out as a lesbian a few years later, I could only feel that Judaism had no place for me. I wandered in my own personal desert for a long time before venturing back into a synagogue, this time Reform. In the Reform synagogues of my youth, no one wore a kippa or a tallit. (In our Conservative neck of the woods, we considered that a shonde.) Imagine my surprise to find that as the pendulum of Reform observance swung back toward tradition, it picked up women as well as men. Women were wearing tallitot, women were leyning (reading) Torah, women were leading services! I not only had a place, I had a home.
Putting on a tallit for the first time was a powerful experience, a tangible expression of belonging. And yet, there was still something missing. Finally I realized what I needed was a tallit that spoke to both halves of my identity - Jewish and lesbian. I recently had a tallit made for me with the rainbow stripes of the Pride Flag, and pink and yellow triangles forming a magen david at each corner. Now when I stand on the bima several times a year to leyn Torah, I am also sending a message to LGBT Jews that they will always have a home in our congregation.
Shelly F. Cohen is a member of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, and part of the Welcoming Synagogue Committee, which works to foster the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people at TBA and in the larger community.