At CJE SeniorLife's annual meeting, the Chairman of the Board ended his remarks by thanking his life partner for his love and support throughout the year. The audience smiled, and the meeting came to a close.
It was as if no one had noticed the earthquake that had taken place right before their eyes.
The CJE Annual Meeting took place on an auspicious date: Oct. 11. That week marked the 14-year-anniversary of one of the most horrific anti-gay hate crimes on record: the murder of Mathew Shepherd, a gay Wyoming college student who was abducted by two men, beaten unconscious, tied to a fence and left for dead.
Fourteen years ago, I daresay even the most optimistic among us would never have imagined that one of the largest Jewish communal agencies in Chicago would have an openly gay man at its helm. Or that marching in the annual Gay Pride Parade would be de rigeur for every major politician in the state. Or that half the American public would support the right to marriage for gay citizens. Or that the President of the United States' favorite television show would feature a gay couple named Mitch and Cameron.
During the 1980s, I worked for the Illinois Department of Public Health, where I helped to establish the AIDS Unit (back in the days before the term HIV). In those dark days, the nascent progress of the gay rights movement was inextricably intertwined with the fight against AIDS. In the early years of the epidemic, parents often learned that their sons were gay, and that they were dying, at the same time. Many considered both realities to be equally upsetting.
What I saw during those years shaped my world view. I bore witness as teenagers who came out were brutalized, shunned by their families, and even kicked out of their homes. There were no gay/straight alliances in high schools and precious few on college campuses. PFLAG Chicago was only six years old. In the City of Chicago, it was still legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian.
It was during this bleak time that I fell in love with the organized Jewish community.
I was smitten when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the precursor to the Union for Reform Judaism) printed a brochure titled AIDS: A Glossary of Jewish Values, which gently and firmly outlined how the mitzvot applied to the AIDS epidemic. There was nothing like it published by any other faith-based group.
At a time where the majority of the Illinois public believed that anyone at risk for AIDs should be permanently quarantined, this brochure taught the mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh (the tenet that saving a life overrides virtually every other commandment), extolled Bikkur Cholim (the obligation to visit the sick) and encouraged Gemilut Chasadim (the duty to perform acts of lovingkindness).
At a time when many pastors taught that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality, local rabbis invited me into their synagogues to teach their congregations about how to practice safer sex.
At a time when too many parents turned away from their children, Jewish parents organized chapters of PFLAG.
And at a time when most faith-based communities stood idly by while their neighbors bled, I had the privilege of participating in the Jewish Community Coalition on AIDS, an interdenominational, interagency initiative to address the needs born of the AIDS epidemic.
The inaugural meeting of the Jewish Community Coalition on AIDS was my first experience with the organized Jewish community. We met at the old Federation building (where, it should go without saying, we were served tuna fish for lunch). I don't remember everything that was said or done, but I do remember how my Judaism caught fire that day.
Until then, I had thought of myself more as a Jew than as a member of the Jewish community. Jewish was the main lens through which I viewed the world, but not the main world in which I lived. However, that day at One South Franklin I realized that these were the people I wanted in my foxhole; who were already in my foxhole.
I did not know, then, that in the years to come both the City of the Chicago and the State of Illinois would pass Human Rights ordinances that protect LGBTQ citizens, or that someday gays and lesbians would be able to serve openly in the U.S. military. I never imagined that one day my parents would regularly pair up with a gay couple to attend the opera, or that my daughter would live in the Queer & Ally House on her college campus without giving it a thought. I never envisioned how the Jewish Federation would launch a Jewish Lesbian & Gay Endowment Fund, or that an openly gay man would rise to the top of one of the most important Jewish institutions in the city. And I never dreamed that my passion for Tikkun Olam eventually would lead me to become a Jewish communal professional.
For all these things, I say: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melach HaOlam, Shehechiyanu, V'Kiymanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh. Amen.