I am Oaklandish // 26 // Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi

Posted on October 7, 2011

People always ask me what religion I am. After a long pause for consideration, I generally say, “um, I’m from The Bay.” Then I tend to note that I practice yoga, observe the fast during the holy month of Ramadan, read and quote Old Testament verses as a result of sunday school and bible study classes, and am fairly well versed in West African and Kemetic spiritual tradition. In short, I’m a Bay Area kid. Exposure to many walks of life often means, you know, walking lots of paths. Because of that, I happen to know that today, at sundown, many folks in the Jewish world will begin to observe Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I thought it only appropriate to write this blog, on this day, to honor the folks that first showed me the beauty of Judaism.

When I was in high school, one of my best friends was Jewish. Well, she’s still one of my close friends, and she’s still Jewish. And so is her mom. Just like they both were back in the golden ages of the late ’90s. On many Fridays, days like today, Yeshi, and her mother Chaya Gusfield, opened their dinner table to me. We observed the start of Shabbat together, weekly. I prayed with Yeshi and her mother, we ate, communed, talked, laughed, debated. Mitzvahs all the way ’round. Dinner with my friend Yeshi and her mom, who was, at that time in Rabbinical school.  It wasn’t until I shifted coasts to New York that I realized that the idea of a female Rabbi wasn’t commonplace — was, indeed, radical.

Chaya was ordained by Jewish Renewal’s Aleph Rabbinic Program in 2006. She now serves as the assistant rabbi and bnei mitzvah coordinator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA. Originally from Chamapaign-Urbana, IL — Chaya moved west with her family at age 12, living first in San Diego, and making her way north in her 20s. After a stint in Bernal Heights, Chaya moved to the East Bay when she got preggers with my girl Yesh.

They live in a great place in North Oakland — there’s a hammock in the back yard; Chaya and her partner Judith keep a pretty dope garden. Chaya is known for hoarding her favorite chocolate and pastry snacks in hidden nooks throughout the house, and produces them when guests come and all can eat them together. Judith has an amazing laugh and the kind of humor that makes me wonder if I’m slow. Yeshi’s a classroom educator and a helluva dancer. The whole place is jammed packed with love. Top to bottom.

I’ve wondered for a while whether or not Chaya was “out” to her community. It seemed to me that perhaps hurdling age-old gender biases into her rabbinate was quite a feat in itself. I often think that might have been enough. Daienu? Still, this is an excerpt of a longer piece Chaya wrote on the subject for Zeek.

Even though I have been in a committed lesbian relationship for 16 years, a lesbian mother for 26 years, and am now an out lesbian rabbi, my full coming out story is still unfolding. I have realized, recently, that there is a way in which I continue to hide my true self because I am afraid of being too gay or too feminist. I worry that my refusal to think of myself or be thought of by others as the LESBIAN RABBI actually puts me back into a kind of closet.

I fear that if I embrace the identity of Lesbian Rabbi that people will make assumptions about my agenda that are not true. But truthfully, I do have a large vision of what I hope to accomplish as a rabbi in my lifetime. I am a rabbi because I believe that Judaism offers a healing place for all of us through spirituality, study of our wisdom traditions (Torah), community involvement, and Jewish practice. I care about teaching our children about our traditions and how to be a good member of the human family and a responsible caring member of this planet. I care that every child and every adult feel supported for who they are. I care that our communities value the involvement of those traditionally on the fringes. But most of all, I care about bringing the presence of God, as we each experience God, into our lives.

I wonder how my rabbinate would be different if I wasn’t spending so much energy being careful not to offend parents or others in my congregation by being too lesbian? I might be able to be a role model or a safe place for a young gay or questioning teen. I would engage in the conversation of gender equality in my synagogue with more comfort. I would integrate my family with the life of the community to the level that most rabbis do. More than three people in my community would know my partner’s name, work, or skills. I might put her photo on my desk next to my daughter’s. A parent might reach out to me concerned about a child or relative who is coming out. I might speak out against homophobia in the schools. I might work on outreach efforts so that all families know they are welcome.

Earlier in the piece, Chaya notes: “I don’t want to have a label attached, like “she’s the lesbian rabbi.” I want to be thought of as the “wise, thoughtful, genuine, funny, authentic rabbi.” Which, I imagine, is what all of her community must think of Chaya. How could they not? And that, my friends, is so Oaklandish. The boundary pushing, the questioning within oneself, the moving across the bridge and into a warmer, loving climate to raise your daughter in the way she goes. We are a city of people who believe deeply in our work. We are tireless in our efforts to know self and impact the world. And that’s why I’m proud to be from this city. We are bound only by San Leandro, water, bridge and Berkeley. Everything else about us is limitless.

I know Chaya is likely with her congregation or in her home at sundown tonight. She probably can’t make it out to Oaklandish for our party. But if she comes she can cop her so rightfully deserved “I am Oaklandish” tee. If she doesn’t come by, I’m going to sneak past her North Oakland spot tomorrow, and tuck it gently into the hammock with a note of love and thanks. I hope she rocks it all year long.

This blog is brought to you, in part, by local textile and cultural purveyors, Oaklandish. Oaklandish will be throwing a party on the 1st Friday in October at their new Downtown Oakland store. Everyone I profile is invited to attend as an honored guest and will receive a limited edition “I AM OAKLANDISH” t-shirt. In a city of roughly 500,000 residents, there’s no way I can cover everyone or everything, but I’ll do my best to rep a cross section of folks that reflect our city’s varied perspectives and populations. Also, it is important to note that none of the honorees know that they’re being highlighted until the blog post is up, because surprises are sometimes fun, cuzzo. This means that some folks profiled might not closely align themselves with Oaklandish — and that’s fine by me — I mean no ill intent, nor make any assumptions — just want to shout out some folks who make a real impact on the world, from this pearl of a city on the East Side of the Bay.

OH and big props to Yeshi for her stealthiness in helping me prep for this post.


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