On JNF's Disingenuous and Patronizing Response

Dear Beth and Alan, 

 “I've learned that people will forget what you saidpeople will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

I remember going to Hebrew school and learning the importance of Israel as a spiritual home and safe haven for Jews around the world.  I remember learning about the diversity of Israel and that there are Jews that look very different than the Ashkenazi image that I was surrounded by.  I remember my Hebrew schoolteacher who was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp telling us the horrors of her childhood and how lucky we are to be born in the United States due to our freedom from fear and oppression.  I remember her telling us that Israel holds this same hope for all Jews around the world. 

I remember being an unsure awkward teenager coming to terms with being “different” not just due to being a religious minority in the deep south but, also impacted by the slow realization that my sexual identity was different from the “norm”.  I can remember my apprehension in the coming out process that I would lose the love and affection of everyone I knew once they found out.  

I remember 25 years ago sneaking off on a Sunday to drive 100 miles to Atlanta to attend gay pride with 6 of my friends. I did not tell my parents or any family member due to the fear.  I can remember the 7 of us walking down the street hand in hand girl/boy/girl/boy/girl/boy/girl thinking that if for some reason we were on television the obvious might not be so obvious. 

I remember that we were walking past as 1st Baptist Church of Atlanta was ending services.  I remember parents hiding their children’s eyes and looking at us with disgust.   I remember Dr. Charles Stanley standing there holding a bible and calling me “abomination! Sinner!” I can remember thinking, “I’m just a 17 year old kid, why does he hate me so much?”  And, I am aware that in the 25 years since, I have never had anyone look at me with such hatred and disgust.  It is a feeling I will never forget. 

I remember walking further down the parade line, still in girl/boy formation all of us trying to fit in, to understand, to feel good about ourselves and to connect. And, I remember looking to the side of the road and seeing a little old lady holding a sign up that said “Jewish grandmother’s support you.”  And, I can never forget the feeling that I had.  It’s not possible to describe how that one person with one sign made it all ok for a minute. I can remember feeling relieved and elated. I can remember walking a little bit taller and not caring so much about the TV cameras. I can remember feeling that I was lucky that of all the people in my little seven person group, I had a special community bond that was different from everyone else. 

I remember the d’var Torah that Rabbi Goodman from my childhood synagogue, gave regarding the power of the tongue. And how words can cause impact that last a lifetime.  That healing the heart is a much longer road than healing the body. 

When I learned that JNF was honoring Dr. Charles Stanley with the Tree of Life Award this year I was utterly shocked.  I could not imagine how this was possible.  The only thing that made any sense to me to think is “they didn’t do their homework.” Being a board member of SOJOURN and having exposure to the responses that JNF has made about this choice, I am appalled by the lack of compassion, the entirely defensive posture, and the disingenuous and patronizing responses from JNF once questioned about this choice.  I am baffled.   

To suggest that we should excuse hate speech due to a financial contribution is inconceivable.  Dr. Stanley is instructing his church members to support Israel that is true.  But, he is also instructing them to pity, hate, and denounce an entire group of people.  There is no Jewish value that can be applied to the harm he has caused to the LGBTQ community. 

I remember the excitement we had every year when it came time to plant a tree in Israel for Tu Bishvat through JNF.  I can remember my sister and I would alternate each year between “in memory of” and “in honor of”.  It was like a fun game to think of which relative we were going to commemorate this year.   

As I am writing this letter, I am looking at a Tree Fund certificate from JNF that is at least 60 years old. It says “In Honor of the Anniversary of My Parents: Mr. & Mrs. Irving Chasen, Planted by: Abbee & Ruth Chasen”.  It is from my Dad and his sister when they were kids. My dad’s name is actually handwritten and everything else is typed.  I love thinking of my dad as a small child writing his name in his bad handwriting (that I inherited). I know his excitement, because I remember it for myself. 

My dad, his sisters, and their parents are now all deceased.  I used to take great comfort in looking at the stack of Tree Fund certificates that are from my family and my childhood.  They made me feel connected to a common ideal.  A common sense of purpose and history.  But, right now I am very aware that my dad, aunt, and grandparents would never agree with the choice that JNF has made with honoring Dr. Charles Stanley.  They had unconditional love for me.  They did not believe in hating anyone even if they disagreed religiously or politically.  

So, I choose to remember their love, not a stranger's hate.  It will take time for me to reconcile the fact that part of my community supports someone so misaligned with values that I hold.  I may never again feel the connection to JNF that was passed down to me through multiple generations.

I urge JNF leaders to look deeply and remember the times when you have been made to feel less than and/or hated for being who you are as a Jew.  I urge you to put ego aside, stop justifying and posturing, and make a true attempt at reconciliation with the LGBTQ community.  

 

Charlie Chasen

 

Board Member, SOJOURN

Board President, Congregation Bet Haverim

 

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