Five prominent speakers addressed a Sydney community forum on gay marriage this week to discuss one of the hot political debates of our time
“Without marriage equality, we don’t have the words to talk about our family. We need marriage equality to normalise our family so when our children have these normal everyday conversations, there’s a mutual understanding of these terms.”
These powerful words were spoken by Lauren Reinhardt, the first openly gay parent at Sydney’s Masada College, and a panellist at the Jewish community forum on marriage equality held last Sunday night.
The forum, titled Legalising Marriage Equality – What does it mean for our community?, was hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women Australia (NSW) in Woollahra, with five prominent presenters addressing a capacity crowd of around 200 people in the NCJWA hall.
The discussion attracted the full spectrum of the community, the audience comprising of all ages from young children through teens, 20s to 80s as well as a range of Judaism from Liberal and Conservative through to Orthodox. This panel reflects our support for social justice issues, said NCJWA’s Nadene Alhadeff, who also thanked the “esteemed panel for being so quick and willing to participate in this important discussion”.
Moderator Dr Justin Koonin, President of the AIDS Council of NSW, opened the evening with, appropriately, an acknowledgement to the traditional owners, elders of the LGBTI community and the elders of the Jewish community. “It’s thanks to the courage, care and resilience of these three groups of people, that we gather here today, on this most ancient of lands, within our own most ancient tradition to discuss the distinctly modern issue of marriage equality.”
Lauren Reinhardt, mother of eight-year-old twins, told her very personal story of a gay Jewish mother raising her rainbow family in the Jewish community; how her son was shocked that she and her partner couldn’t get married and was most worried because it was not legal. Her son asked ”if they’d be jailed.”
Reinhardt is also a speech pathologist specialising in treating children with language and learning difficulties, working with children who don’t have the words that they need to communicate. “These children go on to have emotional and social difficulties for the duration of their life. Why? Because words allow us to communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas, and humans need this to feel fulfilled,” she said.
Another panellist, Justice Stephen Rothman AM, Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW and President of the Great Synagogue, observed: “As Jews, we have had some 2000 years of exclusion, the gay community has probably had longer.” He then drew some candid comparisons about exclusion.
“We don’t exclude people who eat prawns or exclude people who have an affair outside their marriage nor people who break shabbas.
“My view is that fundamentally we should be inclusive…. When I did the article some years back [on this] for which I was vilified by a couple of rabbis, most of the modern orthodox rabbis said to me quite openly, they agreed with what I was saying and the point I was making, and that ultimately there was no reason we have such a ban.” But it will be some time, unfortunately, before orthodoxy accepts or performs a gay marriage, he added.
Along these lines, a troubling prejudice was aired in the Q&A by an audience member. Dr Gávi Ansara runs Rosh Pinah, which is Australia’s only orthodox specific organisation that focuses on supporting orthodox people who are gay, lesbian, trans, non-binary or intersex. Gávi told the story of a young man who went to a rabbi in a privileged teaching position for advice. The rabbi told the man that “you should kill yourself rather than live your life as a gay man”. Fortunately, there has been some “amazing support for him and his husband” by a number of other rabbis.
Prof Kerryn Phelps AM general practitioner, public health and civil rights advocate and educator, wife to Jackie and mother of three, was the first woman elected President of the AMA. She shared her personal story and how she was welcomed into the Jewish community. Koonin acknowledged that just days ago Phelps helped to launch a declaration from 36 Australian health organisations including the AMA and ACON calling for legislation to be enacted granting marriage equality on health grounds.
“The importance of this is about feeing safe, included, a sense of belonging. When they don’t have this, increased risk of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, completed suicide, substance abuse is suffered by members of the LGBTI community,” Phelps explained.
“What marriage equality will do is make a very clear statement by the Australian community that Australia is a safe space.”
Phelps also clarified the legal position here. “In every English-speaking country other than Australia at the moment, the definition of marriage is a union between two people. In fact the legal community in Australia has a two-people project at the moment which really seeks to just change the words.”
In 2004, without a plebiscite, Prime Minister Howard inserted the words ‘between a man and a woman’. “Previously it was silent on gender so this is really just going back to the position prior to 2004 in Australia.”
Another articulate panellist was Tiernan Brady, Executive Director at Australians for Equality, who was also the Political Director for the Yes Equality campaign for a Yes vote in the marriage referendum in Ireland. This resulted in the referendum vote approving marriage equality.
“I’m always generally very honoured speaking at a Jewish event because there’s a great shared experience there of what rejection is… The most likely religion in the world to support marriage equality are the Jewish people… The values that underpin both of those faiths (Catholicism and Judaism) should be reasons to support that equality: dignity, respect, treating someone equally,” Brady said.
Australian polls consistently show over 70% of people in favour of marriage equality. “Australia has a higher approval rating of marriage equality than most of the countries in the world that have marriage equality.”
Reinhardt closed with an eloquent summary of the importance of recognition. “To the Jewish community, we know how hurtful anti-Israel remarks are, and how we equate this with antisemitism, and for my gay community, when they’re against marriage equality, it feels a whole lot like homophobia.
“If we want to participate in the community, we have to feel we’re accepted; not just accepted, welcomed with a red carpet, a fabulously rainbow-coloured red carpet!”
As told to Plus61j:
ROTHMAN: The one thing we can take out of the discussion is that it’s important for the general community to understand that equal rights for the gay community, and not discriminating against them, is as important for everyone as it is just for the gay community. And it’s an important issue that we have to take on board as a Jewish community and as a general community.
BRADY: It’s been a fabulous turnout, and people are genuinely interested. Every poll in Australia tells us the Jewish community is deeply supportive of marriage equality. Many of the rabbis, such as Rabbi Ninyo, have been very powerful for us. Individuals as well. LGBTI Jewish groups, older LGBTI Jewish groups, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s the same as the Irish experience. I think that part of the reason that Ireland and the Jewish community are such strong advocates for minority rights in general as well as LGBTI equality is that we understand what minority rights feels like.
KOONIN: That was a really interesting conversation from people who had really interesting questions. And I’m very proud that the community is willing to engage in these discussions so overall a wonderful crowd. We live in, not just Australian Society but the Jewish community, (which) is pluralistic and we need to recognise and value all of those different opinions and be respectful of them and I think we did that tonight.
Dr Gávi Ansara and his husband Dr Sruli Israel Berger believe they’re the only openly orthodox married same gender couple in Australia [no-one’s contradicted them] and keep all of the mitzvot.
ANSARA: We are fully orthodox observant and we can’t get any recognition in the Australian Orthodox Jewish community for our relationship; there have been some communities in the Orthodox community and rabbis who have welcomed us but we can’t be formally recognised so civil marriage in Australia – civil marriage equality – is our only chance to have that recognition in Australia. We are legally married overseas but the minute we step foot on Australian soil, we’re not.
Because we don’t go to a non-orthodox synagogue where we’re recognised, the civil option is the only one that we have as orthodox people.
Main image: From left, Justice Stephen Rothman AM, Nadene Alhadeff, Tiernan Brady, Lauren Reinhardt, Professor Kerryn Phelps AM, Jackie Stricker, Dr Justin Koonin
All photos: Wendy Bookatz
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