Wholly Jewish: Dara: From Parliament to the Bimah

Hosted by Jewish performance and ritual artist Shira Kline (she/her), a.k.a. ShirLaLa, this season features interviews with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship. Follow along as they share their experiences in Jewish spaces, how their queerness and their Judaism intersect, and their visions of a more inclusive and equitable Jewish community.

Jewish innovation thrives on different perspectives, and it’s so vital that queer Jewish leaders be empowered to share their own. This week, Rabbi Dara Lithwick shares her experience wrestling both with God and coming out as a lesbian. She talks about her work with the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and the Canadian Parliament, and embracing Torah through a lens of intersectionality. “When you bring different eyes and a different experience…to the study of Torah…it enables our tradition to stay alive and to stay relevant,” says Rabbi Lithwick. “[I bring] all of myself…as a queer woman, as a mom, as a lawyer, as a Canadian…into my read of Torah…And it's a really exciting time…to be a part of all of this.”

Three ways to listen:


Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:00:00] It's like my parents went to go see him to talk about, you know, what do we do with Dara? How do we deal with this? How do we get her back on a more straight, quote unquote, narrow path? And they walked out of meeting with Rabbi Lerner, saying, “OK”, you know, having committed to starting a PFLAG group at our synagogue. That's Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:20] Welcome back to Wholly Jewish, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. What do we all have in common? We all live and balance complex and nuanced identities that when braided together, make us wholly ourselves and wholly Jewish. This season, Jewish performance and ritual artist, Shira Kline, speaks with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship, to share their experiences, insights and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community. Today, Shira is speaking with Dara Lithwick.   

Shira Kline [00:01:00] Hi, everyone, welcome back to Wholly Jewish. This is Shira Kline, I use she/her pronouns. I'm very excited to be here with Dara, who I understand recently has been ordained, and I get to call you Rabbi Dara.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:01:13] Yes. I'm still getting used to that. Thank you.

Shira Kline [00:01:16] Welcome. Right on. Well, do you prefer, like Rabbi Dara right from the start or do you like to go just with Dara? Or do you put rabbi with your last name? What's your type of…

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:01:27] Just, just call me Dara. I mean, my kids call me Mama D. You can just call me, just call me Dara. Dara’s perfect, and I also use she/her pronouns.

Shira Kline [00:01:34] OK, great. And you're calling in from Ottawa today, right?

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:01:40] Mmhmm.

Shira Kline [00:01:41] Nice. OK. Beautiful. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:01:44] So, hi, my name is Dara and I was recently ordained as a rabbi. And that’s a bit of my…that's, that's a very important part of my life. And I have a day job as a lawyer for the parliament of Canada. And I identify…I should ask my wife; how do I identify? I identify as queer. I identify as a lesbian. I identify as a person, as a Jew, as a woman. I identify very much with the traditional notion of Israel. And if you unpack the word Israel, as a…as a God wrestler, as someone who feels very engaged in the way that you can imagine a sort of wrestling happen, as somebody who feels very engaged with our rich tradition in a way to keep it relevant, alive, and meaningful. And that impacts a lot of what I do, both in my day job and my gay jobs and at home as a mom, too. We have two little kids at home.

Shira Kline [00:03:04] Nice. In your day jobs and your gay jobs. I like that. I really appreciate what you're saying. So, talk to me a little bit about the word queer for you.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:03:12] Queer for me implies…there's a whole alphabet, or a growing sort of alphabet of acronyms, you know, for people who don't identify necessarily as straight or cisgender. But for me, the most important element of queer and that connects to my Jewish identity as well, is the element of, as I spoke at the beginning of wrestling, of coming out, of having to sort of challenge some element of a societal norm or assumption in a way that enables greater hospitality, inclusion, existence, compassion and just sort of full like, you know, bringing one's whole self to whatever space one's in. So for me, that element of my identity and sort of the coming out process for me that I went through…I’m getting old…older… you know, some twenty-something years ago, was and continues to be, very instrumental in terms of the work that I feel is important for me to do and my world view. In terms of how to help others be able to be open about who they are, whatever their identity is, and in different spaces, be it in professional spaces or Jewish communal spaces.

Shira Kline [00:04:57] Mm hmm. Beautiful. Wow, thank you for that definition. I feel like you've raised the bar and have given us a very, very open and upright and filled with integrity definition to live with. So, thank you for that. Dara, I kind of want to hear a little bit more about some of the wrestling matches that you've been in. I'm curious. I can hear, I hear what you're telling us about how this kind of wrestling…this is, the sort of a beautiful, deep engagement in full presence has really informed your path and that in some ways you're, you're seeking opportunities for this kind of interactions. Is that, did I get that right?

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:05:41] Totally. I think that if I could step back, I could say, you know, I get this question and maybe the answer speaks to sort of where we can go. I've often been asked, like especially considering that I already have a profession and something like that is, you know, why do I care? Why do I want to become a rabbi? Why do I care? And why do I also care about doing work around inclusion, LGBTQ inclusion within Jewish spaces and Jewish inclusion within queer spaces? And I have to say that, you know, I grew up involved in community, grew up going to a Jewish day school, all that sort of stuff. But there were two sort of meaningful events that happened to me or sort of things that I went through as a teen, as a young adult that has sort of shaped everything since. And I remember, actually, going back like, this is back to the mid-90s, early mid-90s. I was 16 years old and I went on this trip called the March of the Living to Poland and Israel. And at the time there was this amazing woman who was on our bus with us. Her name is, Zikhronah Livrakha, may her memory be forever for a blessing, was Anna Heilman and she was a survivor of Maidanek in Auschwitz. And she, along with her sister and other Jewish women, was part of a plot to blow up crematorium four, which is one of the, the crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was back in October 1944. So not that long before the end of the war. But when, when the killing sprees were at their height. And Anna’s sister and three other women were captured and murdered actually two weeks before the camp was liberated. But their acts of resistance saved countless lives by making that crematorium unusable. And I remember Anna telling us this story. And we were standing there. We were standing where her sister had, had…was hung…had been hung like sort of in, like sort of a public space of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And her…the way she told the story was so strong and loving and that…both that that love, and that courage really stayed with me. And I remember reading another time and I was lucky, actually, to meet fellow survivor, Elie Wiesel. He spoke at my college convocation and I got to start to speak with him afterwards, which was unbelievable. And he once said, he said, “The opposite of love isn't hate. It's indifference. The opposite of beauty isn’t ugliness. It's indifference. The opposite of faith isn't heresy. It's indifference. And the opposite of life isn’t death, but indifference.” And that really stuck with me, too, that it is…we all have different ways of going about our lives and we all have different comfort zones and different contact zones. But the challenge is not for us to always be fighters, but to be engaged with what is going on around us. To not be indifferent. That's incumbent upon us. And that I think, you know, part of, I'll fast forward a few years to when I came out to my parents, that was a bit of a rough time, too. I was like 19 years old or 18 years old and had all these questions, could I still be Jewish? Could I raise a family? Could I be a part of the community? And it was really rough on my parents as well, because it wasn't, you know, there weren't really many Jewish queer models or organizations at that time. It was before Ellen. It was before the TV show Ellen and her coming out and, and there was a huge transformative thing that happened for me. Then when my former rabbi in Montreal, Rabbi Lee Lerner, really served as one of my strongest allies and helped bring my family around to acceptance and love. And through him, I mean, it was pretty amazing. It's like my parents went to go see him to talk about, you know, what do we do with Dara? How do we deal with this? How do we get her back on a more straight, quote unquote, narrow path? And they walked out of meeting with Rabbi Lerner, saying, “OK”, you know, having committed to start a PFLAG group at our synagogue. That’s Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. And so, it was, it was really amazing what he had done. And he reached out to me and we spoke a lot and all that sort of thing. And through him and through the welcome that I'd had, you know, at my college, at the college’s Hillel, it really made me able to see both my Judaism and my God as welcoming and loving and incredibly relevant to my life and whatever life challenges I was facing. So, faith was in my corner, it felt. So those like two examples of standing up, you know, not being indifferent and feeling accepted and seen by my God and by my faith. Those two things have stuck with me ever since and have motivated me ever since, I think, to sort of be on the path that I'm on. To do what I'm doing and, you know, in the different ways that I suppose I tried to do it, to be me, a whole integrated self, one way or another.

Shira Kline [00:11:34] Awesome. I love this. And I'm sending a shout out to Rabbi Lerner. For being such a fantastic teacher and guide in that moment. And I know that one of the things that you talk about is that, you know, that inclusion is a fundamental Jewish practice. And I would love to hear it. Just tell me a little bit more about that.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:11:56] OK. So, there's this fabulous debate that goes on between these two rabbis as to what is the central tenet in the Jewish tradition. Is it that we are all created, B'tselem, Elohim? Literally, that we are all created in God's image, every being, every human being created in God’s image. And there's something really fundamental there around inclusion. Or is it V’ahavta Lereacha Kamocha, you shall love thy neighbor as yourself? Care for, treat thy neighbor as yourself. Well, you know, and how does that relate to another commandment that we find coming up like a good thirty-six times, and thirty-six is a special number because it's two times Chai. Two times life, which is represented by the number 18, to love the stranger, the obligation to love the stranger. And for me, I read these different pieces of Torah together to say, you know, the reason why we have to love the stranger and the reason why we have to care for the person next to us is fundamentally that because we are all created B'tselem, Elohim, that we are all created in God's image. And we're also told, you know, in Tehillim, in the Psalms, that we’re to build a world not on strict rules, but on loving kindness, on Chesed, Olam Chesed Yibaneh. To build a world on loving kindness. And you know, again, how do we build a world on loving kindness? By loving, you know, by recognizing, by seeing that image of God in all of us, in those who may occupy spaces, that we occupy. Our colleagues, our family, our friends, our neighbors, whatever. So, you know, people who share our ethnic background or socio-economic background who are from, you know, live in the same neighborhood. And those you know, the people who are right next to us and those who aren't right next to us, who may seem at this point to be strangers to us. You know, from different places, from different backgrounds, from different communities. You know, we're all connected and so that really brings us all together for me.

Shira Kline [00:14:15] OK. Amazing. And that and I'm going to go with Rabbi on this one. Thank you, Rabbi. And those beautiful teachings. Well, you know, because I'm sitting here thinking, I'm holding these two, you know, understandings about you that this is your Judaism, and this is, and I really appreciate that. And I feel, I feel comfortable. I feel a lot of comfort knowing that you are out there with this kind of Judaism in your day job as a constitutional and parliamentary affairs lawyer. And, you know, and I'm dying to know, for you, how do you integrate your spiritual, spirituality with this, with the relevancy in your legal work. And, you know, just to, just to throw one more key in there to keep turning it, I'm curious really about: is that where the queer Jewish thing comes in or the you know, the queer-ish Jew thing comes in? Like, are those two sides of your identity and do they speak to each other in that day job, gay job?

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:15:22] Oh, totally. The, well, there's so much, there's so many ways, there's so many things to say. Let's start here. OK. So, in, at, work, you know, I'm putting on my lawyer hat. I am blessed to be, first of all, in an incredible workplace that values diversity. And its sort of a top priority for my day workplace and also for my synagogue, the work that I do at my shul at Temple Israel. It is a top priority at my synagogue and in the work that I do at camp, URJ Camp George. And to the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, I’m the Tikkun Olam Chair or Social Action Chair for the Canadian Reform Movement. It's all about building bridges, building community and bringing people together. So, there's huge interrelationship and interconnection and interaction. At my day job, I am blessed to serve on sort of our administration’s diversity council. Which again, is all about making sure our workplaces are safe and inclusive and welcoming. Because where I work, you know, at the parliament of Canada, it is a place that represents all Canadians and from all different backgrounds, from all across our massive country, from all across the political spectrum and more. And how do we create a space where all of our employees are really able to bring their best and to bring their whole selves. And that's something that I do a lot in. On the queer side, even at work, I'm a trainer for a program called Positive Spaces, which is all about LGBTQ2+ inclusion. And there's a two in there. 2+ refers in Canada to two spirit, 2+, which often is how many indigenous queer Canadians self-refer in different ways.

Shira Kline [00:17:35] So what do you, what are you seeing here? Like what gifts are the queers bringing to the Jews on this? Because I'm curious for you also, what's your vision as a, you know, queer Jewish leader?

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:17:52] Great questions. The gift today of having active, queer Jewish leadership and more diverse, and not just queer, but let's say, more diverse Jewish leadership. I mean, women, Jews of Color, Jews with disabilities, different backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds. The gifts that we all bring to our normative or traditional variance of our tradition of Judaism is that we bring our eyes to the text and we bring our experiences to the text.

Shira Kline [00:18:36] Nice, yeah.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:18:38] And, you know, as we're taught, you know, by, was it Ben Bag-Bag? In the Talmud, it's like “turn it, turn it, for everything's in it”. Turn toward, you know, that that we bring our lived experiences into the text, which then keeps the text alive. It's the, you know, Torah as an Etz Chaim. Torah as a living tree. And it's through that, that we keep Torah alive and that we keep Torah ever relevant. You know, the changes that happen in textual, you know, in our understanding of Torah and our understanding of Jewish tradition that have happened over the past century as more women first became Jewish leaders and Jewish scholars, is huge. And I'm still seeing this today. I do what's called Daf Yomi. It's a folio, a page of Talmud study every day. And I follow a podcast that comes out of Israel that's a group of women who lead the podcast. And just having, you know, for a very long time Talmud study was really a man's world and a man's focus. And when you bring different eyes and a different experience to the study of Talmud, to the study of Torah, there is so much more there and there's so much more that can be mined. And it enables our tradition to stay alive and to stay relevant. And for me, a huge part of what I do, bringing all of myself as a woman, as a queer woman, as a mom, as a lawyer, as a Canadian, as a whatever, you know, as a somebody who's like maybe a little bit height challenged. You know, I bring all of that in-to into my read of Torah. And that's how I keep my Judaism alive. And my interactions that I have say with you or that I have with my congregants or that I have across Canada, or that I have at my office. That keeps Torah, you know, continuing and then keeps it alive and it keeps the lights going. And it keeps sort of creating more of an abundance of interpretations and light. And we’ve seen beautiful evolution in our tradition and innovation with art within our tradition. And it's a really exciting time in that sense for me, as a rabbi, as a member of our community, to be a part of all of this.

Shira Kline [00:21:06] OK. Amazing. What are you seeing is happening right now on the streets that you want to be addressing?

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:21:11] I think that there is a huge opportunity right now. So, I see also a challenge. I see that there's a challenge in terms of if we look writ large at. and this is not just within Judaism, but you know, across society in terms of how people engage in community. And how people engage in faith and how people engage in public and civic institutions, even like voting and belonging to movements and political parties. That there's…engagement has shifted. Traditional synagogue affiliation or attendance has gone down. Education has changed. And, you know, I think there's a challenge or a risk that these numbers are, that there's a trend towards less connection or affiliation. I think because it's not so clear necessarily to some people how amazing and relevant and rich our tradition is and how applicable it is to all of us. That our tradition, that the Jewish tradition, you know, it's not just necessarily what you go through in grade school or in, you know, after school. It's not a, it's not just a kid's tradition, but it's a really rich source of insight for us as adults dealing with all that is going on in the world. And it sort of loops us in and connects us to sort of thousands of years of thinking on what does it mean to be a person, what does it mean to be a member of society? Why, you know, how are we supposed to live our lives? Why are we supposed to live our lives? It answers what faith does, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has talked about this, you know, our analytical and our scientific world, which is so important and tells us “how”, tells us “what”. We learn "how" and "what", too, in history books and we see what's going on, but, where faith and where tradition can step in and does step in, it's the "why".

Shira Kline [00:23:49] I just want to thank you so much for your time today. This has really been a beautiful conversation. I really appreciate it. So just thank you, Dara. Thank you so much for this time.

Rabbi Dara Lithwick [00:24:00] Thank you so much. And it's been, no it's been a real pleasure. And I love listening to you, too. So, this is very, very exciting. And wishing everybody, cause you know, God, you know, whenever this is heard or whenever this is…it's always gonna be Shabbat. It’s always going to be on the way. So, wishing everybody Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:24:22] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism. Hope you have a good week and L'hitraot.