Wholly Jewish: Laura: Creating Peace Out of Wholeness

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.

With so much turmoil and uncertainty happening around us, finding wholeness – with oneself and one’s community – is especially important. This week’s guest, Cantor Laura Stein, shares her perspectives on how we can best care for those around us, the (lack of) tension between being Jewish and being a lesbian, and how her spiritual leadership inspires her social work at Mount Sinai Hospital's Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery. “I see…my work with the patients as trying to bring wholeness to their lives,” she says. “And for my patients in particular [to] look in the mirror and see who [they] are in a way that reflects who [they] truly are…spiritual pursuit is about [making] the world more whole. I really see that as beginning with these individuals.”

Three ways to listen:


Cantor Laura Stein [00:00:00] I think that for me, the tension lies in feeling like being queer is in some way something that I have to talk about. And maybe that's controversial for saying that on a podcast, you know, that has to do with this very topic. But like, wouldn't it be great if being queer was just the same thing as being anything else?

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:18] 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 Cantor Laura Stein.   

Shira Kline [00:00:57] Hi, everyone, I’m very excited to be here today in the studio in New York City with Cantor Laura Stein. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you, so welcome.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:01:06] Well, thank you, Shira. It's so good to be with you again. Thanks for the introduction. And you can just call me Laura.

Shira Kline [00:01:11] OK. I’ll call you Laura. Laura, on this podcast, we are really exploring the intersections of Jewish life and queer life and all kinds of identities. So, let me just ask you this fun opening question. Ready? How do you identify?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:01:27] Well, I would say cis female lesbian, although I think the word queer fits as an adjective to describe kind of like a broader association.

Shira Kline [00:01:41] Would…say more about that. Can you articulate that a little bit more? What do you mean by queer?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:01:45] Um, queer to me…You know, it's such an interesting question.  I think that I answer that question differently if I'm speaking to another queer person than if I'm talking to a straight person. So, I think straight people, first of all, think that you can't use the word queer because it's offensive. Because they use the word, not all of them, but a lot of them will use the word to mean strange or different as it is defined in the dictionary. And that may, I guess, be true for me as well. But I think different and strange means just not normative, I guess, in the ways that society has scripted people to be. So, for me, queer means different. You know, it's funny, I throw the word around because I love it. But I don't think I spend so much time thinking about what it actually means. And I think, I hope, that when I use it, people will…I think people will…I hope that people will hear it with a kind of generosity of understanding that maybe they don't have. But that's my hope for people.

Shira Kline [00:02:53] Yeah. And do you think that is…So I definitely appreciate the kind of code switching of, you know, depends on who you're speaking with. And I'm wondering, does that also apply to the Jewish community? Like, if you’re, you know, if you're at work in your community at the hospital, which we'll talk about in a second, versus when you walk into a synagogue, do you feel like there's a difference?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:03:17] Yeah, I would say that I code switch outwardly, externally, to people in terms of where I am and having to use a certain vocabulary. And then also internally, my identity shifts a lot. But at my hospital, I'm in a completely secular environment where sometimes I will use words like to Tikkun Olam. People have no idea what I'm talking about. I'm talking Tikkun Olam, the idea that we as Jews repair the world, that we are responsible to make the world a better place through all of our actions, all of our deeds, all of our words. And I will use that in a hospital, in my hospital setting, because it is a very mission driven social justice environment for me. Forgetting, of course, that the language that we speak there is primarily English and medical.

Shira Kline [00:04:02] Okay. All right. So, before we get too far, let's just, let's share with our listeners what's your work at the hospital you're talking about. You work at Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, yeah?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:04:13] Yeah. So, I work at Mount Sinai. The program is the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, which we call CTMS, is a world renowned program located right here in New York City, which helps people through their medical transition, primarily helping people to complete surgical transitions for various different types of surgeries. We do a lot of the bottom surgeries; those tend to be the most popular that people will fly in from. Although we have patients who come in for voice therapies or for voice surgeries, for hormone treatments, for facial feminization surgeries, which are considered more the outpatient surgeries. But really, we're there as a center to help people transition, whatever that means for them.

Shira Kline [00:05:01] Laura, I am familiar with a lot of what you're speaking about, and I'm kind of looking forward to you sharing some information a little bit, a little bit of the download with our listeners right now. Just a little bit more.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:05:13] Sure. So, the transition process will look unique for all different people, depending on what their goals are for themselves. I would say that…So the patients that come to us are interested in aligning their gender identity with their physical body. And that means the sex they were assigned at birth. So based on what genitals were present or what other sexual characteristics were present, people were assigned a certain gender identity. However, the gender identity that they have inside may be different from what their body presents to the outside. And so, our job is to help people transition, meaning to help better align those two things. And that could mean male to female, it could mean female to male. We also have a lot of patients that identify as intersex or non-binary where they're looking not necessarily to inhabit a body that projects the kind of gender that you or I might see in a magazine or on TV, but something that more just aligns with who they see themselves to be. And that is something that we don't prescribe. We follow their lead to see what they're looking for.

Shira Kline [00:06:21] Beautiful. Thank you for articulating that. So I feel like the million dollar question for me is, I want to know, can you tell us, tell us a story about the intersection? Like when your spiritual leadership life helps you and informs your work at the hospital.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:06:39] Sure. So, I see my work at the hospital as being incredibly spiritual. It looks different than what spirituality might look like for someone who's working, for example, as a pulpit cantor or someone who's working day to day in a congregation or another type of institution. For me, the spiritual aspect comes in when I really, I really I see our work with the patients or my work with the patients as trying to bring wholeness to their lives, trying to help them to achieve wholeness. And we know that the word “Shalom”, the word for peace, comes from this word “shalam” for wholeness. And for the world, there is an idea that obviously peace will come when we are whole. But I think that that comes from each individual first. And for my patients in particular, the wholeness that we're talking about is the feeling that you can inhabit your body, inhabit the world, present to other people and look in the mirror and see who you are in a way that reflects who you truly are as a spirit, who you truly are, not just your physical body, but your spiritual existence as well. And so, for me, this idea that spiritual pursuit is about bringing wholeness to ourselves, to our lives, to the world, to make the world more whole. I really see that as beginning with these individuals. And for me, that's completely a spiritual pursuit. And I will say, although I'm not singing day to day in the hospital setting, music is my language. And so, I do find ways to bring in the knowledge and the skills that I've gained through my singing work and through my spiritual work. We are currently, we have already, developed a chaplaincy presence, a pastoral presence, in the transgender clinic. I've been working with Rabbi Jo Hirschmann who, formerly of HUC-JIR, now currently full-time at Mount Sinai, Beth Israel. We are… together, we have been incorporating chaplaincy in order to help people connect themselves spiritually. And my cantorial training has been integral to my ability to do that.

Shira Kline [00:08:33] Cool. Are there any particular Jewish teachings or prayers that you brought with you or that you bring with you in, you know, when you cross into the threshold of the medical?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:08:47] There’s this song by Debbie Friedman and The Youth Shall See Visions. One of my favorite songs, I was actually ordained to it when I was ordained from the Hebrew Union College, and it comes from the Book of Joel in the Hebrew Bible, Chapter three. This idea “and the youth shall see visions”, that we need to look to the younger generations to help to repair the world, to help to, to do all the things that need to get done. There is obviously a sense of urgency with that. And I'm constantly thinking about how I and we are a part of that process. The part that says “now I'm grown, the years have passed, I've come to understand. There are choices to be made and my life’s at my command. I cannot have a future till I embrace my past. I promise to pursue the challenge. Time is going fast. And the old shall dream dreams…”. OK. So, we all know the song. Well, or we've all at least heard a Debbie Friedman song. If not, you should definitely listen. And I think for me the song came to mind because the idea is “I cannot have a future till I embrace my past. I promise to pursue the challenge. Time is going fast”. And so, for me, you had asked about, is there a particular Jewish teaching? I can't think of a specific text, but I can think of my Jewish upbringing. And when I think of my Jewish upbringing, the thing that comes to mind, you know, beyond attending services or certain sermons or lessons that I learned in Hebrew school, beyond that, it's kind of just the bedrock of my being, which is treat others as you want to be treated, be a good person, practice what you preach, you know, be compassionate. All of these wonderful things that I think are encompassed in the Golden Rule and essentially in the Torah. And for me, this idea that “I cannot have a future till I embrace my past”, for me, a lot of my adult life has been about embracing my sexuality and embracing kind of the time that I lost from, I think, age four when I knew I was a lesbian. I knew at age four, so from the time that I was four until the time I came out at 25, those 21 years of feeling like that was really lost. I didn't get to explore for various reasons and trying to make peace with a future that feels full of responsibility to make up for lost time and it’s not only about internal exploration, but about giving back to the LGBTQ or the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, asexual and queer identified “etc” community. And this idea that “I promised to pursue the challenge, time is going fast”, I do, I would say that I wake up with an urgency every day to feel like the work that I'm doing is urgent. People's needs need to be met. People deserve to be happy and whole now.

Shira Kline [00:11:50] Well, I'm so grateful to you for bringing the prophetess Debbie Friedman's words and music into this room. She also was a teacher and colleague of mine. And just worth noting that the cantorial school here is, was named after her. The School of Sacred Music, the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. And she was really a guide for so many of us along the way. She was one of the first people to highlight, although we didn't have this language at the time, what I think we can refer to now is “othered” - feeling othered.  You want to talk about that for a minute? I mean, I'm going back, right? I'm thinking about how she brought in the woman's feminine voice into a prayer language that just did not include, absolutely did not include, the women's voice. And just that as one touch point of her work that we all grew up with and are better people for. I was hoping we can talk a little bit about this feeling of otherness and othering, and can you talk about that a little bit?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:13:07] I think that feeling othered really comes up for me when I'm at work. And that could be work in a cantorial capacity, work in a social work capacity. I feel a lot of responsibility or I rather I feel the burden to justify to people why I work off the bema or why I work outside of the pulpit. And so, I think just to, you know, to circle back to your original question in terms of feeling othered, I would love to see our Jewish community embrace clergy, embrace leadership, in a way that honors the way that people feel that their talents can, can best be delivered and the way in which they feel like they can have the biggest impact. For me, being a social worker nine to five Monday through Friday and then being a cantorial presence on the weekends, this for me in those proportions is the best way for me to contribute.

Shira Kline [00:14:03] Laura is there, is there a tension between being Jewish and being queer?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:14:07] Is there a tension between being Jewish and being queer? You know, I don't even know what Jewish means anymore. If I were, if I were in my year in Israel right now and you were asking me that question, I imagine my answer would be probably angry and, you know, based in or rather in reaction to the experiences I was having as a person who felt maybe claustrophobic. I haven’t lived in Israel in quite some time, but when I was there about six years ago or seven years ago, I can say that I for sure felt that there was a tension between my queerness and my Judaism. But I also felt like there was a tension between my Judaism and my Judaism when I was living there. So, I don't know that the tension lies in what we would typically say, you know, “oh, I don't feel safe”. I would say more so that the tension lies in getting people to - and I hope that this isn't a controversial statement, although if it is, I'm, I'm happy to defend it - I think that for me, the tension lies in feeling like being queer is in some way something that I have to talk about. And maybe that's controversial for saying that on a podcast, you know, that has to do with this very topic. But like, wouldn't it be great if being queer was just the same thing as being anything else? And if being Jewish and being tall or being Jewish and being skinny or being Jewish and having a gluten allergy was, you know, like…Can you imagine having a podcast about those? Like, of course you wouldn't. Because like, no offense, they're just not that interesting. And I would love for my queer identity to, like, be of no interest to people.

Shira Kline [00:15:43] Well…

Cantor Laura Stein [00:15:44] Not that I'm not happy to talk about it.

Shira Kline [00:15:45] Yeah.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:15:46] It just feels like when this is not news anymore, like then I feel like I can rest.

Shira Kline [00:15:51] I love this. Laura, you are working in multiple worlds now. The world is diverse and you're really talking a lot about that today, which is exciting. And I want to know, like, what's on your mind? You know what, what do you think is really important today for queer Jews? Like, what do you, what are you thinking about?

Cantor Laura Stein [00:16:15] What's important for queer Jews. Can I answer that question, what's important for Jews?

Shira Kline [00:16:15] Definitely.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:16:16] Um, OK. Well, what's important for Jews today is how do we care for the people that we love? How do we care about the people that are close to us? And how do we care about all of the various people that ripple out from there in the various communities that we are a part of? And I think for me, the thing that I struggle with the most is feeling like I constantly have to justify my choices or I constantly need to ask people for support or I have to apologize for the way that I am. And as a person who grew up with mental health struggles and I've written about those struggles, so I feel like I can speak openly about them as a person who is still on a path, even though I'm currently working in two areas that I love, still on a path to try to figure out exactly how to blend everything together in a way that feels the most impactful. I think that the thing that I really am still looking for is just that radical support, radical acceptance from people, which is “I am here to be by your side, regardless of what you do, because I love you”. And of course, I'm talking barring hurting anybody. I think that goes without saying. But, you know even, again, even as a person who grew up with acceptance in the water of my home, in the food of my home and in everything that we did, I still feel like we as people, as Jews, as queer people, as just human beings, we could do a lot more to show other people that we are not alone.

Shira Kline [00:17:48] Thank you for visioning with me. I feel like you brought back in the teachings of Debbie Friedman once again about visioning towards the future, what it would look like at its best as the world keeps growing bigger and smaller at the same time.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:18:01] I was going to say thank you to my parents as though this were a speech. No, but I mean, that's a joke. But, but actually I want to really thank the people…I'll just sing Indigo Girls now, why not? “I offer thanks to those before me. That's all I have to say”, you know, from Galileo. Just because I really feel this huge debt of gratitude to clergy, Jewish professionals, also just Jewish lesbians who helped to make it possible for me to sit at the URJ. At the Union for Reform Judaism. And to talk about my identity not only in a way that's open and honest, but in a way that's really celebrated. I think that, you know, my generation takes for granted a lot what it means to be able to be free and to be ourselves. And, and I, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think to myself, “there were struggles. Years and years of struggles, of people who came before me in every facet of identity”. For me in particular, I feel a debt of gratitude for my sexual identity. And I want to say thank you to those people who may or may not be listening. That all the hard work that people did, all the hiding that they had to do. All the lying and the shaming, everything that they had to go through meant that I can pick up where they left off and continue on with this work in a way that feels more free and that allows me to be on this path towards wholeness. That's, that's a real gift.

Shira Kline [00:19:33] So this has really been a serious pleasure to be here with you in New York. Laura…

Cantor Laura Stein [00:19:37] Thank you.

Shira Kline [00:19:38] Yeah. Thank you for being here. Total honor.

Cantor Laura Stein [00:19:41] Thank you so much for including me.

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:19:51] 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.