Wholly Jewish: Leonard: Creating Seats at the Queer Jewish Table

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.

Judaism is in a constant state of reform, and our approach to LGBTQ+ inclusivity should be, too. Leonard Slutsky (he/him), a Union for Reform Judaism lay leader and college admissions counselor, shares his experiences as a gay cisgender Jewish man; how Reform Jewish spaces affirmed his gay identity; how Judaism inspires his work as a suicide hotline volunteer; and how our communities can better serve queer Jews of all backgrounds. “I feel that it’s my role as someone who has a great deal of privilege, especially within the queer community,” he says, “to use it and help support those who don’t have as much as a voice.”

Three ways to listen:


Leonard Slutsky [00:00:00] There's a lot of work that we can do in that area to help get acceptance and understanding. And when we talk about privilege, we also need to talk about risks.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:10] 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 Leonard Slutsky.  

Shira Kline [00:00:49] Hey, everyone, this is Shira. She/her pronouns. And I'm here in New York City and I'm on the phone with Leonard Slutsky, who is all the way across the country in Los Angeles.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:00:59] Hi, Shira.  

Shira Kline [00:00:59] Hey! 

Leonard Slutsky [00:01:00] Thanks for having me.  

Shira Kline [00:01:01] Yes, I'm very excited to be here with you today.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:01:03] Thank you. And I use he/him pronouns, so I am grateful that you shared yours in the beginning and now I'm sharing mine.  

Shira Kline [00:01:11] Brilliant. That is the best opening statement, too, because I want to know a little bit more about you and because this is a, you know, is a queer Jewish podcast, I think it'd be fun just to hear the...Could you just introduce yourself and just tell us, like, how do you identify?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:01:27] There are a lot of different parts of my identity. Some of them are more identity things, like, for example, I identify as a cisgender male. I also identify as gay. But it's only part of my identity. You know, I'm also an Angelino. I'm a transplant to Southern California. I'm a brother, son, pet parent. There's a lot of different parts that go into me. But I think, you know, as we're kind of talking about the different parts of our queer identity that relates to Judaism in this podcast, it's helpful to know that I identify as a cisgender gay male.  

Shira Kline [00:02:05] Awesome. What do you, what would you even, how would you define queer? How do you use that term?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:02:13] Sure. For me, you know, queer is an umbrella term to cover, you know, all different sorts of identities as they relate to gender or sexual orientation, uh, sexuality. You know, you know, there's a lot of different components that go into that. And so I think for the sake of our conversation today, instead of saying LGBT, which doesn't include all of the different queer identities, I think I'm going to stick with queer just to try to be inclusive of all different types of populations. 

Shira Kline [00:02:46] You know, and as someone who works in the secular world, in university and academia, which is pretty particular, and also as a lay leader in the local Jewish community, you know, one of the things I was curious about is if these two parts of your life ever come together, your Jewish identity and your queer identity.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:03:10] Sure. You know, there's definitely a lot of overlap between queer and Jewish identity, in my opinion. If I could, I can tell you a little bit about kind of my, not exactly my coming out story, but there's an important Jewish component that I'd love to share.  

Shira Kline [00:03:25] Yeah, that would be great. 

Leonard Slutsky [00:03:26] If that would be alright with you. 

Shira Kline [00:03:27] Totally.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:03:28] So, you know, Judaism is always like a really big part of me and growing up. And it's something that my family really instilled in me. You know, we went to Hebrew school. I had my Bar Mitzvah. We celebrated all the holidays together. And when I was in high school, you know, folks at my synagogue encouraged me to get involved with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, a really wonderful. URJ program that brings together teens from, you know, across the country. And, you know, this is, this was an opportunity, you know, when I went to NFTY events in the northeast, to meet with other, you know, young Jewish people who may be, you know, experiencing similar things. You know, I think in my hometown, I was one of a handful of Jews in my class. And so, to be able to be in a place like a NFTY event where everyone is Jewish, there was already a foundation of understanding that you didn't have to always explain yourself. And, and that you could just be you. And the other thing about NFTY is that it's one of the first places that I kind of encountered queer people in a kind of a large setting. So, you know, in my high school growing up, we you know, there were a number of people who may have identified it publicly and outwardly as gay or lesbian, but there was a really small number of them. And, you know, it's tough being one of the few out people in high school. I definitely wasn't out when I was in high school. But when I went to the NFTY events. I kind of found my tribe in a way, I found other people who were queer identifying in some way or maybe didn't have a word to describe it. And it allowed me to find people that I could be myself without having to apologize. And so this was a really interesting space where just growing up, I was able to interact with other people who were having a similar experience with me, even if we didn't have the words to describe it at the time.  

Shira Kline [00:05:22] So, Leonard, I hear you saying, like, it’s where you found your tribe. 

Leonard Slutsky [00:05:27] Sure. 

Shira Kline [00:05:28] You know, which is a beautiful idea, and uh, I...How long ago was that, that you were involved in NFTY?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:05:34] It was probably like 2008, 2009-ish. And, you know, things may have changed over time. I understand that attitudes towards, you know, sexual orientation and gender identity are changing, especially among, you know, Gen Z. They're one of the most inclusive generations to date. But, you know, there was something interesting about NFTY. You know, it was okay for, you know, two guys who were friends to give each other a hug and not make a big deal out of it, you know? And so that, that was such a formative experience for me growing up to be able to have a space where you could go and, you know, you know, you could just be accepted. You know, it's been a long time since I've been engaged with the NFTY environment, but I hope that that energy is still there. That being said, I don't want to paint a picture that it was perfect. And I know this is something that a lot of our youth professionals deal with, and it's part of, kind of like the developmental stage of being kind of a teenager, young adult, and while it was a really affirming and welcoming place, there were some challenges. Like the fact that with hookup culture, you know, people were always talking about, ”oh, who are you going to dance with at the dance or who you're going to sit with at the talent show”, and there was always a lot of pressure, in my opinion, to maybe do one thing or the other. And I think we still kind of experience that in our day to day lives, somehow. So, it's not completely perfect, but it was at least, it was much more than I was getting at my high school and in the types of support that I was getting in that space.  

Shira Kline [00:07:08] Yeah, totally. I mean, we are, it's, it's, it's important and fair to name that we are always in a stage of becoming as we, as we could say, you know, and learning and, and, um, it's amazing where teenagers are in that process. So, it's really, it's a, it's an interesting environment and it's fun to go back to there. And I'm thinking back about what you said about, like, having, you know, found your tribe. And I wonder, has that tribe, uh, informed the tribe that you surround yourself with now?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:07:37] Yeah, I mean, I think at that time, you know, I never put a label on it like, oh, I'm hanging out with the, you know, the gay or the queer folks. But I think looking back on it, it's clear. And, you know, I like, you know, living in Los Angeles. I live in a bit of a bubble sometimes. You know, I live in a city where I go to work every day and I can be out. And it's not an issue. And I don't have to worry about losing my job. I can go to my synagogue that has two openly queer clergy people and that is just considered normal and accepted. And sure, there are people who may disagree. And every year at the Pride parade we see people who hold up signs in protest. But I have a little bit of, like, privilege and a little bit of bubble that comes with my current life that I oftentimes don't have to deal with. A lot of the pressures that a lot of my colleagues in other places have.  

Shira Kline [00:08:33] Well, let's talk about that for a second.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:08:36] Sure. 

Shira Kline [00:08:37] How would you say, how would you say that you leverage this kind of privilege? Like where does it… 

Leonard Slutsky [00:08:42] Sure.  

Shira Kline [00:08:43] In what ways are you aware of it?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:08:45] Well, something that is important for me was to take a moment to just stop and think about all of the different privileges and rights that I have. And I was recently part of the Jewish Nation LGBTQ cohort fellowship. And we did an exercise where we kind of went through different identities that we had. And it really makes you question a lot of the things that make you who you are. As a cisgender person I have the privilege that I can oftentimes, you know, you know, I can go into any building in the country and find a restroom that will automatically align with, you know, with my needs for that. That's not something that I have to worry about. Or, you know, as a white person, you know, I don't face the same sort of discrimination and profiling that other people face. And, you know, I'm also a male, which is also really a struggle...It can be really challenging to deal with in this age of “Me Too” and harassment and thinking about all of the bad things that are, are coming from this toxic masculine culture. Now, when you layer on top of this gay…You know, when you look at the attitudes that Americans have towards Same-Sex Marriage, the acceptance of that has gone up significantly in the US. I was reading a statistic, um, not too long ago, that I think more than like sixty to sixty-one percent of people now favor same sex marriage versus ten, you know, ten, fifteen years ago is, you know, more than half of that less. So almost double the amount of people now support same sex marriage. And we've come a really great way in that support. But when you think about some of the other identities, specifically transgender or gender nonconforming, non-binary people, there's a lot of work that we can do in that area to help get acceptance and understanding. And when we talk about privilege, we also need to talk about risks. So, I have the ability to make a statement to, to do things and not have to...I don't, I don't have as much to lose. So, for example, in my, in my workplace, we, uh, I thought that it would make sense that we include a question on our admissions application that asked people for their preferred names and pronouns. Seems like a pretty easy thing that we can do to help provide the best service to our people who are applying to the program, you know? And uh, if I, it's so important that I take those opportunities to activate and use my privilege for good, because there are some people who if they raised that question, they could, you know, get fired, they could be disciplined or maybe they don't, um, it may be harder for them to talk about these things. Because if you're constantly having to explain yourself to people and justify why you should be called by the pronouns that that you would like to be called, that can be really exhausting. And so, I feel that it's my role as somebody who has a great deal of privilege, especially within the queer community, to, to use it and help support those who don't have as much of a voice.  

Shira Kline [00:11:46] Wow, well said, Leonard. Thank you. And um… 

Leonard Slutsky [00:11:48] I do have a lot of guilt associated with it, too. You know, why, you know, why am I the one who gets these privileges and why not someone else? And am I deserving enough for that? And this may be a question for another time, but it's definitely something that's kind of, that I think about a lot.  

Shira Kline [00:12:06] Makes me think of like what we're learning today with, you know, studying and discussing white fragility. And, so what I wonder is, like, what might be an overarching objective here for being queer inside the Jewish community or being Jewish inside the queer community, like what is, what's your vision? Can you talk a little bit about that? Like what might you be your vision for a community that is inclusive and yet alive and active in all the different cross-sections of our diversity?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:12:41] Sure. So, my situation is a bit unique because in my Los Angeles bubble, I go to a congregation or I'm a member of a congregation, that is predominant, that has a very large queer population and a growing number of constituents who are not queer identifying but really appreciate the work that this congregation is doing. And there is such an important role for these queer focused synagogues. You know, I think you know, I think the ideal is that a queer person can walk into any synagogue in the United States and feel welcomed and empowered. But I think there is also a space for these, kind of leashed communities, almost like that there's, almost the same way that there's a need for, like, a gay bar. You know, we need places where people can, can go and be themselves without having to apologize for who they are and kind of do some sort of development around the things that only we could offer. You know, like how at our congregation we have an AIDS support group or we're developing new programs and ways to integrate with prayer that are inclusive of the queer community. So that, that's important. But on the larger scheme of things, I think we need to work across all of the congregations in the United States, to make sure that we are providing inclusive space for all queer people. You know, the Audacious Hospitality department and their tool kit is a really great start. And I think that the folks at the URJ are doing a really great job when it comes to training and empowering people to be successful. Once we kind of have a baseline understanding of inclusivity, I think the next step is that we need to start empowering people to get involved in positions of leadership. And when I speak of people in leadership, I'm speaking of all queer people, but especially people who are perhaps, you know, transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary. Because those are the types of conversations that, you know, I think, you know, gay and lesbian inclusion in URJ congregations is doing pretty well, right now. You know, I know that the URJ and the Conference, uh, the Central Conference of American Rabbis had made statements to support the inclusivity, same sex marriage, all those things. And that's great. The next forefront is to provide the same level of support to people who are transgender and people who are not cisgender. I think it's really important that we start to think about how do we empower those people to feel welcome, to make the places inclusive for them and allow it to be a place where they can thrive.  

Shira Kline [00:15:16] Are there strengths that our queer community brings to the Jewish world?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:15:22] Yeah. You know, ever since I was little an important part of Judaism for me has been, like, Tikkun Olam. You know, giving back and, and giving back is not always just, you know, tzedakah or volunteering at the hospital on Christmas, which is something that, you know, we used to do growing up. But it's also the advocacy. 

Shira Kline [00:15:43] And Tikkun Olam is uh, is that Hebrew phrase that refers to the…an actual reparation, like repairing, repairing the world. Yeah. 

Leonard Slutsky [00:15:51] Definitely. And I think that there's a great overlap between the queer community and the Jewish community in terms of our desire and our need and our motivation to advocate. Just think about the LGBT and queer rights movement and how, you know, having a queer identity is often a marginalized minority population, just like Judaism. And we have to fight just as hard to have a seat at the table. So, I think that there's a lot of overlap when it comes to advocacy.  

Shira Kline [00:16:23] Nice. So, for you personally, what gifts do you bring to the Jewish world?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:16:28] One thing that I do to try to give back is, um, I'm actually a volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline. And, you know, suicide and mental health is a major area of concern within the queer community. You know, if you look at, you know, LGBT youth compared to their, their straight counterparts, the, the, the amount of those students who are, have suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide at least once in their life is just so much higher. And then when you start speaking about transgender populations vs. cisgender populations, I mean, you're looking at four or five times the amount of transgender people compared to cisgender people have had thoughts of suicide within the past year. And so my, one of the ways that I give back, I guess you could call it a gift, is that I provide that, you know, counseling to people who call in or who contact the hotline through a digital channel and provide, you know, a really safe, empathetic space. And it's really driven by my Jewish values. You know, I think in Judaism, we have the concept that, you know, everyone is created in God's image and that, you know, to me, the way I interpret that is that everyone, no matter what their identity or who they are, should be accepted and understood. And, and so that is a really interesting kind of connection for me between those two worlds.  

Shira Kline [00:17:58] Wow. Absolutely. And are there ever, I mean, now, just for fun, just as you know, we get to ask these questions right now. But are there times when you keep these identities separate?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:18:11] Being Jewish and queer?  

Shira Kline [00:18:13] Uh huh. Like, are they ever in conflict with each other?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:18:17] Again, I have been so fortunate that my congregation in Los Angeles has been so affirming and welcoming. And so, it's, it hasn't been a challenge at this particular space. But I have been in Jewish spaces in the past where I have had to keep it quiet. I remember the first year that I was in Los Angeles. You know, this is an issue that a lot of people who are new to town face. It's hard to find exactly what your Jewish community is going to be. And we're both aware that there is a bit of a pay to pray model nowadays.  

Shira Kline [00:18:49] Yeah. 

Leonard Slutsky [00:18:50] Where, you know, a lot of synagogues expect you to become members and there's kind of really high costs associated with that. And when I first moved to L.A., I was, you know, just starting my first job out of college. I was making an entry level salary. And, you know, rents in LA were expensive and it was really hard to make it. And so, I ended up my first year going to a community where it was free, but it was a divided kind of partition in the synagogue. And so, the people who were men went on one side. And when the women went on the other and it really made me remember that although in our Reform communities, we have a really growing sense of inclusivity, there are still a lot of opportunities for us to grow and change within the religion. And even within the Reform community, there can be small micro-aggressions or smaller things that maybe need to be addressed as well. So that, you know, that's the time that I had to kind of keep my identity quiet. I was going to the, the services of my boyfriend at the time, and we kind of didn't really hold hands or kind of try to draw attention to ourselves that way.  

Shira Kline [00:20:00] I want to ask you to go into detail as much as you are comfortable. Like what, you know, which microaggressions? Like what are we talking about? Like what is happening out there in the world? And, because it's easy to be, to be caught up in that welcoming feeling and that that is real, that is real. And like I am grateful for that every single day. And part of what this conversation is about is also, like, what's in between the cracks.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:20:28] Sure. You know, one thing we talked about as fellows in the fellowship is, you know, making sure that you have, for example, tampons in both the, in the men's restroom, the women's restroom and the, you know, maybe an all gender restroom, because, you know, someone who uses the restroom that has a sign on it, that says “men”, may need those products. And to be able to explain that to people who say, “well, they don't belong there”, or it may offend some people. I think those are kind of some of the subtle microaggressions that we need to address. And those are, I like to take kind of the low hanging fruit or it's kind of solve the easy problems first. And in my opinion, something like, you know, putting in, you know doing that, seems like it's a really easy change that we can make.  

Shira Kline [00:21:20] It does seem easy. It seems like such an easy fix and such a gigantically wonderful conversation to be had around it as well.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:21:29] And that's why it's important that in our leadership, in our communities, we are training and we're empowering and getting the next generation of leaders ready. And to have, you know, people who have a variety of different backgrounds or identities on our synagogue boards or in our leadership can only help with that.  

Shira Kline [00:21:49] Absolutely. It is such a good point. And thank you for bringing it back to that. I am sure that listeners will be able to ask even better questions after thinking about some of these things. So, thank you for taking us there.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:22:04] Thank you, Shira. 

Shira Kline [00:22:05] Yeah. And you know, on that note, I just want to ask you, what, what would you say is your, you know, what’s your queer Jew superpower?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:22:16] What's my superpower?  

Shira Kline [00:22:17] Yeah. You know, besides that beautiful laugh of yours, like, what’s, you know…You talked about the gifts that you bring and, uh, boy, that is a gift and just presence in general. So now I just got to ask you, like for you, what's your...Yeah, what's your superpower?  

Leonard Slutsky [00:22:34] You know, I don't necessarily consider myself to have any more superpower, more or less than someone else. And I also think that just by being queer doesn't make me a more superior person than anyone else. That being said, I think that having the queer identity and allowing that to intersect with Judaism opens up a lot of really great conversations. I think, you know, part of the joy of working in education is that, at least at my university, in my school it's a place that really celebrates diversity. And so, you know, I'm the only Jewish and queer person in my office. But there are so many other identities that are represented in this office that I am not. And we have the most amazing conversations. And we don't, you know tokenize one person or try to ask one person speak on behalf of their, their community. But I think what we found is that there's so much overlap between our shared experiences, between the way that we grew up and we may call things different things or done things in different ways, but there are actually a lot more similarities that bring us together. So maybe perhaps one of the superpowers of having so many different intersectionalities and having gone through, for example, the JewV’Nation fellowship, to reflect on those, is the ability to help kind of explore those with other people.  

Shira Kline [00:23:58] Awesome. Yes. Well, I, you know, I've really loved having this chance to speak with you. So, Leonard, thank you for joining us. Like what a, like most excellent and interesting and poignant conversation. I really appreciate being here with you. So, thank you so much.  

Leonard Slutsky [00:24:13] Well thank you, Shira.  

Shira Kline [00:24:15] Yeah, right on. 

Leonard Slutsky [00:24:16] It was an honor to be, to be interviewed by you.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:24:20] 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.