In Australia, Creating Dialogue Between Jewish and LGBTQ+ Communities

For the past number of years, Jarod Rhine-Davis has been leading a dialogue that seeks to bridge the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities. For Pride Month, we speak to Rhine-Davis about this valuable work.

By Jarod Rhine-Davis - Director, Jewmos | June 11, 2021

Jarod Rhine-Davis speaking at a synagogue in Melbourne, Australia

How do we cultivate understanding between Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities? This question is at the heart of Jarod Rhine-Davis’s work. For the past number of years, Rhine-Davis has led a dialogue that seeks to bridge these two identities. In this interview, he talks about the challenges and opportunities that this work poses, and what it means to be proudly Jewish and LGBTQ+.

Talk about your relationship to Jewish life. In what tradition were you raised? What was your Jewish upbringing like in Australia? 

I grew up in a city called Perth, in a Conservative Jewish household. We were a good Jewish family. My family went to shul, and my dad and I sang in the shul choir. I went to a Jewish school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I guess I wanted to be the best Jew I could be.

Jarod with the B’nai B’rith Jewish Changemaker Award

What is it about the Australian Jewish community that someone from another country might not immediately understand? What makes the Australian Jewish community unique?

It’s easier for me to compare cities. In Perth, there’s only one Jewish school in Western Australia. Regardless of your background, whether you’re Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative, the Perth Jewish community is very cohesive. We’re not divided.

In Melbourne and Sydney, there’s a larger Jewish community, so it’s a bit less centralized because there’s enough people within each denomination for you to splinter off and form your own group.

Another reason why Jewish Australians are unique: We speak Hebrew with an Australian accent! 

Talk about your JDC Entwine trip. Where did you go and what did you do?

Before the Entwine trip, I often felt like I wasn’t a whole person but two half-people stitched together. I would ask myself: How can I be authentically Jewish in queer spaces and authentically queer in Jewish spaces?

Then JDC Entwine came along, and I signed up for the LGBTQ+ trip to Argentina. 

The trip addressed three themes. One, it was about exploring our queer identity and the local queer culture. Two, it was about returning to a place that JDC had helped. In 2001, Argentina had a huge financial crisis, and JDC provided essential aid to the most vulnerable Jews. And so, the third purpose of this trip was to revisit and see the fruits of JDC’s work almost 20 years later.

It was invigorating to be in a space with other queer Jews. Those of us who identified as more Jewish, and who had wrestled with our queer identity, were able to share ideas and stories with those who were less connected to traditional Jewish life.

Which moment from the trip stands out to you most? Why?

After we attended Pride in Buenos Aires, we went to the roof of our hotel. All of us were there, still in our Pride outfits, arm in arm. There we were, just singing. There was something spiritual about a group of people who know what it’s like to face discrimination, both as Jews and as queer people, singing together. We were linking the threads of our experience, our history.

Why is JDC important for the Jewish world? What has it added to your life?

In the final moments of the Entwine trip, each of us shared something that had really resonated with us along the way. I had so many conversations on this trip that dug beneath superficial small-talk and became a spiritual dialogue, which can be difficult to find in the queer community.

When I got up, I said, “I look around me and see friends, I see leaders, I see people who have achieved so much and gained so much on this trip. We may have come as people living our own separate lives, but we leave as mishpacha (family).”

This trip taught me that, though we may be alone, we’re together. JDC did that.

Talk about your queer Jewish group in Australia, Jewmos. What is it, and why did you decide to lead it?

A painting by Jarod Rhine-Davis (painted with his mother, Anne Rhine-Davis)

When I returned from Argentina, I wanted to support queer Jews who were struggling with their identity, and remind them that, no matter what, they deserve the very best. Hence, I took over Jewmos, a program that aims to repair relationships between queer and Jewish communities in Australia. We also do this through Pride Shabbats and a “Pride in the Living Room” interview series.

For many queer Jews, there’s a desire to hold onto Judaism, because it’s given them so much. But within the queer community, there’s a lot of anti-religious sentiment. So that’s a challenge. But, in a small way, Jewmos helps queer Jews to overcome that.

How else have you tried to engage people who are queer and Jewish?

Another component of Jewmos is “Pride In The Living Room,” which is an interview series that engages queer Jewish people from all over the world.

I also host Zoom Pride Shabbats, where I invite guests to speak about various Jewish rituals, like candle-lighting, kiddush, and hand-washing, and what it means to them. We ask questions like: How does the concept of light and dark during candle lighting relate to your own queer experience?

One of our participants told me that she felt locked out of Judaism for over a decade. But by attending Pride Shabbats, she felt that Judaism was big enough for her, and that Judaism never stopped loving her.

It’s humbling to facilitate that.

What has been your greatest challenge in bringing queer and Jewish communities together?

It’s difficult to get public support. Some rabbis tell me, “I support queer people. I think that what you’re doing is great,” but then they don’t state that in the open. That’s because they have a very specific idea of how gay look, act, and feel. They get this image from the media, and it’s often a negative one.

When my parents were kids, homosexuality was illegal in Australia. There were ads that said, “Beware of your local homosexual.” For every marketing dollar spent on that message, we have to spend a dollar counteracting it. So that’s a challenge.

What’s your one hope queer Jews all over the world, what do you want to see in 20 years, in 25 years?

My hope is that queerness will be demystified in Jewish communities, and that Judaism will be demystified in queer communities. 

I hope that queerness will be demystified within Jewish communities, and that Judaism will be demystified in queer communities. 

In Melbourne, there’s an organization called Pathways, for Orthodox Jews who are re-examining their relationship to orthodoxy. At the end of last year, they created a queer group, and I was able to get them a spot on a queer radio station.

I saw so much compassion during that show. That’s what it’s all about: It’s impossible to hate someone if you understand them. Obstacles will still exist. An Orthodox rabbi can embrace me, accept me, even love me, but there will always be that asterisk, “The scripture says X.” But you can reinterpret scripture, too.

How would your life be different without JDC Entwine?

JDC allowed me to go to Argentina and leave with a global mishpacha. We went there as strangers, and came back as leaders, lit with the drive and tenacity to go to our corners of the world and be passionate about something. That’s exciting.

I don’t have all the answers. But now I feel like I’ve put a jigsaw puzzle on the table. I’ve just finished the border and it looks beautiful. It looks perfect.

And there’s the rest of it left to explore. 

Jarod Rhine-Davis is a Perth-born gay Jew who currently lives in Melbourne. He has a Masters of Commerce (Marketing) degree which he applies in his current role as an Employment Consultant at Jewish Care. He is the director of Jewmos, a group which aims to repair relationships between Australian queer and Jewish communities. This year, Jarod was awarded the B’nai B’rith Jewish Changemaker Award for Leadership for his work at Jewmos.

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