SOJOURN: Ensuring Dignity for All
Rosh Hashanah

SOJOURN: Ensuring Dignity for All

A new year gives us hope that the next year won’t be as turbulent.

Rebecca Stapel-Wax

Rebecca Stapel-Wax is the executive director of SOJOURN.

The year 5778 is coming at just the right time.

For people who do social justice professionally or personally, the last year has been devastating. A new year gives us hope that the next year won’t be as turbulent. Although there are threats of nuclear proportions, of white supremacist vitriol, as well as weather-related catastrophes, we have evidence that people are resilient and, under pressure, can change in a humane direction.

We have seen more social and political engagement in the past year than in my lifetime. Folks now know who represents them in government. They have considered running for office themselves. And they are sharing their opinions like never before.

There are many ways, both loud and quiet, to ensure that all of us have our dignity and bodies protected.

I am writing as the executive director of SOJOURN, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity. I am also a citizen who understands that when one life is in danger for not fitting into a certain mold, all of us are at risk. We all need to be vigilant.

While I want to believe that my rights are guaranteed, too many times the powers that be have proved otherwise, without consulting me or the people I care for and care for me about our needs.

Most recently there has been a reversal of transgender people serving in the military. In our state of Georgia and in 32 other states, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) people can be excluded from getting health care, and these states don’t allow same-sex couples to legally adopt.

It is likely that there will be federal legislation that sanctions discrimination based on one’s religious beliefs. Do your religious beliefs uphold these prejudiced policies?

The Torah mentions to love the stranger because you were once a stranger in a strange land. The text doesn’t mention this adage once; it has 36 references! At SOJOURN, we have a T-shirt that states, “Love your neighbor (even if they are not) like yourself.”

That value has become a commandment in our inclusion work, and we continue to pass it on.

This year SOJOURN caught the attention of Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, which saw the potential of and helped to fund a new program called EDGE (Early Development for Gender Equity). Working with 5- and 6-year-olds, along with the adults in their lives, we are cultivating an environment where children are not restricted because of their gender.

Upon learning about the effort, Faye Dresner, the chief programming officer of Jewish Family & Career Services, exclaimed, “If you start at such a young age, you eventually won’t have a need for SOJOURN’s other programs.” We hope so too.

JF&CS also has embarked on a yearlong discovery process through SOJOURN’s Welcoming Communities Project, which will help the agency enhance its LGBTQ inclusion practices, benefiting everyone, not just LGBTQ people.

When Joy Ladin, a Stern College of Yeshiva University professor who transitioned gender while on faculty, came to Atlanta in August, 260 people showed tremendous interest in learning about her.

Knowing that conversations and questions about gender diversity are becoming more common, we intend to expand our transgender-directed education. We plan to create a curriculum that addresses people’s life experiences that go beyond the male-female binary.

As a way to demonstrate SOJOURN’s work, there will be five SOJOURN in the Sukkah community events during Sukkot. We also will celebrate the 50-plus Jewish organizations that are partnering with SOJOURN for the Atlanta Pride Festival and Parade on Oct. 14 and 15. Come join us! Attending events like these is a visible source of support and a way of “showing up.”

SOJOURN’s pinnacle event is Purim off Ponce, an annual fundraiser that is also a community celebration. This year’s honorees, Judy Marx and Billy Planer, are being recognized for their professional and personal efforts toward building loving communities where LGBTQ people feel welcomed, listened to and safe.

In 5778, SOJOURN will continue to be here so that we may all feel that way — welcomed, listened to and safe — no matter what mold you represent. Remember, love your neighbor (even if they are not) like yourself.


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