When Al Munzer went to his first gay pride street event in Washington 36 years ago, he hung back at first.
“I was actually looking from the sidewalk,” Munzer said. “I was afraid to participate. That’s before I came out. And since then it’s been part of my life.”
Munzer and his husband, Joel Wind, were among the 350 people who attended Friday’s National Pride Shabbat at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
It was a rainbow-studded event, including a reception, prayer service and dinner. Guests ate multi-colored vegetables with green hummus as appetizers and rainbow-colored challah at dinner. They wore rainbow-hued kippot, and they closed the service by singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Yiddish.
With Pride Shabbat coming the night before Washington’s Capital Pride Parade, Munzer said he enjoys being able to express his gay identity.
But he admitted to being a bit nostalgic for earlier pride festivals, which were more intimate and less commercial.
“The first pride festivals were small. They took place [in Rock Creek Park] and Bet Mishpachah [a congregation for LGBT Jews] would sell Dr. Brown’s cream soda and kugel,” he said. “So it’s been highly commercialized. It should go back to being a street festival.”
Bet Mishpachah sponsored Friday’s event, along with GLOE, the LGBTQ outreach program at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.
Still, Wind said that pride events are important for showing solidarity and sending a message that LGBT rights still have a long way to go in the United States, despite the progress that has been made in the last 30 years.
“I grew up with, ‘Oh, you’re a fag. You’re a faggot,’” Wind said. “I don’t want to go back to hiding in the closet and not wearing my rainbow kippah. So I’m hoping for the best.”
Pride Shabbat came a year after Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. During the service, Rabbi Shira Stutman read a few of the victims’ names in memory of the shooting.
The Orlando shooting has given the LGBT community pause, said Josef Palermo, the director of GLOE.
“The shooting is so connected to pride now,” he said. “We can certainly celebrate how far we’ve come, but we need to also remember the fallen among us as well.”
Last year’s attack reminded Munzer of a tragedy that changed his life.
“I’m a child survivor of the Holocaust, so I know a lot about the juxtaposition of horrible events and happiness and joy,” he said. “In my case, the joy of having had my life saved by an Indonesian family living in Holland. That’s a cause for celebration, and yet there’s always a danger of terrible things happening in the world. And, sadly, I think that danger is greater today than it was.”
Yet the mood was generally upbeat. Attendees danced in a circle around the sanctuary while singing festive songs. At dinner, guests played LGBT-themed trivia, answering questions about gay television celebrities and Broadway shows. Washington resident Christopher Labrot, dressed as Queen Esther from the Purim story, played host.
Labrot, who is not Jewish, said he moved from New York to Washington when his partner decided to attend law school at Georgetown University. For the last eight months, Labrot has been taking conversion classes at Sixth & I.
He first wore the Esther costume for a Purim play. “They said, ‘We need someone to play Esther,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ So this was kind of a reprisal.”
Labrot said that despite the Orlando shooting and continuing discrimination against LGBT people, he is glad that pride remains a largely positive event.
“I think the event reminds us that while we are having a serious conversation at this moment, it’s important to have fun, and it’s important to review our history and bring everyone together with
Chechnyan activist speaks out
Another sobering moment occurred during the service when Alina, representative from the nongovernmental organization, the Russian LGBT Network, spoke about the human rights situation in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Alina, who asked to only use her first name due fear of retribution, told the audience that gay men in Chechnya have faced imprisonment, torture and even death in some cases. She said she was grateful to be able to celebrate pride in the United States since citizens of her home country do not enjoy the same rights.
According an April report in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, more than men have been arrested either for being openly gay or for being suspected of being gay by the Russian government and that three people had died. Palermo said speaking out against the Chechnyan pogroms is just as important as condemning discrimination in the United States.
“It’s definitely something that our community is paying attention to,” he said. “As queer Jews we have a moral imperative to bear witness and speak out against these kinds of injustices.”