As a child in the Haredi Orthodox community in New York, I – along with all the other boys – wore a black cloth kippah, the “skullcap” whose origin goes at least as far back as the Book of Samuel when David ascended the Mount of Olives and covered his head. And while my relationship to this garment has its origins in the ancient rabbinic teachings about appreciation of the Divine presence, over the years I’ve developed a more multifaceted relationship with my kippah.
When I began my career, there were two models in my community of Orthodox men participating in public service; one was embodied by elected officials who were unapologetically in politics to represent the interest of the Orthodox Jewish community as they understood them, and the other was embodied by officials who wore their Orthodoxy openly and proudly, as a values system that informed their politics in service to a broader society. The first group wore their kippot (plural for kippah) on the floor of the state legislature, the latter were never seen with one while performing their public duties. I aspired to the second model of public service. I stopped wearing a kippah in public for over a decade.
As I turned thirty and committed to my second career, building Jewish community that was meaningful for myself and my peers, I put the kippah back on my head. I found meaning in explicitly claiming Jewish space and holding on to commitments to traditional practice while I was coming out of the closet. It became a part of my narrative of authenticity to my whole self, by not giving up one part of my identity – traditional Jewish practice – to live fully as another: as an Out person. That choice, to proudly affirm my full self, informed the work I was doing and the communities I was building, including serving as a leader of the first partnership minyan in the US. It was there, that years later, in my role as a gabbai (overseer of prayer service), I had the privilege of officiating, when – for the first time anywhere – Orthodox same-sex fathers were able to stand together and name their daughter at the bimah on Shabbat morning.
In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, I coordinated an investment by Jewish federations in recovery efforts beyond the Jewish community. On an early visit to New Orleans, a minister pulled me aside and said, in the most loving tone possible, “It is very courageous of you to wear that Jewish cap in these parts.” In that moment I was reminded of an exchange that Ruth Messinger, Former Manhattan Borough President and President of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), had shared with me: After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, AJWS quickly mobilized millions of dollars for relief and recovery. President George W. Bush invited her and other charitable leaders to the White House. She told him about how AJWS was providing fishing boats to villagers in Indonesia so that they could start rebuilding their livelihoods. The President praised AJWS’ efforts and added, “make sure that sides of the boats have painted on that this was made possible with support from American Jewish World Service.” He understood, and wanted to underscore the importance of visibility when Jews act on our Jewish values in service to the common good.
I kept that kippah on in meetings in Mississippi and Louisiana (though I did have the good sense to put a baseball cap on when I was out on the streets on my own). In the years since, and now at JCRC – where our work is to represent Jewish values and interests in the public square – I’ve become more conscious of my kippah, not only as an act of faith but as an expression of the visibility of the Jewish people. A garment can be not only about a relationship with the Divine, but also an expression of our culture and our presence when living and practicing our values. When I am at an interfaith rally or a hearing on public policy, I want to be seen as a member of the Jewish community, as part of a presence of our people in partnership with others. When I wear my Jewishness openly, I’m inviting conversations –opportunities to inform and educate – with those who approach me with questions and a desire for connection.
There are still those situations where I choose to be less visible. When I was in Germany, at the advice of local Jewish activists in Berlin, I kept my kippah off in public. It saddens and angers me to realize that there are places where it’s not safe to be Jewish. It is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
This month, the kippah I’m wearing is a rainbow one – for Pride Month. Thirty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of wearing it, but now I do so as a visible expression of an identity that encompasses multiple parts. My rainbow kippah embodies how I’ve come to understand belonging, visibility, and the responsibility to show up proudly as our whole selves – in our community and in our work in the world.