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Whitman: Rainbow yarmulke signals arrival of new rabbi at Brandon's Beth Shalom

Rabbi Bryan Mann (courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom of Brandon)
Published Sep. 24, 2018

Rabbi Bryan Mann wears a rainbow yarmulke to offer a message.

Mann, the new Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, wants all people to know they are welcome and accepted.

As a Jewish youth growing up in New Hampshire, Mann chose not to come out as gay. Religious teachings about homosexuality left him confused. Still, he felt a deep connection to the Torah and Judaism.

In high school, Mann became involved with NFTY NE, a Jewish youth group organization, in which he learned from his peers and became a leader. He later studied abroad in Israel, before earning a degree in Jewish Studies from Temple University. At age 19, he began speaking openly about this sexual orientation. He then went on to study at the Rabbinical school of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, where he was ordained June 3, 2018.

Mann served as a social justice intern of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, Massachusetts and was active in Keshet, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ persons inclusion in Jewish Life.

Congregation Beth Shalom is his first placement as a senior Rabbi.

I spoke to Mann, 29, about his new role and the acceptance of LGBTQ people within Jewish culture.

When did you first see yourself becoming a Rabbi?

I started falling in love with the Jewish rituals and practices through my youth group. When I was about 15 I became really involved. I was able to see my peers lead and had the opportunity to lead. My Rabbi at synagogue was never connected to the youth. So, at the time I thought being a Rabbi meant being like him and I didn't want to be like him. It wasn't until I was 19 and in Israel, when I had a spiritual experience, that I understood being a Rabbi was what I was meant to do.

When you started Rabbinical school, you were openly gay, how has your lifestyle been received within Judaism?

Well, being a gay rabbi, sometimes people do think twice about it. Sometimes people outside the Jewish world are shocked. Someone in the LGBTQ community will ask what I do and when I say I'm a Rabbi they say, 'A gay Rabbi, is that a thing? You can do that?' Within Judaism, people who are very involved in Jewish life usually understand that this is where we are at now, that it makes sense. People who haven't been to synagogue in years are sometimes surprised. Really, there are a lot more of us than there used to be. Another gay rabbi was ordained with me and there are transgender rabbis as well.

Judaism still has its own problematic history with acceptance of LGBTQ people. When I was a kid, I grew up hearing the Rabbi read the text on Yom Kippur, 'No man shall lay with another man' and without context, I didn't understand what that meant for me. It was really frustrating for me at 15, 16 and 17, not knowing what to do with that text.

That's why I wear my rainbow yarmulke to show LGBT Jewish people they can be involved in religious life, that it can be a community for them. It is important for us to say this is who I am. I am valued. I am loved.

How do you and others working toward change address the text on Yom Kippur?

I don't know yet how Congregation Beth Shalom handles the text. What I have done and have seen done well is to add your own words of interpretation before the text. One interpretation is that it is about two men laying together to worship another God. Another interpretation is about power dynamics. I will most likely bring in some of my own words.

What brought you to Congregation Beth Shalom?

Through Rabbinical school, I sent out resumes and went on interviews. I found Congregation Beth Shalom and they found me. They are a really great fit. They are welcoming and accepting, they have a deep love and respect for everyone in the community. A lot of congregations present themselves as being this way but the people at Beth Shalom really own it.

How are things going so far?

It's going well. It's been a little bit of a sprint with the High Holidays. I arrived in August so I had just over a month to get ready. I've been focused on meeting and getting to know the people. I've been doing care visits and try to be at religious school on Sundays.

What new things have you implemented? What are your plans for the year?

We started live streaming services online. I've been reaching out to members on Yahrzeit, the anniversary of deaths of loved ones, which gives them an opportunity to share stories and honor the person they are mourning.

Really, I am taking this time to really find out what the congregation needs, to sit down with people and ask what they are looking for from me, what programs and efforts do they care about? If I came in and said this is what I care about and this is what we need to do, that wouldn't work out well.

Will you offer programs for LGBTQ youth?

I don't really know how we will be involved as a community but youth are always welcome to come to me for support.

You are considered a young rabbi? Have you faced any discrimination because of your age?

Not discrimination. Some people will say you are the same age as my grandchildren or things like that, which can make me question if they see me as their rabbi or a grandchild, but they mean it as a way to form a sweet connection. With my messages related to activism, it can sometimes get tricky. Some elders sometimes see the world differently than I do. So, I try to come from a place of listening and trying to understand.

We as Jews have an opportunity right now to support these others groups who are dealing with oppression. We need to organize and support these communities. We need to work together.

How have you been involved in civil rights activism?

In Boston I was very involved. I participated in different organization and marched in March for Our Lives. Here I am still looking into organizations to become involved with and whether I will be involved as an individual, we (Beth Shalom) will be involved as a community or I will invite the community to be involved as individuals.

What advice do you offer LGBTQ Jewish youth?

Coming from my own experience, my advice for all youth is the same. For me, growing up, a lot of times it was implied to leave talking about God and religion up to the adults, that there would be time to get involved when we were older. I want youth to know they can get involved now.

Go different places, try different communities and if you don't feel right there, you haven't found your people yet. Keep looking. Jewish youth need peer support as much as they do adult support.

For more information on Congregation Beth Shalom visit bethshalom-brandon.org.

Contact Sarah Whitman at sarahrothwhitman@gmail.com.

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