Death of gay student inspires Jewish calls for justice

Jewish voices have joined the national chorus of pain and outrage over the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student.

Following the death last week of Matthew Shepard, whose skull was bashed in and body strung up on a fence, national Jewish groups are condemning inflammatory rhetoric and upping the call for far-reaching hate crimes legislation.

The 21-year-old Shepard died Monday of last week, five days after his skull was crushed by a pistol butt. Two young men have been charged with first-degree murder. Their girlfriends have been charged as accessories to the crime.

Vigils and memorials were held throughout the Bay Area in the name of Shepard and others who have fallen victim to hate-inspired violence.

Last Friday, the day of the young man's funeral, members of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav — a Reform synagogue with outreach to gays and lesbians — shared a moment of silence before reciting Kaddish at Shabbat services. Rabbi Jane Litman repeated a eulogy delivered by a friend of Shepard's earlier in the day.

The next night, Litman spoke at a San Francisco vigil against hate and violence. The vigil was co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a community service organization comprised primarily of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered men and women.

Some 700 people showed up to walk silently down Market Street with candles in hand. They then listened to Litman, San Francisco Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno and others speak out against hate.

Litman believes it's crucial for religious leaders to make their voices heard.

"Much of the homophobia in this country at this moment is painfully and ironically forwarded by a group of people who call themselves religious," she said.

Shepard's death, the rabbi said, has taken a toll on her congregants, many of whom have called her and sent e-mails expressing their anxiety.

"It makes people feel very insecure and unsafe," she said. "A lot of guys have been writing me that they've had nightmares."

Litman has told them what she told those attending Saturday's vigil. Living in denial of the danger won't do any good. Neither will allowing it to intimidate people from living freely and openly.

"We keep living our lives. We keep asserting our right to exist," she said. "That's a statement against hate."

Rabbi Paul J. Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a strong statement as well. "The violent death of Matthew Shepard underscores the urgency of legislation against hate crimes — especially those committed against minorities, gays and lesbians. It's unconscionable that many states and the federal government do not have laws that impose harsh penalties for these dastardly acts."

Following Shepard's death, some have charged that recent statements from public officials condemning homosexuality fostered the climate in which the killing took place.

The American Jewish Congress declared in a statement that the tragedy should serve as a warning to those in public life who utter "provocative words which can be used to provide a cover of respectability for flagrant bigotry."

"Even as the attackers of Shepard face the death penalty, public figures must wake up to the fact that words have consequences," notes the statement by AJCongress president Jack Rosen and Phil Baum, the organization's executive director.

"They do not have to love gays, but a perceived willingness to accept people as they are would at least take away some of the motives for these atrocities."

The AJCongress leaders specifically cite the conservative Family Research Council and its head, Gary Bauer, for loudly proclaiming an anti-gay agenda.

But religious conservatives are denying the link between words and murderous actions.

Rabbi David Z. Ben-Ami, chair of the advisory committee of another conservative organization, the Institute for Religious Values, responded to the AJCongress statement by saying that "religiously motivated opposition to homosexual behavior is not responsible for the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard.

"Those who believe that God opposes all sexual sin and that the Bible considers homosexual behavior to be unacceptable have a responsibility to speak out to defend their beliefs."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.