Civil riteCivil rite

Bar mitzvah boy talks up gay marriage

Duncan Sennett uses speech to deliver plea for opportunity of ‘men and women to marry whomever they love’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

We’ve heard speeches about marriage equality from just about everyone — activists, lawmakers, judges, celebrities. Now, stumping for the freedom to marry has reached new frontiers with a bar mitzvah sermon that has gone viral on YouTube.

With the video getting 100,000 views in less than a week, it’s evident that it’s not just the members of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, who are impressed with young Duncan Sennett’s take on the Torah.

Moved by Duncan’s passionate presentation, the synagogue’s leadership asked him to get back on the bimah after his November 9 ceremony to give his speech again — this time in front of a camera — so that it could be posted on the synagogue’s website.

While Duncan did a good job of connecting his Torah portion, Vayetze, to marriage equality, it turns out that he was planning to talk about the issue no matter what.

“I knew I was going to do marriage equality,” Duncan told The Times of Israel. “I think it’s just stupid that gay marriage is illegal. Making it legal is just the right thing to do.”

There is no mistaking where Duncan stands on the issue. “While studying my Torah portion and comparing and contrasting marriage in the past and present, I found it would be irresponsible to exclude the topic of gay marriage. I am a very, very strong supporter of equal rights and the freedom of men and women to marry whomever they love,” he says in his speech.

“People who disagree with me like to quote the Bible and say that traditional marriage should be between only one man and one woman. But as we see in my Torah portion, which I just read, the definition of traditional marriage is nothing like what it is today.

“Jacob married two sisters who were his first cousins,” he deadpans.

Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana, Congregation Beth Israel’s senior rabbi, was not at all surprised by Duncan’s speech. “It’s not uncommon for kids in our congregation to speak out on political issues,” he stays. “But Duncan was particularly personal and persuasive in his d’var Torah.”

Cahana himself spoke about marriage equality during his High Holiday sermon. All the synagogue’s clergy have been very supportive of the issue, and the board of trustees voted to endorse efforts to place a measure to overturn a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on next November’s ballot.

Duncan has found affirmation for his views at home, as well. A dance student at an arts magnet school, he moved to Portland from Los Angeles four years ago with his mother, a yoga studio owner; his father, a teacher; and his older brother.

“I’ve grown up open-minded about issues, especially marriage equality,” he says. “My mom has lots of gay friends. They used to take me to Prop 8 rallies when we lived in California.”

Supporting gay marriage comes naturally for him, as it does for his young friends and classmates. He believes that to be a Jew is to be a supporter of equal rights.

The bar mitzvah boy, however, was shocked by all the attention his speech is getting. Duncan, who wants to be a scientist when he grows up, does not find politics particularly appealing. Still, he plans on capitalizing on his 15 minutes of fame.

“Now that [the video] has gone viral, I can make a difference in the fight for marriage equality,” he says hopefully.

“My Torah portion taught me that the definition of traditional marriage has changed a lot since the days of the Torah, so why can’t it change just a little bit more so that everybody can marry who they love?”

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