I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
As a sixteen-year-old Jewish lesbian who attends a private Jewish high school, I had never been surrounded by peers I could relate to. I had never met another Jewish queer, and often struggled to balance my religion with my “identity.” In fact, identity was a concept I had never fully grasped. Is identity something pre-determined and constant, like fingerprints? Is it a sense of self, altering as we grow and become more self-aware?
I did not expect three days and a small group of Jewish queers and allies to help me answer such difficult questions I had pondered all my life.
Our three-day long journey was filled with numerous moments that allowed these answers to unfold before my eyes. Perhaps it was the way that the other teens welcomed me with open arms, even though it was my first time at a Keshet event. I instantly felt connected to these people from day one. Although we each had our own backgrounds, hobbies, and personalities, we were all Jewish and queer, and that was enough to build relationships. Maybe it was the way the spirit of Shabbat filled the entire retreat center when everyone joyfully raised their voice to exclaim: “the birds in the trees are singing the song of Shabbat! The snowflakes on the ground are singing the songs of Shabbat… the queers in the shul are singing the songs of Shabbat!”
I began to answer my own personal questions during the Friday night story-telling program. Each person went around and spoke about what brought them to attend Keshet’s Shabbaton. Attempting to collect my thoughts, many answers ran through my mind. Yes, I was there because I wanted to make friends and to entertain myself over the holiday vacation. However, as a newfound friend finished speaking, I found myself sharing an interesting truth that I was unaware of until that moment. I had always had a safe space to be Jewish: with my school, my youth group (BBYO), and my Jewish friends. I often had a safe space to be a lesbian: with my family and my few queer friends. I knew how to be Jewish, and I knew how to be queer, yet I had never known how to be a Jewish queer, nor have I ever had a safe space to do so.
This realization has since allowed me to value the great gift Keshet has given to me: the space and ability to be all components of whom I am as well as a place where my religion and sexual orientation can coincide. Returning from the Shabbaton, I have discovered a greater sense of confidence and the ability to share what it means to be a Jewish queer with those who were not fortunate enough to attend such a spectacular weekend. My voice matters. As a young Jewish lesbian, Keshet has given me the tools and experiences essential to promoting social justice within my own religious community at home.
You can find other posts by LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies here, on such topics as coming out in an Orthodox day school, deciding to go “stealth” as a young trans person, being a professional ally to LGBTQ youth, and more.