Last weekend a group of 60+ LGBTQ and ally teens joined together for the 4th annual Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. These words of Torah were shared by one of the participants during Shabbat services.
In Parshat Tetzavah, God gives Moses his holy grocery list: oil lighting for the Menorah, some fancy spices for the oil, and some other spices to burn in the sanctuary. You know… the usual. God didn’t just send Moses on this shopping spree for fun. God knew that the Kohanim needed to see the oil before they began doing their job: guiding the Jewish nation. They needed to know there would be, literally, light at the end of the tunnel before they started going into it.
At the Keshet/Hazon Shabbaton last year, I was openly out for the first time. The joke of the attendees was going up to me and asking, “Val, are you gay?” because I couldn’t stop saying it. But I figured out I was gay in 7th grade. So why did it take so long for me to be me?
Just like the Kohanim, I also had doubts about navigating through the tunnel, finding my light. I’m sure quite a few of you in this room know that tunnel, and it’s pretty damn dark.
I tried to make myself straight, which basically meant throwing in comments about whether I was team Jacob or team Edward every once in a while. Let’s be real, I’m team Kristen Stewart.
When I realized I couldn’t force myself to be straight, the denial and depression hit me like the tidal wave when Pharaoh tried to cross the Red Sea. I barely spoke to anyone, dropped all my activities, shut out my friends, and was this close to going into another type of tunnel, the one you don’t come back from.
Then I came out to my best friend, and I started my own Coming Out 101 to prepare for this process. This course will be coming to college campuses near you soon. (Juuust kidding.) Anyway, it was time to start shopping, time to pull out the gay grocery list. I stayed up every night watching every coming out video I could find. I studied each method, trying to figure out the perfect formula to come out, trying to find a solution that didn’t really exist.
God gave Moses a list of everything he needed to be a leader, but what really made Moses realize what he needed to do was getting thrown into the trenches when he least expected it. Because yes, the Kohanim needed oil and spices for the Menorah because that’s what makes a fire—that’s science. But would the fire burn if nobody lit the match?
I’m going to tell you something that took me way too long to figure out, something I realized right here in this room last year.
You can watch every coming out video on the internet. You can practice saying it every morning in your mirror. You can shop in every aisle, from realization to depression to denial, you can hate yourself and love yourself and try to find the RIGHT way to be, but the reality is that E may equal MC2, but your identity isn’t a math problem.
Your identity isn’t a problem at all.
And when you realize that, whether you already have or you do this weekend or you do in five years, you ignite a fire. You light your own menorah. And let me tell you, that’s just the beginning.
You may be used to getting butterflies because somebody sees your rainbow tallit and you think, oh no, what if they know, please don’t know, but soon you’re going to get butterflies because the person you love is holding your hand and everything’s finally in place. You may be used to walking alone in your school hallway, hiding yourself, but soon you’re going to walk alongside others of the same movement, waving a flag for your identity with hundreds of people, all creating a rhythm for justice. You may be used to praying to God in your synagogue to please help you, because you don’t know how much longer you can last, but soon, SO soon, you will be sitting proudly at your table for Shabbat dinner, because mazel tov, you made it.
But don’t stop there. Remember your roots. Send this message on and help somebody else light their menorah. Together, we can get out of this tunnel.
Because here’s the secret that shouldn’t be a secret: we are the light, Keshet. All you gotta do is strike the match.
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At the young age of 5, I started what would be a decade of denial. I should’ve known I was gay when I was in preschool, and I asked my mom if there was a country where I could marry my best friend, Rachel.
I should’ve known I was gay when I put it on my calendar every Monday for five years to “Pick A New Crush.” Every other girl in my class had a crush on a boy, so I would take a look around a classroom and pick the boy that wasn’t picking his nose. I didn’t have high standards.
I should’ve known I was gay when I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction over and over again just for the one scene when Maggie Gyllenhaal danced in the bakery.
I should’ve known I was gay, and deep down I did know I was gay, but society told me I had to be something I’m not, and I obeyed.
I came out for the first time to one of my closest friends at a convention for my youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY). She immediately accepted me but I was still slapping myself in the face when I saw a cute girl and constantly praying to G-d to please, Hashem, help me be “normal.”
I came out to a group of peers on April 4th, 2014 at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. I drove up from my New York suburb to Middle Of Nowhere, Connecticut (Falls Village) with my best friend from USY to the Isabella Freedman Center.
With shaking hands, I grabbed my suitcase and walked into a room with around 50 Jewish teens. Some draped rainbow flags over their shoulders and others chatted about the best challah recipe for Shabbat dinner. From learning about the hardships that other LGBT Jewish teens have endured to doing services on a mountain top, I felt the largest connection to Judaism I have ever experienced and my hatred for myself transformed into an overwhelming sense of pride. April 4th to 6th is the weekend that changed my life for the better.
Walking into my suburban public school the next day was a nightmare. I feared being taunted, judged, losing the friends I had just finally made.
But it was exactly the opposite.
My day started with a phone call from another Keshet Teen LGBTQ Shabbaton attendee, congratulating me and wishing me luck. I only met that teen a few months ago, but they are now not only a friend, but family. I got messages of support from people in school and people in my synagogue, people who live next door to me, and people who practice Judaism in Africa.
Especially this month, I’m so incredibly thankful for the Jewish community for teaching me that different is not just “ok,” but incredible.
We Jews are all over the place and the sense of family—whether the conversation is about coming out or what horseradish brand is on your seder plate—is so immense and welcoming. No matter what, I know that I am branded with the imprint of my grandmother’s matzo ball recipe and that my rainbow flag is proudly stained with grape juice from my Shabbat dinner.