Ami wrote this right before he left for college this fall. He bravely chronicled coming out at his Orthodox high school while still a student. He was recently chosen as a “young visionary” of the Jewish community by The New York Jewish Week. You can follow Ami @thesubwaypoet.
A Kavanah for College
Shushan Purim — the day after the Purim that Jews outside of Jerusalem celebrate — is the day that I came out of the closet to my closest friends. I was barely 16 years old, and came out not knowing a single other LGBT person, let alone another LGBT Jew. The irony of coming out of the closet on Purim was lost on me until recently.
Coincidence though it might have been, on a holiday we celebrate by dressing up and hiding who we really are, I chose to share my deepest secret with my best friends. In doing so, I embarked on a journey that changed the way I would view both myself and the path my life would take.
For many, coming out of the closet was a way to escape from religion — some were chased away, others left voluntarily. Coming out in high school, however, was the exact opposite for me. Instead of distancing me from religion, it changed how I approached my Judaism. Ultimately, it brought me closer.
I grew up in a very religiously right-wing community in southern Brooklyn. I was the only one of my peers to attend a coeducational high school, and one of a few to be attending college in the fall. I felt alienated even before I realized I was gay and came out of the closet. Coming out, for me, only served to reinforce the divide that I felt between myself and my community. That gap became so wide that my family eventually felt forced to leave the community, and lost contact with all but a few people from the neighborhood that I considered my hometown.
I came into high school expecting mostly to pass through without being noticed. I wanted to be lower on the radar than I was in middle school, where I was bullied for being effeminate and un-athletic, and for living in a neighborhood farther away from everyone else. I didn’t want to “find myself” — whatever that meant.
Instead, I did. In coming out of the closet, I found my way back to religion, I found a community, and I found my passion. High school, for me, was as much about academics as it was about incidentally finding a group of friends who were accepting enough for me to open up to them about the secret that I had sworn I would never reveal to anyone, and who would encourage me to seek out — or create — opportunities to make a change in my high school. When the door to one community shut me out completely, the window to another community opened. It was these friends, and this community that I sought out and ultimately found that would redefine the way I would approach religion and my identity as a gay, Jewish teen.
When I came out, I did so to virtual silence. I was one of a handful of students to have come out while still a student at my school. Few people I came out to had ever met a queer teen before, and fewer still had met one who was out in an Orthodox Jewish day school like mine. (To be fair, though, when I was coming out to these friends, I hadn’t met a single other openly LGBT Jewish teen attending a Jewish day school, either.) It was this silence that prompted me to cultivate a community inside my school of people who cared about the LGBT community, and seek a community outside of school that would allow me to synthesize my gay and Jewish identities.
In school, my friend and I co-founded the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, which helped me find people who were passionate about discussing issues that were often pushed to the side, and also helped put the same ideas into the minds of the rest of the student body: now, others were beginning to think of the same issues that I had to face when I was coming out of the closet. Outside of school, I became connected with Keshet and Eshel, where I met other queer Jewish teens (through the former, at their shabbatonim), and queer Orthodox Jews (through the latter, at their retreats and through their Speakers’ Bureau training). For the first time in my life, I felt as if I no longer had to hide an integral part of who I was. I was a gay, Orthodox, Jewish teen. And for the first time, something felt right.
As I look forward to college, I realize that my opportunities were somewhat limited. I was only able to go so far in high school. College — and especially the program I will be attending — will allow me to study my Judaism not only from an academic perspective, but from an experiential perspective as well. There, I will be able to study the Jewish community’s history and philosophy, which will give me the background I need to create a lasting change in the Jewish community.
High school was a time for me to help myself find the resources that I need. Now, I have those same resources at my disposal, and more. In college, I hope to begin creating resources for queer, Orthodox teens that can be much more readily available than just one club at one school, and to find ways to reach out to communities that might be more isolated than my high school. I hope that college will be a time when I lay the groundwork for work that will help others come after me, so that no other queer Jewish teen will ever have to feel the alienation that I once felt as a quiet, closeted Jewish teen in southern Brooklyn.
“If it doesn’t bring more love into the world, it probably isn’t religion.”
The date was October 13, 2010, and I was at Tufts University’s Coming Out Day Rally. At the rally, Tufts University’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, spoke about the importance of not just tolerating people’s differences but embracing them and told the crowd the statement quoted above. This message was so simple, yet so powerful — and so powerfully different from what I expected a religious leader speaking about LGBTQ issues to say.
Growing up, I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School from kindergarten until 12th grade. Throughout high school, I struggled to come to terms with my sexual orientation and my religious beliefs. I was forced to grapple with these issues alone, as my high school did not offer any support for queer students and in general ignored their existence. As far as I know, no one has ever come out in my high school (though one student who was already out transferred in) and homophobic comments, including the commonly repeated phrase “that’s so gay,” went unchallenged. Consequently, I never felt safe coming out in high school.
With back-to-school season upon us, Julie Sugar reminisces on what she learned at college…as an educator, not a student. Julie’s reflections remind all of us, in turn, about the immense, powerful, and sometimes under-appreciated role allies play in creating inclusive space for everyone.
I found my voice in college—though not as a student.
I worked for nearly three years at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, where I wore (as all Hillel professionals do) many hats: running internships, staffing trips, advising clubs, and more. One group I advised was Keshet, NYU’s club for LGBTQ Jews [no relation to the Keshet that runs this blog!] and their allies. Keshet had been larger and more active in the past, and was quite small when I started. Then, with time, incredible student leaders, and staff support, the group blossomed and became a renewed presence on campus. On a personal level, I learned so much through the experience:
At first, I felt insecure and tongue-tied. I was sensitive enough to know the impact of insensitivity, and the fear of saying something wrong (LGBT? GLBT? Add the Q? What’s the deal with the word “queer”? Can I call myself an “ally”?) was overwhelming.
An NYU student-led SafeZone sensitivity training brought home what I started to feel intuitively: good intentions do make a difference. When you speak with someone, and you say something that is not perfectly up to speed with the lingo, it’s okay. Yes, learn the lingo—but don’t silence yourself as you learn. You care. That does make it better.
I worked with three consecutive student presidents of Keshet. When I started working with the third student, we would darkly joke that she was president and sole member of the club. We met for an hour every week. We felt confident—as the previous president and I had felt—that there were students who would greatly benefit from the presence of a group for LGBTQ Jews and their allies. So we kept going. Another student stepped up as vice-president. We kept going. The group came together over time, and I’m sure that every moment we kept going was what brought us to the next.