Pride Month might be over, but celebrating one’s identity is a year long process. This post comes to us from London, as Abigail reflects coming out, making peace with her journey away from Orthodoxy, and one special Shabbat she spent celebrating her LGBT identity.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a process of coming out.
It began with a few very private conversations with close friends, then talking to my family, then speaking openly about my “new” identity with some complete strangers who would never trace me back to those who actually knew me. Once my confidence began to increase, I was able to start posting a few subtle things on Facebook, and altering the way I behaved and dressed slightly.
It wasn’t until I went to Pride in London on a Shabbat, though, that I really made my debut on the ‘out’ stage, and I did it in style!
I’ve been openly bisexual for a little over a year now, and I can’t even begin to describe how liberating it has been to discover, explore, and accept my sexuality. When I first came out, my friends and family were incredibly supportive, and I was determined to make my bisexuality work alongside my Orthodoxy.
Over time, though, my identification with the former has grown and my commitment to the latter has shrunk. When I found myself embroiled in a discussion about non-heterosexuality in Modern Orthodoxy that descended into people directing at me the judgement that same-sex relationships were on a moral par with promiscuity, I found myself with the liminal moment I’d subconsciously been searching for.
My life was mine to choose, and I could choose the non-religious path.
It was a relief at last to be able to say to the world, “I’m not religious, and that’s OK.” It’s been a long time since I was sure I believed in God or saw the point in a lot of Orthodox practice, but when you live as part of a community, it can be very uncomfortable to admit that, and in many ways the experience was comparable to when I told people that I’m not straight. Having been brought up fairly religious and becoming more so as I got older, throughout my childhood, teenage years and university life I always felt a need to present a certain image to the world.
Judaism is and probably always will be my heritage, which is why I chose to march with the Jewish contingent at Pride in London on Saturday 28th June. Did it bother me that it was Shabbat and that a mere three months ago, I would never have done anything other than eat, sleep, read and perhaps pray if I was with others who were praying? Not particularly. I walked there, and went without money on my person, but otherwise I allowed myself to enjoy the atmosphere. I still celebrate Shabbat, but I do it in my own way. It’s my Day of Rest from the rest of the week–I set the day aside for doing what makes me relaxed and happy and relates in no way to the grind of the working week. Nothing could fit that description better for me than going to Pride and publicly celebrating my LBGT identity.
What a Shabbat! What a celebration! Being immediately surrounded by other LGBT* Jews, and beyond them 30,000 of my non-Jewish LGBT* family, the celebratory atmosphere wasn’t even dampened by the typical British rain. For a while I’ve wondered if Judaism means anything to me at all, but Pride showed me that it does. It felt so liberating to be able to march as an out-and-proud bisexual and an out-and-proud non-religious but committed Jew, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I responded to the Jewish volunteer who hailed us as we passed, heads held high: ‘A good Shabbos to you too! Happy Pride!’
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Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
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.
We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
On July 3, 1981, I wake up to my thirtieth birthday stressed, exhausted, deflated. I wake up to this nightmare of reality every day. I ask myself, “Why is this day different than any other day?” I answer, “It isn’t.” I ask myself, “Am I really in Patchogue? Why am I not waking up in Israel? Is this really my life?” I recall how ten years earlier I celebrated my twentieth birthday on my first visit to Israel. Why is this day different than any other day? Today, on my thirtieth birthday, I am more aware than ever before of my own suffering.
Each morning when I realize I am awake, as I observe the Jewish tradition, I utter a statement of thanksgiving to God for the blessing of waking up to another day of life. The very first words a Jew utters, while still in bed, are “modeh ahni”—I thank you. Each morning I somehow muster up the wherewithal to utter modeh ahni. The very first two-syllable word that my breath releases into the world each morning belies the truth. My life is a curse. Even grammar betrays me. The Hebrew language is gender defined. So, not only am I saying “modeh,” thank you, and not meaning it, I am using the masculine form of the verb, and not “modah,” in the feminine. Even my lie is lying. While my lack of thankfulness is the essence of the lie, even the way I express it is not in truth.
I imagine what my life would be like if I could say modah ahni and mean it. I imagine what miracle it would take for me to wake up feeling grateful for the blessing of life, rather than cursed. I imagine waking up so grateful that my very first words would be to simply say to my Creator, “thank You,” and to really mean it! Impossible!
And I know. I know exactly what my life would have to be like for that to happen, and I also know that I might as well dream to sprout wings and soar upward into the sky. In those years, the reality that my body could actually become that of a woman, literally, totally evaded me. I had no idea that as a caterpillar, entrapped in my own skin, I could indeed undergo a metamorphosis and emerge into a butterfly.
So, I wake up in hiding, I go through the motions of the day in hiding, and I go to sleep in hiding. I am petrified that someone will find out who I really am. After all, I myself am petrified of who I really am!
Two weeks ago over 40 teens gathered for an LGBTQ & Ally Shabbaton organized by Keshet and Hazon. Upon returning home from the weekend, one of the participants shared her story under the pseudonym of Esther Sarah.
I chose the pseudonym of Esther Sarah very specifically. In both of their stories, these women are forced to hide something about them, even though it was something central to their identity. Esther had to hide the fact that she was Jewish when she was sent to marry Achashveros, and Sarah had to hide the fact that she was Avraham’s wife when she and Avraham went to Pharaoh during a famine. I too, am forced to hide something central to my identity: my sexuality. Ultimately, in both stories, both women eventually are able to stop hiding, and when they are open about their true selves, they save everyone around. That gives me a great deal of hope.
I always knew I was bisexual, before I even knew what that meant. For the longest time I just assumed that the way I felt about girls was the way all girls felt about each other. I also figured that since I liked boys too, that I was “normal” and didn’t need to worry about any of it. But, after a friend came out to me at summer camp the summer before eighth grade, I realized that my feelings were legitimate, and needed to be recognized. Thus began my journey of questioning, coming out, and, sadly, staying in the closet sometimes.
I’m out to my immediate family, but I’m not out to the rest of my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). I have heard extremely homophobic things come out of the mouths of my relatives, which makes me incredibly upset. This is my family! How can they say such cruel things? Would they still say them if I was out? Right now, this is a question that I’m scared to know the answer to.
I’ve heard many horror stories of people coming out to relatives and being kicked out subsequently, and not being allowed to be part of their own families anymore. In fact, I know a person who, upon coming out, had to hear their own uncle begin to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The person was dead to their family. It’s horrifying.
Every now and again I toy with the idea of coming out. I tell myself that this Thanksgiving, this Pesach, this holiday will be when I finally tell everyone. And then I hear things like “Homosexuals should try to be straight and normal before they go off and choose their lifestyle,” and I remember why I’m still not out. I hate being closeted more than I can say, but I still love my family. And I don’t want to be hated or disrespected. Not that anyone does, but still.
The parallels between my story and the stories of Esther and Sarah are amazing. Like me right now, they hid who they were because it seemed like the safest course of action. But, eventually, the only way they could save themselves and their loved ones was to “come out”, and reveal their true identities. I know that, eventually, I will have to come out of the closet to my family and reveal my true identity. It’s scary, but I can look to Esther and Sarah to remind me that the bravery of revealing yourself will yield positive results.
When Adina wanted to come out to her family four years ago, Passover seder was the obvious opportunity. Adina grew up in a vibrant Jewish family with a rabbi and Jewish educator for parents, and so it wasn’t simply that everyone would be gathered together, but more so that seder presented an invitation to teach words of Torah to frame her coming out. For Adina, Passover represented some of Judaism’s most important principles, and the call to retell the story of our own liberation resonated with her experiences as a queer person. As she reflected, “it is our hope as queers that our voices will be heard by those we love; those we need to help us usher in a more just world. It is easy to make this plea and hope some divine being will hear us and solve it. It is easy to be part of a movement or campaign or political tag line. It is harder to look around our table and hold the hand of the one sitting next to us and cry out with that person. God only took us out of Egypt upon hearing our voice.”
We’ve asked Adina to share her Torah with all of us this year. We hope this family haggadah supplement will offer everyone gathered around your Seder table the opportunity to consider how you may pursue justice and liberation for LGBTQ people.
And you will answer and say before Adonai your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt and resided there in small numbers. He became a nation–great, powerful and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly. They persecuted us and put us under hard labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors. God heard our voice. God saw our persecution, our toil and our oppression. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land of milk and honey. Now I have brought the first fruits of this soil, which you, God, gave me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)
When we return to the story of Peasch (or Passover) year after year, our maggid (story), we return to a reminder of from where we have come. Our parent wandered. Our ancestor searched for a place to call home; out of which we emerged as a nation and a community. As Jews, we are blessed with a tradition that teaches us to stretch what it means to be family and on all days of the year to welcome the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. The lesson is especially salient on Pesach, as we open our doors and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Food, however, may not be the only nourishment our bodies and souls are craving.
When we recall our slavery in Egypt, so too are we called to notice the oppression in our midst, the Egyptians of our day treat those who are LGBTQ harshly. Those in our LGBTQ community suffer from higher than average rates of abuse, homelessness, harassment, and violence. For some of us, just walking down the street poses a threat to safety that others never need consider. None of us are exempt from being in the role of Egyptian. We may believe we have just cause for persecuting those who are different, we may do so without intent to harm, and we may do so with our silence. Yet our story teaches that it is our responsibility to recognize oppression and cry out for justice. The Torah teaches us that as human beings we are created b’tzelem elohim–in the image of God. The divine spark is in each one of us, and we each have the power to hear those who cry out and witness their pain, to extend our hands and stretch out our arms to those who are still in a narrow place. Some years it might be us, or the people we love, who need those open arms and a strong hand.
Jewish people living in the United States today are in many ways living in a time of milk and honey. While we have our individual and collective struggles and hardships, as a people we are not under the threat our ancestors once lived with. We have a responsibility to use this land, this time and space that we are in, to make fruit from this soil. We honor our tradition and history by standing on the side of justice and fighting for space at the table for the LGBTQ people in our lives and in our communities. For all who are hungry will come and eat on this night with us: the stranger, the friend, and those whose hunger will be sated not by food, but by love, acceptance, justice, and equality in our homes, synagogues, and the world at large.
*Hebrew translates to “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.”
Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. Continue reading here>>
Silence and lies. These are your choices when you’re in the closet. When your friends start talking about crushes, hot celebrities, sex—do you stay silent? Or do you lie? Do you stay silent and hope your friends won’t notice? Do you lie and hope your friends aren’t laughing in their heads because they somehow discovered the truth?
Life in the closet is a play, and it’s up to you when the curtains close.
For me, that moment came my freshman year at Tufts University. It was several days into the community service pre-orientation I had signed up for, FOCUS (Freshman Orientation CommUnity Service), and my FOCUS family—as our group of 8 freshman and 2 leaders were called—had just gotten falafel for dinner. A group of us were talking with one of my FOCUS leaders, and the topic of sexuality came up. Discussing a Jewish friend of hers, my FOCUS leader remarked how she felt that there weren’t that many gay Jews out there.
Suddenly, time slowed down in my head. Was this the moment I would finally talk about my sexuality publicly? I had known going into Tufts that I was going to “skip” the coming out process as much as possible. I had already told my family and my best friend and I didn’t want to come out afterwards in the traditional sense. I wanted to go to Tufts as someone who was out and let everyone else just find out (it’s much easier than it sounds when you had a graduating class of 48—word travels fast). But now that the perfect moment had presented itself, I hesitated.
And then I spoke: “As someone who’s both gay and Jewish…” The rest of the sentence didn’t matter; from there on out, I was out.
Being out in college was not like I expected. While you’re in the closet, your sexual orientation becomes one of your most important identities; yet when I came out at Tufts, in many ways, my sexual orientation became inconsequential. Tufts is not only queer-friendly but has a lot of queer students. I was no anomaly and people’s sexual orientation was just another characteristic among hundreds of others.
Even at Hillel, my sexual orientation was not only accepted but embraced. After attending a Jewish Day School for 13 years where there was no support for queer students, “that’s so gay” was thrown around daily, and homophobic remarks often times went unchallenged, it was a pleasant surprise to find a Jewish community that not only welcomed queer students but even had programming focusing on the intersection of Judaism and queerness. This past spring, I was elected as president of Tufts Hillel, adding to a sizable list of queer Jewish Hillel presidents at Tufts.
As great as my experience has been overall, there are still moments where I am reminded that Tufts is not as queer friendly as it may sometimes seem. Last year, Tufts passed a new policy allowing religious groups to apply for exemptions from our non-discrimination policy when selecting their leadership criteria, consequently allowing religious groups to forbid queer students from running for leadership positions.
In addition, while my experience overall at Tufts has been great, it’s always important to remember that unfortunately, the queer friendly atmosphere at Tufts is not a microcosm of the larger United States. I was reminded of this just last year, when I returned to New York right after a string of high profile anti-gay hate crimes. My Tufts gay pride and “I like Pro-Choice Boys” pins, which normally adorn my book bag during the year, were, consequently, no longer on my bag when I arrived in NY for break.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be out in college in a safe and overall welcoming community. As my senior year comes to an end in the spring I hope to take the queer-friendly atmosphere I have found here and work to make it a reality wherever I live.
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Check out today’s powerful and brave post on The Canteen from David Furman, who reflects on coming out and his world at Summer camp. If you’re struggling with how to come out, be sure to check out some of Keshet’s resources and stories of coming out on our blog.
I first thought that I might be different when I was in sixth grade. I went to Jewish day school, and I was horribly bullied for being different. My reaction was to revel in the negative attention, to try to act like I liked it…it was the only way I knew to fit in. My only friends were two girls. And by friends, I mean they were willing to hang out with me at school, and we talked on the phone a couple times. Not a couple times a week – a couple of times. One day at school, these girls asked me who my crush was, but I had never really thought about it before. When I started to think about it, I realized it was Danny. I was confused, so I just stuffed it down and lied to make it easier. I said it was one of them.
Years later when I was seventeen, I was searching for something to connect to, a place to feel comfortable. A friend in USYconvinced me to work at Camp Solomon Schechter for the summer. I was hesitant, but I figured, why not? At Jewish camp, I found the home I had been searching for, the acceptance I had been longing for. People loved me, no matter what. In the worst of times, Schechter was my refuge. I would always look forward to summer, for moments of serenity and happiness. I have worked at camp every summer since, and as of four years ago, I work there full time (my dream job).
Let me introduce myself. My name is David Furman, and I am the Assistant Director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. And I am gay. I came out one month ago at twenty-nine years old. And I came out on Facebook, so the whole world would know. (I didn’t tell a single person before I posted it on Facebook…scary!)
So why now? And why Facebook?