Check out today’s powerful post on The Canteen from Sheira Director-Nowack, who reflects on how a Keshet training on LGBT inclusion opened her eyes. Our next training for Jewish leaders is February 2nd in the Bay Area.
I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleepaway camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private first class Bradley Manning, made headlines. Her announcement that she would be living as a woman eclipsed the news of the previous day–her 35 year prison sentence for leaking classified government documents.
So while the mainstream media was tripping over itself, The Forward was wrapping up a terrific series exploring transgender and Jewish identity in all of its wondrous complexity. The series looked at how Jewish summer camps welcome gender-nonconforming campers, the link between gender transition and conversion for trans Jews by choice, mikveh rituals for transitioning, transgender rabbis who paved the way as well as rabbis still in rabbinical school.
Tomorrow, we talk with editor Naomi Zeveloff about what inspired her to produce this series and what she learned while working on it.
For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together
For some transgender converts, turning to Judaism is intrinsically linked to gender transition. The process of soul-searching unearths one truth, then another.
Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
When Max Strassfeld helped write a ritual for a friend’s transition, he mapped contemporary ideas about gender onto a very traditional Jewish space — the mikveh.
When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind
Summer camp has not always been a welcoming place for transgender Jewish youth. That’s changing as new camps spring up — and existing ones try to be more inclusive.
First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah
When it comes to transgender Jews, the community is in a moment of transition.
New Generation of Transgender Rabbis Ties Jewish Practice and Gender Change
The number of transgender rabbis in America will soon double — from three to six. The next generation is blazing a trail with a unique approach to gender identity and Jewish spirituality.
Emily Aviva: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women
(For readers of this blog, you probably recognize Emily her from her deeply personal and thoughtful blog posts like Wrapping Myself in the Fringes and Learning to Return to Myself.)
This summer, Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh did something unprecedented at Jewish camp – we had a transgender bunk counselor. At Camp Na’aleh we live according to the values of Habonim Dror and the kibbutz movement. Campers and staff at Na’aleh integrate the values of cooperation, equality and activism into their everyday experience at camp. So when I was approached during the past year by Amit Schwalb, a transgender staff member, about shifting his role from garden specialist to bunk counselor, my first instinct was not to ask, “Are we ready to have a transgender staff member living with kids.” It was to ask, “How can we make this happen?”
I love camp. I loved it before I even really knew what it was. I remember watching a camp promotional video in a director’s office just prior to an interview for what would hopefully be my first job at camp. It was all I could do to stop myself from begging her for a job or offering to work for free just so I could be there. It was love at first sight!
Thankfully I didn’t need to do either. She offered me a job later that day. As she tells the story now, 18 years later, I was a male with a pulse and in 1994 that’s all you really needed. Back then she told me I was a diamond in the rough (never having gone to camp or worked with children before) and that she had a ‘good feeling’ about me. I suspect there’s some truth in both accounts. Either way she certainly didn’t regret the decision. I’ve gained some polish along the way and I am now one of her most trusted advisors on many things camp – a role that gives me tremendous pleasure.
Given my love for camp and my great love for my camp, I’ve had a difficult time writing about what it was like for gays and lesbians at camp in the 90s when I was on staff versus what it’s like for them now – the purpose for which I was invited to write this post.
Instead of writing about that, I only want to write about how incredible my camp experience was, how it had a huge impact on who I am today and that being there my first summer opened doors to a whole new world that ultimately lead to some incredible journeys and personal growth. All of which is 100% true.
Unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story though. It leaves out the parts where some of the most homophobic experiences I’ve encountered and participated in happened while I was on staff at camp in the 90s. I know what we did wasn’t condoned by the director. But I also know that it was fairly rampant without being overtly addressed. I would like to think that it didn’t trickle down to our campers but I think that might be a little naïve. And for that, I am sorry.
The impact that this had on me was profound. Two years later when I was ready to come out I couldn’t possibly fathom telling many of my friends from camp. Instead, I cut a huge swath of very important people from my life due to my fear of telling my former partners-in-homophobic-crime that I was gay.
I remember feeling like camp – and my camp world – should have been the place more than any to give me solace and support during that difficult time in my life when I was coming out. The vivid memories of all the homophobic comments, jokes and pranks we played, however, negated any sense of safety this community had once given me. The only solution I could come up with was to disconnect from the only place where I had ever felt connected and to turn my back on those who had done so much to nurture my growth and grow my spirit. The sense of loss this created was overwhelming then and still leaves me feeling a little raw almost 20 years later.
I came back to camp-related work about five years ago with some trepidation. I was sure that times had changed and that as a confident, out gay professional I could handle whatever I was about to face. In many ways, I was right. It was a different time. Trainings on homophobia, social inclusion, and bullying were the norm at many camps. In fact, I have since developed and facilitated these trainings myself at camps across North America.
What I can say after visiting and working with so many camps is that camp feels different now. Many feel more open and more willing to tackle the issues. And for that I’m grateful. I am also inspired by the incredible efforts of some pioneering camps – including my old camp – that are paving the way for full inclusion of LGB staff, campers and families.
I can also tell you that I’ve been working in partnership with Keshet for the past year as a trainer and consultant with camps and more recently in my role at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) to encourage and support camps in becoming more LGB inclusive. This past year we promoted LGB inclusivity training at FJC’s Leader’s Assembly; co-facilitated workshops at the American Camping Association’s (ACA) largest annual conference, where we were also joined by the Jewish Community Center’s Association (JCCA); and developed a camp-track for Keshet’s National Training Institute which we began implementing at a Training Institute in New York in March.
Even with the great strides we’ve made and the incredible work being done in the camp field, there is still much more to do. For me, it will be finished when campers and staff find the role models they need from within – the role models who help them understand they are not alone, that they exist within the community and that they don’t have to give up the camp part of their life in order to integrate a new part of their identity. I can tell you first hand what a difference that would have made in my own life and I know from many others the difference it has made in theirs.