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.
For those of you who are unaware of what I am talking about, or are so wrapped up in the amazingness of this glorious weekend that you have already forgotten the occurrences of Thursday, let me remind you:
After taking a picture of a dress at her friend’s wedding, twenty-one year old Caitlin McNeill turned to the internet with a cry for help. She urged her followers to lend a hand in attempting to make sense of the confusing shot she took.
For some, the dress in her picture appears to be white and gold, though other see the dress with the coloring in which it was made, blue and black.
This debate which swept the internet split the global population into two sides, and I had the opportunity of witnessing this first hand when my college roommate refused to believe that I was telling the truth that I saw the dress as white and gold (I almost ended up in tears, but that’s another story).
So why did this dress become so important to world?
I can tell you with absolutely confidence that I…have no idea.
I can say, however, that the garments discussed in Tetzaveh, the parashah of this weekend, are of a different kind of importance than the now infamous bluewhitegoldblack dress of the present.
In this portion, God details for Moses how to make extremely significant vestments for Aaron that he must wear when acting as High Priest. To say that the details relayed by God are extensive would be an understatement, but every instruction is necessary to ensure that Aaron is truly sanctified.
And for the record, these garments were commanded to be made of gold and blue.
I think not.
The attire which is made for Aaron is created so that he may become closer to God, and transform into a more holy version of himself when adorning them. One might venture to say that these garments are Aaron’s way of becoming his purest self.
The way that I became the purest version of myself, however, was by admitting to the world that I liked girls, and ridding myself of the garments I adorned which hid who I truly was.
For a long time, I was scared that coming out would make me less important, less worthy, and pull me further away from God, but I was lying to the world, and, more importantly, lying to myself.
I have learned throughout my journey, though, that being your true self, your purest self, only makes your connection to the world stronger, because it means that you yourself have taken steps toward becoming stronger.
So whether you see the dress as blue and black, or, like I do, white and gold, I urge that when you find yourself fighting for your side, to forget the schisms for a moment, and remember instead what this debate, and this weekend, represent: there is no purer you than a you that is true.
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The first time I really dug into the story of Purim was actually also the first time I thought I might be gay. It started like any other day. I went to school, play practice, and then my mom picked me up.
Because it was Friday she brought me to shul. As we sat in the car waiting for the time to pass until services began, she asked me an interesting question: “do you like boys or girls?” And I guess I had never thought about it because I remember thinking “you know, that’s a good question. I should probably figure that out.” So when I went inside the shul and heard a d’var about Purim, I didn’t see it as an ancient story in a language I didn’t speak. Instead I saw it as an allegory for a coming out story.
Esther is the queen of Persia, married to Ahashverosh, and he has just decided with the help of Haman that he’s going to kill all the Jews. Problem is, Esther is Jewish. (Plot spoilers ahead, I apologize in advance.) So Esther decides that she has to tell him that she’s jewish, or all of her people are going to die. And so, she works up all of her nerve, and she tells him that she’s Jewish. She knows that it’s risky, but she does it anyway, because it’s what must be done to save her people. In the end, it works out great. The Jews are spared and Esther is no longer living in hiding. Call me crazy, but that’s a textbook coming out story, right?
Now I’m going to sub in some names to make this story more modern. Playing the part of Esther we have Will Portman, a Yale student. Instead of coming out as Jewish, he’s coming out as gay. Instead of the day when all the Jews are set to be murdered coming up, let’s put in the Supreme Court’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Prop Eight decisions. And instead of the king, why don’t we have Will’s father, senator Rob Portman. Just like in the story of Esther, it all works out for Will.
His dad became the first Republican senator to publicly endorse marriage equality, and no one got disowned. Something even bigger that that happened, though. Suddenly the world got a whole lot better for LGBTQ+ kids everywhere. Because, just like Esther wasn’t the only one affected by her decision to come out, Will Portman wasn’t the only one affected when he came out. Suddenly, it became a lot easier for kids of republican parents to come out because they could point to the Portman family and say look, “they’re accepting, and you should be too.” And it became easier for Republican parents to accept they’re LGBTQ+ kids because that’s just what the senator had done. They had gained a role model.
Obviously, it isn’t national news every time someone comes out, though that would be pretty cool. But when it’s someone in power, in any sort of way, it helps. It helps LGBTQ+ people realize that they aren’t alone. When parents see other parents accepting their children no matter what, that helps them realize that they aren’t alone either. And when you come out in your family, your school, or your kehilla kidosha (holy community), you are helping everyone around feel a little less alone.
So back to a few years ago. After that conversation with my mom, all I could think about for what seemed like forever was the possibility that I could be gay. Apparently it wasn’t forever, and actually more like six weeks, because I remember having a realization on Passover. I was getting ready for the Seder when all of the sudden it hit me pretty out of the blue that, woah, I’m gay.
So I didn’t really know that to do with this information, because I didn’t know any openly LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. Mostly I just cried about it and envisioned people having bad reactions, not gonna lie. And then I made a plan. I was going to not tell anyone, not act on it, or do anything until high school. That didn’t last long. Literally days after the first of my friends came out at the beginning of eighth grade, I felt comfortable enough to come out too. After that, friend after friend started coming out. I swear, even in the closet we were attracting each other.
Since then, whenever anyone has asked me about my sexuality, I’ve told them the whole truth. I’ve answered their questions, except when they are too weird and personal, and I’ve tried to be the best role model that I could be. The truth is, I never would have had the courage to come out on my own. I needed a push. I needed my friends to be there by my side. I needed guidance. So I hope that whenever I tell my story, and whenever I answer people’s questions, I am helping them. Maybe I’m helping them come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, or maybe I’m helping them to be a more accepting and considerate friend or family member. Even if you don’t realize it, telling your story or even just being out can be a limitless inspiration for those around you.
I’m sure Esther wondered why she, a Jew, was chosen to be queen. And I’m sure that Will Portman, the son of a prominent Republican wondered why he happened to be gay. And I’m sure that most of you here have, at least at some point, wondered why you are so lucky to be LGBTQ+ and Jewish. Looking back, we know that Esther was put in the position of power so that she could change the King’s mind. And maybe that’s the same reason why Will Portman is gay, so he could change his dad’s mind, and the mind of a lot of Republican parents out there. So if you find yourself asking why you’re LGBTQ+ and Jewish, I bet that the answer is essentially the same: so that you can change the minds of the hateful and bigoted people around you, or make it easier for other people in your kehilla kidosha to come out, and be accepted.
As Miep Gies once said, “even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager” (that’s you, readers!) “can, within their own small ways, turn on a light in a dark room.”
You don’t have to be royalty, or a political figure, or some big celebrity to make a splash or even make a difference. All you need to be is your wonderful and genuine self and I promise, you can change the world. Happy Purim!
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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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One day at synagogue, my friend excitedly came up to me, and asked me to come to the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton with her. Now, I had no idea what she meant, but she went on to explain that is a weekend retreat for queer Jewish teens. It sounded cool, and she was really excited, so I said “sure, I’d go.”
I never expected what I’d find there. I identify as bisexual. I’ve never been particularly shy about anything, including my sexuality, but I never paraded it.
The phrase “I’m bisexual” always came out of my mouth as quietly as possible.
Most of my friends know, and the ones who don’t know because it just hasn’t come up. I’ve met a few people who have had issues with it—I’ve been told I’m “not natural” and that “being homophobic isn’t any worse than being homosexual”—but overall, most people I’ve met have been great about it.
However, at the Shabbaton, among a community of Jewish teens, people weren’t just accepting of my sexuality—they embraced it.
I was surrounded by people with every gender and sexuality under the sun, and I loved it. One of the aspects of being bisexual is that biphobia isn’t just a phenomenon among homophobic heterosexuals—I’ve experienced biphobia from members of the LGBTQ+ as well, including the statement “so you’re not really queer.”
At the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, for the first time, I felt truly safe and completely accepted.
Safe is a word that gets tossed around a lot—a safe environment, a safe space, etc.—but that’s because having a space where you feel truly safe is a vital aspect to being human.
And regarding my sexuality, my safe space had been a few people here and there. But at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton, I found a whole community who embraced me with arms wide open.
That’s why I send rainbow-themed pictures to the friends I made on the Shabbaton. And why, when my female friend suggested wearing a tie and slacks to the next Shabbaton, I nodded enthusiastically.
And why, whenever I say the phrase “I’m bisexual,” I say it loudly.
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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.
In September, a family member came out to me after months of struggling with his sexual orientation. He cited the earlier version of this very blog post, which appeared on my personal blog, as a source of strength. I hope it might help others as well. – GG
He stood up on the fireplace of the room that nearly every member of our school was occupying. He began to speak. He thanked all of us for welcoming him into our community, for making him feel like he had been here his entire life. What he had to say was very sweet, but that’s not what he came to tell us. That’s not why he paused the end-of-the-year festivities.
He and I hadn’t been close until that year. For whatever reason, I never made an effort to connect with him. I figured he was just another typical out-of-towner. But when I began to write for him, when I began to give him a look inside of my head, into my beliefs, that’s when it all changed.
In the middle of the year, I wrote an article calling for the discontinued usage of gay slurs. In my article, I proposed a hypothetical situation in which a Jewish, homosexual student was forced to hide who he was for the sake of avoiding chastisement. I concluded the article by proclaiming my hope that one day, just maybe, a student at my school would have the courage to challenge the Orthodox day school status quo by coming out to the student body. At the time, this was merely a hope. To be honest, I never saw it happening. Though it’s entirely realistic, and even factual, that Orthodox day schools across the country include a large number of closeted homosexuals, I never imagined somebody I knew would have the courage to actually come out. After all, they would be jeopardizing their reputation and opening themselves up to the possibility of seclusion and rejection.
I’ll always remember the night he came out to me. I was giving him a ride home when he stopped our conversation to have one of far greater importance. He beat around the bush for a few moments, but eventually cut to the chase. When he finally squeezed out the two most revealing words, I wasn’t sure how to react. I could have delved into a deep, philosophical conversation about the causes of homosexuality. I could have done the typical song and dance, congratulating him and telling him how courageous he is. Or I could have rejected who he truly was.
But I didn’t do any of these things.
Instead, I drove around the city for two hours, asking silly question after silly question. I felt like a teenage girl. But he fielded them all. He showed me what it truly means to be comfortable with who you are. Not once did he blink, not once did he swallow his words, not once did he feel uncomfortable. He was ready to be himself around me, and that’s something I will never forget.
Our friendship went from one of exchanging the occasional pleasantries, to one of immense depth and closeness. He has become someone I regard as a best friend. He has become my backbone in many instances, offering emotional support whenever I need it. He has become an inspiration.
It was nice of him to thank us for welcoming him into the community, but that’s not what he came to tell us. He paused for a moment, all eyes on him, and somehow mustered up the courage to become who he is:
“One more thing, and I really am feeling quite happy tonight so this is why I’m telling you. I am gay. I am coming out tonight. Thank you so much.”
Being that this sort of public coming out is unprecedented in our community, I didn’t really expect the reaction that his coming out brought.
It seemed like time suspended for a moment, like everything was hanging in the balance as I awaited the reaction of the many who had not yet known his sexual orientation. I knew some would be taken aback by it, because, after all, homosexuality is still somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for many people. I even expected some to cause an uproar, to publicly rebuke his coming out as a sign of disgust.
But I didn’t expect what actually happened.
Almost everybody in the room went ballistic. We yelled, clapped, and celebrated this momentous announcement. Suddenly the diffuse group organized into a line. Students young and old lined up to hug him, to tell him congratulations, to accept him. The moment was so overwhelming that it moved me, along with many others, to tears.
I’ve always been a confident person, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve always been courageous. But when I met him, when he came out to me, when he imparted on me that it’s okay to be yourself, suddenly I felt like I could do anything. I began to write about the things many people didn’t want to discuss. I began to let my passion drive controversial conversations within my sometimes rigid community. I began to accept myself for who I am, and do my best to correct my flaws.
His coming out was something he and I have discussed for quite some time now. He was apprehensive about it at first, but after countless conversations in which we discussed the importance of being who you are, he was ready to do it. His coming out in such a public form was one gigantic step toward the rest of his life. He no longer had to hide. He no longer had to keep up a facade. He no longer had to try to stay content being someone he is inherently not.
He could finally be free.
The thing is, though, his coming out stretches far beyond just him. His coming out is going to impact this community, this school, so much. His coming out has pushed many to recognize the reality that is homosexuality within Judaism.
In a Jewish community that is so stagnant, this sort of monumental occurrence is going to have a vast impact on the ideological scheme of things. The topic of homosexual acceptance has always been discussed solely in hypotheticals. We’ve all had our own opinions on how to resolve religion with sexual orientation, but we’ve never actually had to translate those opinions into practice. Now that our hypothetical world has become reality, we must take a definitive stance on what is so sadly deemed an “issue.” This coming out was the first of its kind, and I hope it won’t be the last. Many community members may be up in arms, but many more will not be. And those who aren’t will be supportive, they will be accepting, and they will do their best to spread their attitude of tolerance to the other, more close minded members of the community.
This is a progressive world, folks.
He did something so notable by getting the literal ball rolling on this issue of homosexual acceptance within the Memphis Orthodox community. The hypothetical ball is no more.
When I entered high school, it was the norm to call someone a faggot or a queer. It was okay to throw around gay slurs, despite the fact that those few words could tear someone apart inside. As my years have flown by and the school’s attitude toward homosexuals has drastically shifted, the norm has become acceptance. By the start of this year, many had cut down on their gay slur usage and enhanced their tolerance, especially in a public sphere, paving a pearly path out of the closet for him. With the already growing acceptance within our school, it’s inevitable that more is to come. His announcement slapped many of my schoolmates in the face with reality. They now know someone who is homosexual. They now have a friend who is out. They now recognize that your sexual orientation doesn’t define who you are as a person.
I’m not entirely sure how his announcement will impact his relationship with various students at the school, but I genuinely hope that those students don’t change their behavior as a result of discomfort. His announcement has given us, the student body, a chance to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe being who they are. The overwhelming support he met after his announcement only reaffirmed my belief that this school, and perhaps this community, is headed in a new direction than in years past. To see all of my fellow classmates hug him, congratulate him, and even praise him was something I will never forget.
When it was finally my turn to congratulate him, I held him tight and told him that he was my inspiration. I told him that he was my hero. And he is. He’s taught me that, despite all of the struggles that it may bring, being yourself is the only way to live. He’s taught me how to love myself for who I am. He’s taught me that I have a voice. He’s given me a reason to become an even stronger proponent of gay rights in particular, and civil rights as a whole.
When I say that he has changed my life, I’m not simply throwing around cliche phrases that sound nice. I mean it. This year has been one of immense personal growth. I truly believe that how far I’ve come would not have been possible without his help.
An eighteen year old did something no one has ever done in this community. An eighteen year old exemplified courage to the fullest extent. He is so young, yet he’s wise enough to know that he is capable of impacting those around him for the better. I never thought I would be writing a post like this. I never thought I would see someone come out in front of my classmates. But I couldn’t be happier that this is all happening. I couldn’t be more inspired, more moved by the courage he has shown.
When I look back at the beginning of Summer 2013, I’m going to remember the graduation. I’m going to remember the overwhelming sadness that rushed over me as I listened to my best friends utter their parting words. But, above all, I’ll remember when one person changed an entire city.
There’s nothing more to say to him than thank you. We all have a reason to appreciate the person he is and the courage he possesses. We all must note that what he has done is just that – notable.
He’s set me on a path to find myself, and, with his inspiration, I feel as if I have the courage to become who I’ve always wanted to be.
“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right I support it.”
Gabriel blogs at http://thoughtsofajewishteenager.blogspot.com, where this post originally appeared.
April 4-6, 2014: LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbaton:
Join us for a weekend of fun, community, and learning for and by Jewish LGBTQ and allied teens! Meet new friends, learn about LGBTQ organizing and identities, and celebrate a lakeside Shabbat with a warm, vibrant community of LGBTQ and ally teens and adults