“I have friends I can be Jewish with, and friends I can be queer with, but I’ve never had a space to be both Jewish and queer.”
– Shelby, 16
“I feel really isolated at my high school… it’s good to come to a place like this and finally feel like I’m part of a community.”
– Frankie, 18
“Being in a place where so many of us share the same labels means we can shed them at the door – Here, I don’t have to be the Jewish kid, or the gay kid; I can just be myself.”
– Sky, 18
Sentiments such as these were common at the Jewish LGBTQ and Ally Teen Leadership Retreat in early January, a joint project of Keshet and the Isabella Freedman Center, with support from the UJA Federation – and the second ever event of its kind. The weekend was a follow-up to the first LGBTQ Teen and Ally Shabbaton in August, when about a dozen LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies met for the first time to share their stories and make new friends. This winter, those teens, along with some new additions to the group, came together not only to create new memories as a now inseparable group of friends, but also to develop their leadership skills. They also came together to begin to plan and design a future event that will attract close to 100 Jewish LGBTQ teens and allies, to create and connect a critical mass of change makers for the queer Jewish teen community.
When I tell my friends who are not Orthodox that I’m out of the closet and attending a Modern Orthodox high school, many of them do a double take. Why would I subject myself to that, they ask. One even asked why I hadn’t left and fled to the comforts of public school. Why would I choose to stay in a community where, my friends thought, I wasn’t accepted?
Those were the very same questions that I asked myself when I first realized that being openly gay was something that I wanted to do. To be fair, though, it wasn’t quite a realization that I wanted to be completely out, but rather, something that happened almost accidentally and that I realized ex post facto. I knew that my closest friends, the ones whom I had come out to first, wouldn’t have a problem with my being gay, nor would they out me to anyone with the intent to hurt me. I knew that the friends whom I had told at first had other friends who were LGBT, and who could — and would — be supportive of me as I proceeded to come out to my parents and more friends.
I had known that these friends would be there for me, but as I started coming out to people with whom I wasn’t particularly close, I headed into uncharted territory: outside of my circle of friends. How would I know that they wouldn’t run off, screaming at the top of their lungs? How could I know that my telling them that I am gay wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable? After all, going to a Modern Orthodox school where I was the second student in the history of the school to have been out of the closet, there was little to no precedent for how people would respond. (The other out student graduated before my grade even entered high school.) For many people, I would learn later, I was the first out person they met.