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 USY convinced 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?
I came to grips with the fact that I was gay (fully gay, not bisexual, although I so wanted to be) in college, yet I stayed in the closet for seven more years. Why? Partially fear, that many of the people in the Orthodox community I associated with in college would shun me. But also, it just didn’t seem like it mattered to come out or not.
Then this summer, there were multiple occasions in which I almost revealed my true self. I held back both in private conversations and once in front of the whole camp when I heard one kid call another kid gay. I know how much that hurts. I wanted to reach out and say, “Stand up and say that to me. Call me gay. Because I am gay.”
Then in December, something happened that solidified my decision. One of my staff members (who is just 18), posted on Facebook that he was in a relationship with a dude. My emotions went crazy! How am I so scared to come out and be brave if this 18-year-old kid can come out? How can he have a relationship when I can’t? And really, how much easier would it have been for HIM if I was out all of these years, so he knew he had someone he could talk to? How can I consider myself a role model to campers and staff if I’m not honest and public about who I am? Not out to my friends, not out to my family, but out to the community. The Pacific Northwest Jewish community is small, and I knew if I came out on Facebook, everyone would know. The one caveat I should mention, is who I accept as friends on Facebook; I will only friend campers after they have “graduated” our Counselor-in-Training program and are no longer campers. However, with Facebook you can set restrictions on your posts: to just your friends, friends of friends, or public—i.e. to the world. I chose public. I wanted young people from my camp, who were struggling with the issues I struggled with for nearly 30 years, to be able to see that there is hope.
And the response I got blew my mind. Over 350 people liked my status. Over 70 comments. I got dozens of Facebook messages and texts, all supportive. It told me that nothing had changed. And as the comments kept pouring in, I was grinning.
I feel happier, I feel freer, I don’t find myself thinking through everything I say with the “will that make me sound gay” litmus test. I feel like I can honestly share everything that is me. I still have the same great friends and the same great family. I still have the same great job. I’m just me.
And so now I can say it. IT GETS BETTER.
What will I say to those kids who are feeling like I did, who feel like they have to hide who they are, who think maybe it’s just not worth it? I would say: be strong. Life can seriously get you down sometimes. You will run across people that make you feel like crap. But for every dip, there is a peak. Gam zeh ya’vor. This, too, shall pass. Life can be so good. You just have to have faith in yourself, and surround yourself with good people. There are lots more good people out there than people who will judge you or care who you are. And remember, if they don’t like you because you’re gay, dump ‘em. Optimism is so hard sometimes, but I can tell you the world is on an upward spiral. It does get better. I mean, we can get married! The tide is moving forward.
It does get better. Check out the It Gets Better Project for some inspiration.
I also want to say again how lucky I am to work for Schechter. All I have gotten from my community is love, support and respect.
And I hope to pass it on ten-fold. I want Schechter to be a place where everyone feels comfortable to be whoever they are, openly and honestly, and I hope that my coming out might play some part in changing kids’ minds about what’s acceptable to say. Or maybe just give one camper hope.
If you are one of those kids or counselors reading this, please contact me, I am always available.
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.
Then I had the chance to go to a Keshet training. WOW. I was one ignorant person. I was the only “straight” person and I was completely lost in the conversation a lot of the time. I needed to know what letters stood for what, that there were issues like why getting married was a political and financial choice as opposed to just some loving decision, why parenting was different when everything was showing your child that your family was not the “norm.” I was able to learn that people were struggling with such simple issues that I gave no thought to: what to tell their grandparents about their partner, when to come out to certain people, what companies were innately against the family they loved, how going to a public restroom was filled with angst for people who felt trapped in another body. All of this was just stuff I did … and took for granted.
I felt out of place. But I am a question-asker, and ask I did. It became apparent to me that being an ally of others required more than my mere acceptance. It required me to stand up, speak out, say something, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
That was five years ago, and I now consider myself an advocate for LGBT issues. It has changed what I let people say in front of me and how I parent. It has let me know that there are people struggling with issues that are so deep and so involved for them that I cannot understand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and let them know that my world is a place where I will not only accept who they are but celebrate it. I will not allow people to be anything less than welcoming in my presence. I will cheer the camper who needs to figure out how to come out to the bunk and I will gladly explain to a parent about the transgender staff member we have working for us.
I am so proud that the LGBT community answered my questions and gave me a safe place to ask them. I am even prouder that as the counselors and other staff at our camp talk about these things, it is almost a “non-issue.” I learn so much from these 19- and 20-year-olds who just see this as the most normal part of life. Many of them have no idea who Billie Jean King is and they certainly can’t see why sharing someone’s secret would be on the news. They are infuriated by homophobia and champion marriage equality. They give my daughter a chance to see things from such a different perspective that she truly has no idea that there are people who think it is wrong for some people to be married or have children. As she grows, I am thrilled to share my anger and disbelief at those people’s stupidity with her.
I know that many people say they are accepting or tolerant, but I want more from all of us. I want celebration of differences. I want people to be comfortable to ask and answer questions about differences. I want to be a person who lives and works in a place where friends and strangers know that I am supportive of all people. I am working toward this each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: some days I mess up on a pronoun or I say something that is completely heterosexist. But as time passes, I can feel the difference happening and I am so lucky to be in such an accepting community like Camp JRF where I can ask and have questions answered, where I am made to feel comfortable even in my ignorance, and where I am celebrating people who love and care for each other and themselves.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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?”
As camp directors we are faced with difficult decisions on a daily basis. We are consistently put to the test. We hope and pray with each decision we make, that our collective experience doesn’t fail us and we make the right choices. But every now and again we are faced with something new, something we’ve never dealt with before and experience isn’t something we can fall back on. That was where I was as I started to explore honoring Amit’s request.
At Na’aleh we pride ourselves on being an incredibly welcoming community. An inclusive, encouraging, safe environment for children and staff members from all walks of life. We have sporty and non-sporty campers. We have day school kids and non-day school kids. We have campers who have been adopted from other countries and we have both campers and staff who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Every summer and throughout the year we build this incredible community where no matter who you are, you feel welcome.
Amit has been a camper and staff member at Na’aleh since the summer of 2004. He has been our gan (garden) specialist for the last two summers and in 2012 he fully came out as transgender. When his request to live in a bunk was brought to my attention, I understandably had concerns. Amit’s current position as gan specialist didn’t require him to live with campers as he is part of the technical/specialty staff and not a general bunk counselor. I wondered what limitations there would be in this new arrangement by making a change to living with campers. There were a number of other concerns, but despite any of them, I never once questioned whether our campers and staff would embrace this unprecedented arrangement. Our staff, campers and I respect Amit, trust him, and love him.
Since this was uncharted territory for me, and, as I later discovered, unprecedented in the entire Jewish camp world, I solicited opinions from other camp directors and professionals in the camping field. Some were encouraging, and many raised their own concerns. When I sat down to discuss all my thoughts with Amit, my decision was made easy. I asked him a question: “Why do you want this?” Amit replied with one simple answer, he said that as gan specialist he isn’t able to create the same bonds and connections with campers that the bunk counselors do. He felt as though he was missing out on something in his camp experience. By being a bunk counselor, living with campers, helping them when they are homesick at night, being there to wake them up in the morning, cheering their accomplishments, encouraging something new or just hanging out and playing cards during free time, would give him the opportunity to develop these connections.
This beautiful answer that completely embodies the immense responsibility of being a summer camp counselor made my decision incredibly easy. All my questions that came afterwards were essentially meaningless; we were going to make this happen.
We put together a plan that took into consideration Amit’s comfort, that of the campers and of course, their parents. The plan, an affirmation of our commitment to Amit (and to every member of our community!) was sent to the parents. The response we received was only positive and encouraging, reconfirming that we were moving in the right direction. Amit and his campers had an incredibly rewarding summer. Not only was he able to make stronger connections with the campers in the bunk, but he was also able to be a part of real transformative moments outside the cabin as well. Amit hiked with the campers on their group tiyul (hiking trip) and spent time talking about their home lives and educating them about his. He also got to be a part of some really silly group moments that they all remember fondly. None of these things would have been possible if Amit wasn’t living with these campers and a part of their group this summer.
When I think back now on the process of making this decision, I think it’s really all about trust. I had trust in Amit, and I had trust in our campers, but more importantly I trusted our community. One of the parents said to me in an email response that this was a wonderful example of being able to walk the walk on many of the messages that we discuss in our families and the values we try to teach our kids.
We are all really proud of the fact that Na’aleh is the first Jewish camp to have a transgender staff person living with campers of the same gender they identify with. We are even prouder that we have a community that lives its values to the fullest, even when it may not seem easy at the onset. Beautiful things are capable of happening at a Jewish summer camp, especially when each camp isn’t afraid to live its own values to the fullest.