Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
This post is part one of a longer series of posts in which members of the Keshet community write letters to their younger selves.
Dear 13-year-old me,
You’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. After six months of studying Torah, shopping for the perfect Avril Lavigne inspired dress, and attending weekly meetings with the rabbi and cantor, it’s finally your bat mitzvah day. Today’s the day that you become a woman in Judaism. As a naïve seventh grader living in 2009, it may seem as if the big party that follows the synagogue service is the most important part of the event. However, your bat mitzvah is so much more than being the center of attention during the Cupid Shuffle.
Today signifies achieving spiritual maturity in the eyes of G-d. The Kabbalah teaches us that after our b’nai mitzvot, we become more in-tune with what our bodies want and need. We start to grow into ourselves as unique human beings, and discover our purpose in the world through Jewish values and teachings.
Anyways, you’re going to be incredible today. You’ll chant your Torah portion without stuttering. You’ll read your speech confidently. You’ll tear up as family members tell the congregation about all of your accomplishments leading up to womanhood. Yet, as you descend from the bimah after the ritual ceremony, you will question what it truly means to be a strong, Jewish woman.
The Torah highlights strong, influential women who set the standard for how a Jewish woman is supposed to behave and live her life. There’s Eve, who exists to balance and supplement her other half — Adam. There’s Rebecca, who became successful only after betrothing herself to Isaac and in turn, became the mother of strong nation. There’s Sarah, who spent her life serving her husband, Abraham. The traditional Jewish woman is supposed to be reserved, conservative, and devoted to her husband. As a child, I was taught that this way is the way to advance in society and to be seen as valid in the eyes of Judaism.
Even at 13 years old, you know that you are different. All of your friends decorated their room with Backstreet Boys posters, and you were far more interested in Britney Spears. It’s going to get much harder before it gets easier. But 20-year-old me has a great deal of advice for 13-year-old me. I’ve lived for 10,512,000 minutes, six presidential elections, and seven Blink-182 albums. I want to tell you what you can expect on your path to becoming this “strong, Jewish woman” you didn’t know that you could be.
As you enter high school, you will feel angry and trapped. However, everyone feels lost during adolescence, so you’ll blame this on the fact that you still think boys have cooties. You’ll befriend your ninth grade biology lab partner, who all of your friends call “cute” and “really nice.” Convincing yourself that you’ve seen high school students find true love in science class in some romantic comedy, you’ll go on dates with him on the weekends. Your grandma will like him because he’s Jewish. You’ll remember what you learned in Jewish elementary school about the value of being an asset to a man. Yet, something will always be missing: a deeper passionate connection never will never develop. You’ll break up with him and shrug it off, because that just means that he wasn’t the right guy.
A few months later, you’ll kiss a girl for the first time, and every day afterwards, you’ll start to fill in all of the missing pieces. Long story short, you’ll come to terms with your sexuality after much second-guessing and reckless exploration. You’ll hang out with the wrong crowd simply because you fail to see the value in your identity. Your relationship with your family will suffer, and they will decide that a small, Jewish high school is the best decision for the following year.
When your mom finally confronts you about being gay the summer before your sophomore year, I understand that at first, you’re going to see it as an embarrassing attack on your privacy. But I need you to know that she is going to come a long way. She will befriend LGBTQ advocates and become involved in many organizations that take a stand against hate. She will welcome a future girlfriend with open arms and buy her presents on her birthdays. She will make a place for her at the Passover Seder table, and excitedly teach her about our culture. Just because she is confused at first, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love you. I encourage you to give her the space to grow and to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. She will surprise you in extraordinary ways.
When you get called into the principal’s office at your new high school for speaking out against a lesson surrounding anti-LGBT teachings in the Torah, know that people are just afraid of the unfamiliar. Instead of crying and feeling ashamed, try to educate them. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t understand- they should still perceive you as being valid. When another student calls you out for being a lesbian during an AP Psychology debate about whether or not homosexuality is “real”, overcome hate with grace. When he argues that “being gay is just like being overweight, you simply have to work on the problem for it to go away” you will feel insignificant and worthless. Instead of wasting time trying to change and losing sleep over the opinions of others, believe that it is more important to be loved by yourself than to be tolerated by everyone else.
You will spend high school trying to be a voice for other LGBTQ teens. At an international convention for BBYO, the largest international pluralistic Jewish youth group, you will deliver a coming out speech to over 2,500 people. It will feel as if you have a weight lifted off of your shoulders, but recognize that the coming out process will never end. The process continues with each future classmate, coworker, friend, and peer. You will discover a passion for storytelling and become a regular feature for Miami Herald’s Gay South Florida column. You will attend an LGBTQ Shabbaton for teens through Keshet, where you will meet other individuals who are struggling to be the best Jew they can be, regardless of the fact that they do not fit the mold. Returning as a junior counselor, you will help other teens learn to love themselves. After this experience, you will no longer resent traditional Jewish teachings. Starting to understand that your G-d encourages happiness and respect will change your perspective on religion. You will finally accept that if He made you this way, He could never hate you. Once these two different parts of your identity cease to clash, your life will change for the better. I promise.
After a semester at an arts college in Chicago, you will transfer to a university closer to home that better suits your environment. You’ll participate in sorority rush, and be terrified that your sexuality will make girls not want to be your friend and judge you without getting to know you better. Despite attending a university where student life revolves around hetero-normative standards like date functions and fraternity parties, you’ll find a house that accepts you. At a new member retreat, you will come out to nearly 100 strangers, and many will tell you that you inspired them to feel more comfortable in their own skin. Although you ended up wanting a different kind of college experience than Greek life had to offer, I am so proud of you for being true to yourself instead of trying so hard to fit in.
I know that you’re only 13, but I am telling you all of this for a reason. I want you to know what’s coming your way: the good, the bad, the ugly, and even the exciting. Not everyone is going to agree with you. There will be bad days. You are going to lose friends because they think that you are weird and disgusting. You are going to lose respect from administrators, teachers, and community leaders who choose to use their religion as a place for hate instead of love. Sometimes, you are going to feel like an outcast in college. Kids will talk about you. Some people will find you invalid for not meeting certain lesbian stereotypes; some boys will ridicule you for being “too pretty to be gay” and for loving to wear sundresses instead of snapbacks. The day you feel truly happy will be the day that you redirect any negative energy concerning the opinions of others into positive energy that contributes to the well being of your life, or maybe even someone else’s who is struggling.
I know that it’s easier said than done, and it’s hard to learn and understand all of this as a 13-year-old. But just go with it. Take it day by day. Be awkward, because stepping out of your comfort zone is healthy. Take care of your true friends, and don’t forget to call them even if they move far away after high school. Don’t be afraid to branch out and meet other people, even if it takes a while to find people who understand you. College kids can be superficial sometimes; don’t lose sight of what’s important to you at the cost of partying or being “cool.” Do things because they bring you joy, like joining your college’s Equestrian Team, even if you’re not the one with the most experience. Embrace your emotions, and channel them into creative outlets. Spend time with people that bring out your best qualities—including yourself. Remember that even though you’re going to mess up a lot, that’s part of growing up.
I promise you that you will become the strong Jewish woman that you are meant to be. No, you won’t grow up to serve your Jewish husband like Rebecca and Sarah did. However, that does not mean that you can’t be just as resilient of a woman and effect as powerful of a change. At 20 years old, you will no longer have daily prayer periods and Torah lessons in school, but you will express your religious identity in other ways, such as valuing friends and family, servicing the community, or speaking out about causes that move you.
I believe in you. I love you. I am rooting for you.
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.