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.
Last weekend at Keshet’s Summertime Shabbaton, 23 Jewish LGBTQ teens and teen allies had the rare experience of feeling normal.
“In queer spaces, I’m the only Jew. In Jewish spaces, I’m one of the only LGBTQ people. Being around a group of people that are not exactly like me but still share all of those identities is so reassuring and affirming. The things that make me different are all of a sudden, like, things that are kind of normal or socially expected,” says Willow, 16, who attended to weekend retreat.
Keshet’s LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbatonim, of which there are five this year, are lifelines for LGBTQ teens. Teens like Willow – who identifies as trans feminine and is the president of her temple youth group at a synagogue in Southwest Washington State. (Last weekend’s Shabbaton outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was her third.)
At the Shabbaton, LGBTQ Jewish youth get the all-too-unusual opportunity to bond with other Jewish LGBTQ and ally teens, simultaneously inhabit their dual identities, make connections with LGBTQ adult role models, and empower themselves with skills and resources they can use year-round.
At this year’s Summertime edition of the program, the focus was on examining what it means to be a leader, the particular challenges of leading on LGBTQ Jewish issues, and building practical leadership skills like one-on-one relationship development and public speaking.
“We presented the kids with some very high level content about evaluating group dynamics and strategies of leadership, and they soaked it up. Our hope is that they have some of the tools they need to go back to their temple youth groups or gay-straight student alliances and figure out how to move those organizations along, if that’s where their passion lies,” says Keshet National Director of Youth Programs Justin Rosen Smolen, one of seven staff, who, along with three Keshet Shabbaton Fellows (post-high school age junior staff) run the weekend retreat.
Before Friday night Shabbat services, most of the teens participated in a “storytelling boot camp,” where they learned how they could use their personal stories to effect social change. The boot camp was a precursor to a Saturday night story slam around a campfire, one of the weekend’s most popular activities. Nearly half of the teens bravely told their stories.
“Hearing the responses and the reactions to [my story] made me feel really good because I love to write. Knowing that my work actually means something to some people makes me more inclined to keep doing it,” says Dylan Belitsky, 16, who lives in Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia and identifies as a trans male.” [At the Shabbaton], I can write about my trans experience in a different way because they’ll understand it in a different way than other people would.”
Dubbs Weinblatt, National Education and Training Manager, who co-facilitated the storytelling boot camp and story slam among other programs, says the teens waste little time expressing themselves.
“It’s really powerful for them to be in a place where their queer and Jewish identities are not only recognized but celebrated. It’s a safe space to not only try on, perhaps, a different set of pronouns or a name, but also to try different aspects of Judaism. Some of them want to go home and maybe practice more or rethink the way they are interacting with Judaism,” Weinblatt says, adding “At a young age, they know, as they grow up, that queer and Jewish spaces exist and they can be part of it.”
The teens also benefit from simply connecting with LGBTQ adults like Smolen and Weinblatt. “It’s a much different experience asking a person versus looking something up online. What I hear from the teens is how special it is to have a trusted adult who’s been through these big milestones with these big experiences that they are just going through or about to go through. They really pursue the support and the visibility of seeing themselves in the successful older adults.”
As much as the teens relish the nurturing circumstances of the Shabbaton, they also enjoy just being teens, doing regular teen things like sharing memes or going swimming. “We went on this hike at the beginning of the second day,” says Willow. “It was really cool to just be wandering around. I really love being around nature, and it was really cool to do that with a group of queer Jews.”
Although the Shabbaton is less than 48 hours long, Dylan and Willow, like so many other participants, found parting “very sad.” Willow dreads only being eligible for a couple more of the retreats (she is about to turn 17). “The Shabbatonim are the things I’m always looking forward to even when they are six months away,” she says.
Despite the sometimes-tearful end of the Summertime Shabbaton, Weinblatt says the kids are alright.
“I’ve been to four or five Shabbatonim now, and every single time, I walk away feeling so impressed by the teens that attend. They are the most compassionate, smart, inclusive, insightful and brave people that I’ve ever met. They aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and take risks. They lean on each other. They take care of each other and include each other. I leave these weekends feeling so inspired and refreshed and renewed and motivated to keep doing this work.”