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.
I was raised in Columbus, Ohio in a very white, Jewish suburb called Bexley. Even though I went to a public school, we got the Jewish holidays off (sweet!). I attended Hebrew school twice a week from grade 3(?) through my Bat Mitzvah and Sunday school every week for 11 years. I attended Jewish day camp through the JCC and was active in BBYO all four years of high school. I was as active as a kiddo could be in their Jewish community but something always felt off; I always felt like an imposter or like I didn’t belong.
From the time I was little I knew I was gay but had no idea I was also struggling with my gender identity.
There are all of these signals and signs that deeply impact queer Jews’ abilities to connect and feel whole within the Jewish community. Based on signals I was picking up from my family, community, classmates, the media- basically the whole world including my religion- I pieced together that it was bad to be the way that I was. When I think about how most rabbis when I was growing up wouldn’t perform same-gender marriages, the connection that made sense to me was, “Okay, my religion hates me and people like me.” I never saw myself reflected in Jewish tradition, our stories or in my community. I felt really lonely and I began associating Judaism with oppression, rejection and hate.
I didn’t get to experience Judaism I think the way most kids did because I was under the assumption that I didn’t belong and if I lived my truth I’d have to choose between the two. I saw my friends having the time of their lives, seemingly carefree, in all aspects of Jewish life: camp and youth group being the main ones. I felt abandoned, let down and disappointed by Judaism. I’m just going to say it: I resented Judaism for leaving me out.
As a way to protect myself, I detached and just simply went through the motions; I did what was asked of me because that’s what “little girls are supposed to do.” It’s hard to connect to anything when you are only a shell of yourself; a facade. That’s how it felt like for me before coming out as both gay and trans. Nothing was as authentic as it could be or as genuine or true because I was always holding something back; scared that I’d accidentally out myself and then I’d lose it all.
These feelings of disconnection and resentment permeated into all aspects of my association with Judaism. That meant not really caring to attend services, really not wanting to have a Bat Mitzvah (the last thing I wanted was to officially become a woman!), not getting confirmed, ALWAYS being at odds with a certain Rabbi (who made it impossible for me in so many ways) and complaining about EVERYTHING.
When I look back now and I think about some of my experiences, I do see that I had a few special moments that kept me on the hook. I desperately wanted to love being Jewish. I knew there was something special about being Jewish but I just hadn’t found it yet.
Our synagogue completed a major renovation and had a writing contest about it and the winner of the contest got to read their piece at the dedication ceremony. I remember specifically whining that I didn’t want to participate; that I thought it was stupid but was FORCED to write something anyway. And guess what? I won. And I got to stand in front of the entire congregation and read my poem. That was pretty cool. But I still wasn’t convinced.
Or the time when one of my classmates was hit by a car and was in really bad shape (he’s fine now, Baruch HaShem, Hi Stephen!) and my rabbi at the time, Rabbi Andrea Lerner (now Rabbi Steinberger), knew how upset I was so she called me so we could sing the Mi Shebarach on the phone together. I am crying now thinking about incredibly special that was (and more on this prayer/Debbie Friedman version in a second).
But these two moments weren’t enough to fulfill my need of feeling like I belonged.
So for the majority of my 20s and and early 30s, I told people I was Jewish but that was where any association with the religion stopped. After coming out as trans, there was a pull in me to start to try and reconnect again. Why? I’m not sure. I think because I truly felt like there was a piece of me missing and now that I was out, I wanted to continue finding the ways to make myself feel whole.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Keshet existed! I just HAD to work for this organization. And here we are!
As someone who has never felt a true connection or benefit to attending services, the thought of having to go often as part of my job was a bit daunting. I still have residual thoughts of feeling like an imposter. Do I actually belong here?
When I was asked to give the Keynote at Princeton’s Pride Shabbat, I was both honored to be able to share my story and anxious to attend services.
I approached their Center for Jewish Life with butterflies in my stomach. What would services be like? Will these Ivy League students care about what I have to say? Why am I an authority on this? My thoughts were interrupted when I was met by one of the students and led directly to the reform services going on with no time to find an excuse to back out. We’re really doing this.
I sat in a chair, in a circle, with 12 other Jews whom I’d never met before and the service began with a version of Oseh Shalom that I didn’t realize was Debbie Friedman’s version. And then we sang Lecha Dodi to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen (hi, crying, are you kidding me?) and then every other prayer we did was a Debbie Friedman version.
As I sat there I was transported back to all of those mornings in Sunday School singing these songs. Whether I realized it or not, I had them ingrained in me forever. It reminded me of that special moment with Rabbi Steinberger and the Mi Shebarach. One of the folks leading the service then mentioned that Debbie was a lesbian and I just couldn’t believe it! Someone who inadvertently helped shape my love for song was a Jewish lesbian! I felt this sudden, intense, and deep connection to prayer, to Debbie and to the strangers in this room. Is this what Judaism is supposed to feel like?
The next day after I got back from Princeton was the last day of Trans Jews are Here: A Convening, where I got to spend the day with some incredible folks. I’d never been in a space before that consisted solely of Jewish trans/non-binary folks and just that in and of itself was powerful.. There was so much learning happening and it was so nice to see so many familiar and new faces all there for the same reason: to connect, to learn, to lift each other up.
As one of three speakers on the plenary concluding the weekend, I was asked to talk about ‘Moving from Acceptance to Celebration’ and I panicked. I didn’t know what to say! (full disclosure, I thought a plenary and a panel were the same thing so I didn’t prepare anything!) I was hoping that once it was my turn to speak something would come to me, and boy did it ever.
I began by telling my usual tale of feeling like a disconnected Jew and how I was on the outside looking in and how I so badly wanted to be part of the thriving, exciting, incredible Jewish community fabric like my friends had been when we were younger — when it all hit me at once.
Some of my most incredibly powerful, important, inspirational and moving moments in affirming who I am as a Trans person within the last 2.5 years have been within the Jewish community.
It is here that I have found my siblinghood, my allies, my mentors, my friends: my people who get me. The people who give me knowing nods and check in with me when I’m deadnamed at a bar for no reason. The people who listen to me talk about how much it hurts to get misgendered over and over. The people who give me their shoulders and their support when I’m feeling overwhelmed by transphobia. The people who are there to celebrate the good things that come my way. The people who give 110% to make sure I feel seen as ME. The Rabbi and community who performed a Hebrew name-change ceremony with me. When I wore swim trunks for the first time ever at a pool with a bunch of incredible queer Jewish teens and they sang the shehecheyanu in celebration and how I went down a water slide and felt pure bliss.
The laughs I’ve shared, the trips I’ve taken, the lessons I’ve learned, all the ‘firsts’ I’ve experienced and most importantly, the deep friendships and connections I’ve made and the support system that has kept me afloat these past two and half years….
THIS is the Judaism I was craving when I was a kid and as an adult too. I finally have what my friends had growing up: the freedom to be my full self while being supported and celebrated by the Jewish community. I finally found my mishpocha, my family.
I have been invited into and spoken at dozens of Jewish institutions all over the country who want to hear from ME! These institutions want to hear my story and do better for their community NOW.
THIS is Judaism; widening the tent, showing up for our siblings, acknowledging that we can do better and then doing it, praying with our feet.
Imagine how my life could have been different if I knew that places like Keshet or CBST existed? Places that pour time, energy and resources into intentionally creating a space where all queer Jews feel celebrated.
I have never been more proud of the work that I do and I’ve never been more motivated to keep sharing my story and creating a space for Jews who were like me and never felt like they belonged.
Because they do. I do. We all do.