In the Wake of Orlando, An Open Letter to LGBTQ Teens Everywhere

The last 72 hours are a study in contrast on what it means to be human. Jews across the world celebrated the festival a Shavuot, a time when we commemorate the gift of the Torah and the ethical teachings it contains. We count up to the holiday of Shavuot beginning with the second night of Passover and for 49 days afterward, linking our spiritual freedom to the responsibilities that liberation entails.

In a beautiful parallel, in cities throughout the world, LGBTQ people joined together at Pride Festivals in celebration of their lives as whole, proud, and queer human beings. Taking place throughout June, these Pride festivals highlight the rich diversity of the LGBTQ community and demonstrate the power and vitality of an eclectic movement where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.  (We’re even hosting our first ever teen Pride event—see details here.)

And yet, in one of the most horrific juxtapositions imaginable, this festival season was disrupted by the shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, where an angry, hurting individual channeled the sentiments and messages of homophobia, misogyny, and religious fundamentalism and murdered 49 queer people and injured over 50 others dancing away a Saturday night with friends and chosen family. For LGBTQ people who participate in queer spaces, the realization that this could have been us — that an atrocity such as this one can happen in our community — is jarring.

And then, as your educators, cheerleaders, and mentors, we are left with an additional question: What does all this mean for you as LGBTQ and ally teens who have bravely shared with the world these core and sacred pieces of yourselves. We are privileged to help you navigate this journey — to offer you the tools and language to be your fullest, proudest, and safest selves — and we want more than anything to tell you that the world is ready to receive your gifts. And then events like Saturday’s unfold and we, along with your families and others who love you, have to ask whether the world is indeed ready to honor and hold you.

And then I realize that the only answer to this question, as shaken as we are by this weekend’s event, is an emphatic yes, our world is ready and our world needs you.

When I think about you and the work you are doing each day to shift your schools and youth movements, when I think about how much our communities have changed for the better with your presence and our shared work, and when I think about the beauty of coming together for Shabbat with this special community — I remember that in the darkest of times, our world holds uncontainable light and promise.

When I think about those of you pursuing leadership positions across the landscape of Jewish, queer, and student life, those of you considering careers in the Jewish community, and those of you lovingly teaching us just a little bit more about what it means to be loving and empathic humans — I realize that we are bringing about this change together, and that acts of hatred and violence like this past weekend’s strengthen our resolve to bring about the world that knows nothing of such monstrosities.

Jewish mysticism teaches us that our world remains imperfect and broken, and that there are shards of creation we piece together through our agency, our relationships, and our actions. This process is tikkun olam — repairing the world, stitching together the fragments that currently divide to create a greater, more vibrant whole. We engage in tikkun olam each day by showing up proudly in who we are, affirming others in their identities and stories, and creating a community that embraces and sustains us.

May we be blessed to guide, honor, and buoy one another in this journey. Please know that the staff at Keshet and all our partner organizations are all here to support you as you grapple with the events of the weekend. I believe light, joy, and love lie on the path ahead.


Justin Rosen Smolen
National Director of Youth Programs, Keshet

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