I took a chance this weekend, one I probably would not have had the nerve to do a couple of years ago. I took part in the annual Eshel Shabbaton at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. A few of my new friends in the Gay Jewish community of NYC suggested I attend as I am supposedly a default member of this community and yet have only very recently started to become connected to it.
According to their Facebook page Eshel is “a place of SHELTER for Orthodox, frum, and other traditional gay and lesbian Jews seeking to maintain their Jewish observance” while welcoming those who are “formerly Orthodox, “Orthodox-curious,” or otherwise interested in maintaining a connection to traditional Judaism as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Jews.”
Why was attending this event such a big deal for me? I can be somewhat shy and stepping into a decent size established community and only being sure that I’ll know two or three people makes me nervous. On top of that, though the fact that I wear a kippah on a daily basis convinces non-Jews, secular Jews, and “not as traditional” Jews that I must be Orthodox or “Conservative at the very least,” I am none of these things. Upon examining my upbringing, my lifestyle and my practice one would realize that I am far from frum (great title for a future blog post where I could delve more into my Jewish identity). And while many would believe, based on the explicit way I often deal with topics of sexuality, mine in particular, that I am comfortably gay, I have never been very comfortable with that label.
Being at this retreat reaffirmed my contradicting feelings of being “apart” and “a part” (again, future blog post I hope). Being around large numbers of Jews is always a novel experience for me after having grown up as one of the only if not the only Jew in all of my schools. It feels great to share a cultural and religious identity with those around me but isolating as many of these individuals attended Jewish Day Schools and Yeshiva and have a deeper and certainly more thorough understanding of Jewish concepts than I do. Being around large numbers of LGBTQ individuals is also a novel experience because though I have struggled with my sexuality, I have been very lucky and I am very grateful that I have had an open and accepting family throughout the whole process. But being around others who do not identify as heterosexual is an odd experience for me as I have continually struggled to feel comfortable in the “LGBTQ Community.” It is not as easy as one would think to develop friendships with those who share the same or similar labels as you.
Mainly I came away from this Shabbos retreat with a lot of hope mixed with anxiety. I witnessed a focus on Judaism I often miss and I hope to learn and put effort into deepening my connection, knowledge and practice. However, I am anxious that my discipline and motivation will fail me. I experienced the desire to find myself in a similar community in the future and the hope that I can make that happen for myself. Yet I am anxious that it will never be that simple. And perhaps most importantly, I made and developed some very promising, fun, and exciting friendships. Connections that I hope will continue and grow but I am anxious that I will not be able to maintain them.
Overall I enjoyed the opportunity to escape the city for a weekend, interact with new people, daven, dance, flirt, study, and observe a new community and new situations. Anxieties aside these may be crucial elements for finding positive change:
Daven to build stronger spiritual connections;
Dance to express myself, my desires, and shed insecurities;
Flirt to have fun, play, take risks and gain new experiences; and
Study and Observe to strengthen my knowledge and fuel my desire to grow and to learn.
Resources for LGBTQ and Judaism
- Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST)
- He’bro for gay jews
- Jewish Queer Youth (JQY)