Monday, January 25, 2016

Reflections on a Jewish-Orthodox LGBT+ Retreat: There Is Hope! (Eshel National Retreat 2016)

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with one of my favorite blogs, Friendly Atheist. One of the questions the interviewer asked, was how I see my relationship with Judaism nowadays identifying as a Jewish-Atheist Woman of Trans experience. As usual, my response was that I believe in Judaism more than I believe god. The way I explained it was (one of the points; I hate quoting myself, but in this case it works best): “I like the community life, and also, interestingly enough, especially in the U.S., the liberal and progressive Jewish communities are usually more accepting and more progressive than the general American population.” I meant what I said, to me this is one of the beauties of progressive Judaism.
When I said that, I was referring to the Jewish communities I was involved with. First and foremost, the Jewish Renewal movement and Romemu that has been in the forefront of fighting for radical inclusivity in American Judaism and beyond since the ‘70s. As well as the Reconstructionist and Reform movements (which was one of the first major religious group in the US to formally adopt a resolution welcoming people of trans experience this past year), College Hillels, and even the Conservative world to some extent. However, I was clearly not talking about Orthodoxy, definitely not the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, but not even most Modern-Orthodox communities; they still have a long way to go towards full acceptance and equality. It did not seem like I will change my views on Orthodoxy anytime soon.
Last weekend, I put it to test, in form of attending an Orthodox LGBT reatreat.
The new Reb Zalman Memorial Library at  IFJRC
When I signed up to attend the Eshel National Retreat, I was torn. There is a strong possibility that if not for the fact that it was at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center - the hub of Jewish Renewal and home to Elat Chaim, I would not have signed up. Eshel is officially an Orthodox organization, and while they are inclusive to non-orthodox and formally-orthodox people, it is still an Orthodox environment, and it is no secret that I don’t Love that. Yet, I decided to give it a try, let me see what is A possible future in the Orthodox world. Now, if I do something, why not do it all the way. I signed up to attend, to offer a session on Gender in Kabbala, talk on a panel, and give two Daf Yomi classes (ya, shocking, I know).
I have to admit, I came home with a better view of Orthodoxy. Still not planning on ever finding myself as an observant Orthodox Jew (again), but if there was something that could have changed my views, change my utter despair that “Orthodoxy is never going to come around”, it was that weekend.
So here are a few short reflections on an amazing weekend.
One of the biggest benefits was meeting some amazing people. Starting with pioneers in Jewish LGBT+ advocacy, such as Shlomo Ashkinazy, who carries 45 years of diligent work for equality, and Rabbi Steve Greenberg author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition and co-director of Eshel. Moreover, I got to spend more than two full days with 125 strong, bold, beautiful and beyond courageous human beings, who were all screaming “We are Jewish and Queer” in one way or another. Everyone had a unique, yet - sadly – so similar story. We were a group of people that were raised all over the world, and from Ultra-Orthodox to Non-Jewish families. People of all colors and ages, and with different levels of education, wealth and status. Nevertheless, we are all trying to figure out, or better, work on, our dual identities as queer and Jewish, each to their own.
On Friday night we had a panel that was kind of the ‘Keynote’ speech(es) of the Retreat. We had five people on the panel, moderated by Rabbi Steve Greenberg. We each got about twenty minutes to talk about our experiences growing up in our respective communities, as well as our current relationship with Judaism. My favorite part of the panel was the diversity of the panelists. One of us was a professional TedX lecturer from a Modern-Orthodox background, who identifies as gay. Another was a woman raised in a secular community, and is now living with her wife and kids in an Orthodox community. Another one was a middle-aged queer person who has been fighting for equality in his Orthodox synagogue for years. Then there way my amazing dear friend and schoolmate, Talia Lakritz, aka Nerd With A Voice, who in addition to being the best LGBT ally I know of, was one of the first people I came out to, and helped me tremendously. Then there was me, a Formally-Orthodox, outspoken Atheist yet follower of Jewish Renewal, who loves Jewish culture and community.
Again, what brought us together was a shared vision for a future where Jewish ORTHODOX communities are accepting of the LGBT community in all its colors and alphabet. On top of that, this all happened in an Orthodox setting, moderated by a 100% observant Orthodox Rabbi. Yet none of us had to hide who we are and what we do or don’t believe in, in any way.
Performance of marriage arrangement 
Talia performing Dear RCA at the Talent Show
I can go on and talk more about these 48 hours. The amazing (hopefully) lifelong friends we all made. The Shabbos morning service where a trans-woman had her first Aliya (being called up to read from the Torah-Hebrew Bible) as her true self. The Talent Show on Saturday night which including a screening of the now famous Bagel video, a performance of Dear RCA, a nine minute standup by Dana Friedman, amazing singers, rappers, readers and performers, finalized by an arranged marriage playout. Nevertheless, I already passed my 1,000-word mark. Therefore, I will end here with one final episode.
Sunday morning before leaving, after the amazing (perhaps best of the whole retreat) session by the all-time inspiring pioneer Shlomo Ashkinazy, recapping 45 years of LGBT advocacy, we were sitting around and talking. Someone asked Rabbi Greenberg what his response is when someone asks him how he can be a gay Orthodox Rabbi. His response, mirroring his amazing personality, was simply crossing his legs and arms and saying: “Like this”… This is the vision of a Jewish community we were fostering and hoping to take home.
So from now on, if anyone is telling me that Orthodoxy is never going to “come around” I have an article that challenges that notion. I am not ‘joining’ Orthodoxy in believe or practice, but I can see myself ‘enjoying’ Orthodoxy. While with limits as of now, redemption is better attainable that I thought.
Thankful for the past, and hopeful for the future,

Abby @ The Second Transition

Watch the wishes of Retreat participants: 
Oh, ignore my Yiddish 5 seconds in it...


  1. Thanks for the shout-out there, Abby! :-) For what it's worth, it being a Jewish event, there was a breakaway egal minyan where I got my עליה לתורה and took my name.

    It was a fantastic weekend overall, and I am so grateful I went again.

    1. Thanks Josie. I couldn't say a name as I did not have your permission to do so, but I am glad you liked it. It was indeed beautiful.