Things changed when Jonathan came out as gay.
Jonathan struggled mightily with a sense of alienation from the Modern Orthodox world. Reconciling his Jewish identity with his gay identity made him feel alone in the wilderness; he was unsure where or how these two parts of his self could ever fit together.
The palpable pain of that struggle was clear as Jonathan shared his narrative to a packed room of UJA staff who gathered this week to celebrate Pride month. With a wide smile and tears in his eyes, Jonathan described his elation upon discovering years later that he could return to camp. His beloved Berkshire Hills now hosts an LGBTQ family camp on Labor Day weekend. He could bring his family — his husband and their three children — to his favorite place in the world. His Jewish self, his camp self, and his gay self could all come together. His voice choked with emotion, he said, “I never felt so whole.”
UJA supports an array of programs that reach some of the 50,000 LGBTQ Jews and their families in the New York area. Another of these programs is JQY (the Jewish Queer Youth Drop-in Center), a place for teens and young adults from across the religious spectrum to have access to social workers, health resources, kosher meals, and an affirming Jewish community.
It’s at JQY that Sandy, who grew up observant, attended Barnard College, and is a trans man, found acceptance. Speaking at our Pride staff event about his relationship to Judaism, Sandy said, “I don’t consider myself off the derech (the Jewish ‘path’) simply because I’m queer. I’m redefining the derech.”
Considering that more than 50% of transgender male teens have attempted suicide, the work of JQY and similar programs is nothing short of lifesaving. These are safe, welcoming spaces for young Jewish adults who have often been rejected, and have at times faced the threat of physical and emotional abuse.
We’re flipping the narrative, showing how the Jewish community, which sadly can be the source of pain and stigmatization for some, can also be a source of comfort — and even the place that makes the LGBTQ population feel whole.
As someone who’s identified my whole life as Orthodox, I’m fully aware that some are uncomfortable with UJA supporting these programs. But the primary mandate of UJA — the very reason we exist — is to care for the needs of the Jewish community in its entirety, across the spectrum.
Last week, I wrote about UJA’s work supporting the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. This week, the focus is LGBTQ Jews. That both are equally relevant to UJA’s work is what it means to be a community of communities, a place where all Jews are welcome, all are cared for, and all are accepted — as they are.