“Never before had I felt so accepted… Never before had I felt so understood, in a way that almost cannot be explained.”
“Being at the Shabbaton felt like exhaling. I hadn’t realized how much I had to hold back and posture in my everyday life until I was there. I realized that without knowing it I had been holding my breath all year waiting for the Shabbaton.”
“The Shabbaton showed me that I am not alone. There are lots of other people that are going through some of the same things I am.”
The three quotes above all came from young people who participated in our Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton this past April, the largest of three such gatherings that we’ve held at Isabella Freedman, all in partnership with our wonderful friends at Keshet, and with the tremendous support of UJA-Federation of New York.
By definition, most of you reading this message will not have the opportunity to attend one of these Shabbatons, for the fact that the gatherings are exclusively comprised of and led by teens (with the support of a few adult staff and volunteers). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the opportunity to know about this important program, and to learn of its vital impact.
Indeed, it’s a program that not only changes lives; it likely saves some, as well.
When I accepted the role as Director of Isabella Freedman in 2011 (prior to the Isabella Freedman-Hazon merger), I contemplated what new things I might bring to the organization. It was clear to me that one of the organization’s strongest assets was its ability to provide a safe space, and that one of its roles could be utilizing that safe space in a manner that helped to address the needs of underserved populations in the Jewish community.
While not having any particular personal connection, it occurred to me that one of those populations could be Jewish LGBTQ teens. I, like most people, had read countless stories of LBGTQ teens suffering from bullying and alienation, leading to depression, and, tragically in some cases, suicide. If our organization could play a role in addressing that problem, it seemed to me vital that we do it.
Shortly after my arrival at Isabella Freedman, we hosted the Siach Conference (co-sponsored by Hazon), which is where I met Idit Klein, the Executive Director and founder of Keshet, the leading organization advocating for full inclusion of the LGBTQ population in the Jewish community. I pitched my idea to Idit, and a partnership was built. I subsequently met with staff at UJA-Federation of New York, who embraced the concept, supporting it with significant funding.
Our first Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton was held in the summer of 2012. It was smaller than we had hoped, with only a dozen participants. We came close to canceling it. But once the participants arrived, it became abundantly clear why this gathering was so important. We produced a powerful video out of that gathering, which helps to demonstrate the difference that the program has made in the lives of young people.
We’d go on to hold another small Shabbaton in the winter of 2013, building our small group into a leadership team that would help to plan and promote a future larger gathering. In the meantime, UJA-Federation of New York pledged their continuing support, Keshet hired a part-time staff person to develop the program, we built successful partnerships with youth movements including BBYO, USY, NFTY, Young Judaea, JQY, Camp JRF, and J-Serve; and, in April of 2014, we held our largest Jewish LGBTQ Shabbaton, attracting 60 participants from around the country, many of whom left saying their lives were forever changed by the program.
Which leads me back to my own story, as someone who started the program without having any particular personal connection.
When I arrived at Isabella Freedman in 2011, I arrived as the father of four daughters; and when we held the first Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton in 2012, my daughter, Mikayla, was 14 years old. There are rarely retreats for teens on our campus, so I suggested to her that it might be fun to come and hang out. She did. She made good friends; and, in the end, she told me how it was the first time she had ever met teens in the LGBTQ community.
When we held our second LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton in the winter of 2013, it didn’t take any convincing for Mikayla to want to go back. She had friends there already.
A couple months after that Shabbaton, Mikayla texted her mom and me saying she had something difficult she wanted to discuss. It was then that she came out to us. She had realized that she was part of the LGBTQ community. We asked if she had told her friends from the Shabbaton, and she responded that they had known for a couple of months.
And, it was at our third Shabbaton this past April that Mikayla, our daughter, resolved to begin being identified as Micah, our son.
We adore our son, Micah, just as we did, Mikayla; and we embrace and celebrate that he feels comfortable and confident in living life as his full self. While that may have eventually happened – perhaps 5 or 10 or 20 years from now – we are immensely grateful that Hazon, at its Isabella Freedman campus, hosts and partners in leading a program that enabled it to happen now, saving what could have been countless years of depression, repression, self-doubt, alienation, and misery.
And we can only imagine how that experience has and will affect the lives of so many other young Jewish LGBTQ teens who participate in this program.
We’re now actively working on planning (and securing funding for) two such Shabbatons for next year, one at Isabella Freedman, and one on the west coast.
At the end of the video produced after our first gathering, there is a series of slides showing outcomes from the program. Among the outcomes, which includes the teens creating an ongoing Facebook group and teens writing blogs on their experiences, is one stark and powerful slide reading “And one teen left with the courage to be able to come out at home.”
That was our Micah.