Helping Each Other Become the People We Are Meant to Be
I do not think back on my high school years very often. Like most teenagers, I was plagued by the mood swings and omnipresent blemishes that define those hormonal years. Social groups were constantly shifting, defining in sudden and unsubtle ways who was in and who was out. I worried too much about how I was perceived by others, often viewing the world through this self-conscious lens.
Added to all this insecurity was a paralyzing fear that other students would discover my secret: I came from an LGBTQ home. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was 12 years old, but it took a few years before she was comfortable living her life openly and unapologetically. In private, I stood in awe of her transformation, of her ability to be true to herself. In public, I mostly kept quiet in hopes of flying under the radar until graduation.
The one place where I did not worry about homophobia was the Unitarian Universalist Church. My family left our synagogue and moved to this extremely progressive space, a community led by a gay minister. I thrived in their youth group, surrounded by peers who were kind and open.
The only connection to Judaism I maintained in those years came sporadically through summers at URJ Crane Lake Camp. I decided to return there as a counselor the summer before college. I also decided to remain quiet about my mom. Because we left the synagogue when she came out, I automatically assumed Jewish spaces were not welcoming to families like mine. I would enjoy a summer with my friends at camp, but living far away from my family, I would conveniently leave out some details.
All that changed when I arrived at Crane Lake and met our new director, Debby Shriber. She welcomed all the staff back to camp and introduced us to her family…to her wife! I was floored. Suddenly, I saw a family just like mine being accepted in a Jewish space. Just like that, the insecurity that had dominated so many of my thoughts felt silly. If Debby could be herself, what was holding me back? If she expected respect and acceptance, why was I spending so much time in fear of judgment and rejection?
That summer changed the way I thought about Jewish community and the way I interacted with others. I stopped feeling so scared, stopped obfuscating when people asked about my background. I taught swimming and braided hair and bonded with my campers. I was honest and learned to be more comfortable in my own skin. I also learned that I could comfortably return to Jewish spaces, a lesson that led me back to my tradition, religion and culture. Beginning that summer and continuing through college and beyond, I once again made Judaism central to my identity -- so central, in fact, that this summer, I will begin rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.
I am forever grateful for the example set by both my mom and Debby. These strong, confident, kindhearted, and honest women motivated me to work to embody those same traits. Later that summer, a young camper came out to me and said he knew I was a safe person to talk to because I was clearly so proud of where I came from. From generation to generation, we are helping each other become more loving, more accepting, more true-to-ourselves people – the people we are meant to be.
From camps to youth groups and from teen-powered social action initiatives to travel programs in Israel and around the world, the URJ offers our young people countless opportunities to connect, learn, grow, and have fun. Find a URJ Youth Program for the young people in your life.