Wholly Jewish: Caroline: Forming a Sacred Queer Community

Hosted by Jewish performance and ritual artist Shira Kline (she/her), a.k.a. ShirLaLa, this season features interviews with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship. Follow along as they share their experiences in Jewish spaces, how their queerness and their Judaism intersect, and their visions of a more inclusive and equitable Jewish community.

Being wholly Jewish means not having to hide parts of who we are when we enter Jewish spaces - including our queer identities. Caroline Dorn (she/her) discusses the importance of such a community; why Jewish congregations must hold intentional communities for marginalized folks; combining her improv skills with her “extracurricular Judaism"; and the importance of expanding our worldviews. "I think that the best resource that the Jewish community has is people," she says. "It's our relationships. It's our connection to one another. It's how we move through the world and the people that we hold close to us while we do it."

Three ways to listen:


Caroline Dorn: [00:00:02] What's your story? What's your background? What's, what's the thing that is, that brought you here? Because often the story is more important than the reason they're here now.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:12] Welcome back to Wholly Jewish, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. What do we all have in common? We all live and balance complex and nuanced identities that when braided together, make us wholly ourselves and wholly Jewish. This season, Jewish performance and ritual artist, Shira Kline, speaks with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship, to share their experiences, insights and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community. Today, Shira is speaking with Caroline Dorn.   

Shira Kline: [00:00:53] Hi, everyone, welcome to Wholly Jewish. Here we are today. My name is Shira Kline. I use she/her pronouns and I'm excited to be here with Caroline Dorn. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how do you identify?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:01:06] My name is Caroline Dorn. I'm calling in from Boston, Massachusetts. I use she/her pronouns and I identify as a cisgender lesbian.  

Shira Kline: [00:01:16] As a lesbian and a cisgender lesbian, do you ever explore…I'm thinking a little bit about like larger language that our community uses. And I'm wondering about the word queer. Right off the bat, I'm curious, do you use that word and how you are defining it these days? 

Caroline Dorn: [00:01:34] Totally. I do use the word queer to describe the greater queer community, to describe others or when I'm talking about hosting a queer Shabbat. I think it's a really inclusive term. I don't choose to use it personally for myself. I like to joke that it's because I feel like I earned the title lesbian by, like, coming out really young. But I’m like, queer for me holds some, like, a whole multitude of wonderful identities of people who, like, came to realizations later in life. People who identify in really complex, in like complex ways that, that are really meaningful for them. And that, that means a whole host of different things. But for me, I feel like from a very young age, I was like, I, like, I am attracted to women. I'm a lesbian. I'm gay. And I find a lot of power in that. In naming specifically what my experience is versus feeling lumped in with people who have other wonderful, meaningful life experiences. So, for me, I really enjoy using either gay or lesbian.  

Shira Kline: [00:02:33] So, in this, which I appreciate that so much, I mean, and in this world, like, I feel like language is evolving on the daily. You know, all the cultural terms and the evolution of language just really is before us in this spectrum. I mean, for you, how does language inform things. Like is it, does gender come into the word queer as well? Why is queers such an inclusive term?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:03:03] I don't know if gender comes into the word queer. It's interesting because, I guess, the terms gay and lesbian do evoke gender. Gay for men and, and lesbian for women. I don't know that we always use them. I think gay has sort of become more of an umbrella term than lesbian has. Lesbian tends to refer to women. Queer refers to people across a lot of spectrums of gender or no gender and people who experience life outside of a hetero normative way in terms of either their gender or their sexuality or some sort of beautiful combination of both. So, it feels like it's a term that can include all people who don't identify, as does gender straight people, which is a really big population.  

Shira Kline: [00:03:51] I'm seeing also here that you do what you refer to as “extra-curricular Judaism”, which is your queer programing in the Jewish world. So, I was wondering, you know, I'm thinking already about your identity and where does the Jew part come in? You know, as somebody who is active in your Jewish community, as an out queer organizer and community builder. Tell us a little bit about how these two identities work together.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:04:25] Yeah, it's an interesting question. For me, they're my truth. You know, I walk around the world every day as a queer person and a Jewish person. And sometimes there are spaces where I feel like I'm more Jewish or more queer. This particularly comes into play when people don't know that I'm queer yet, which for me, people tend to not guess that I'm queer based on looking at me. So, it's often a surprise to people. So, I have to come out to people. So, if I walk into a Jewish community where I don't know anybody, I'm usually assumed to be straight.  

Shira Kline: [00:04:58] When these two identities play off of each other or when they inform each other, like, do you ever find yourself seeing your Jewish identity as more full because of your queer identity? Would you ever even go so far as to say you can sometimes queer your Jewish identity or Jew your queer identity?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:05:23] What an interesting question. You know, I think there's something really powerful for me about being a reform Jew that reminds me a lot about, of being queer.  In so far as, as reform Jews, we have choices in the way that we practice Judaism. And I grew up with the idea that Judaism could be as meaningful for me as I wanted it to be and as relevant for me as I want it, wanted it to be. And the same I think can be said for growing up queer. That we sort of have the opportunity to reject scripts that had been thrust upon us from an early age about what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man or what it means to be a, like, a person who has attractions. And when you grow up queer, you sort of have the experience of being like, “wait, this maybe is the way this works for me or this isn't the way I want my life to look”. And there's something so powerful about rejecting those things and about choosing what does feel meaningful for you. That also comes across in how I choose to practice Judaism.  

Shira Kline: [00:06:22] Nice. Tell me a little bit more. Like what, give me some examples here. Like, what are we talking about? What is meaningful to you?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:06:28] For me, I don't find as much meaning in a weekly Shabbat practice or weekly ritual. But I do find a lot of meaning in moments. In finding moments to celebrate being Jewish and where moments occur in people's lives that Judaism can be an enriching part of it. You know, I work in a synagogue and we talk a lot about how synagogues can't really depend on births and deaths and weddings and B’nai Mitzvahs as. the only life cycle events anymore. There are so many more meaningful moments in our lives that Judaism has the opportunity to engage with people in. So when someone goes to kindergarten or loses a tooth or gets their driver's license or all sorts of meaningful life transition moments that we all experience across the spectrum of our lives, our opportunities for Judaism to infuse it’s wisdom into the ways that we operate into the world. And I like to view it like that.  

Shira Kline: [00:07:24] Mm hmm. Mm hmm. So, what are you seeing like what's happening in the world today for other queer Jews?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:07:31] Sometimes it doesn't feel that great. You know, there's a lot happening politically, there's a lot happening emotionally for all of us and everyone who belongs to any minority group. There's a lot of fear happening around us. And I think perhaps we don't even understand the extent of that because we're, we're living it. It's the air that we're breathing. But it is getting harder to own those things without fear of repercussions. I had an incident recently, in a Lyft, where I came out to the driver and was put in an unsafe situation because of it. And everything was totally fine, you know, I got home safely. It was handled appropriately, but it made me think that I have not had to really think twice about coming out really ever. I mean, I guess when I was fifteen I thought about it a lot. But in recent years, I've been out for 11 years now, this isn't something that I've ever had to worry about. Now, there's a lot of freedom in the world for people to express their hatred in a way that is new for me, but is not new for other minority members. It's been new for me, so it's that moment of having to think twice about whether I want to be open about all of my identities in terms of both my safety and my emotional labor. Sometimes someone will say something to me about having a husband or wanting to meet a guy. And while I feel very confident in setting them straight, so to speak, sometimes I just don't want to I don't really want to get into my dating life with these people that I don't know that well. And so that, I think, is part of the queer experience. It's like deciding where and when and how you want to be really open with your life or not.  

Shira Kline: [00:09:21] So true. You know, just for fun, is there anything that you would like? What would you really like to say to those people, to that driver? What would you, what do you want to say to them?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:09:35] I think I would want to say to people that it is to all of our benefit to think outside of the norm. It is really important for all of us to think about, not only the kind of world that we want to live in and the kind of world that we want to build, but what it means when we assume that a person who identifies as a woman has a husband. I think we have so much opportunity to think twice about our words and to think about a world in which we really do eliminate a lot of our gender talk and where we really do push ourselves to feel uncomfortable, even for a moment, about the words we use and, and get out of our own comfort zone about the assumptions we make. And not only for the benefit of others who may identify differently than us, but for our own benefit, it expands our world view. It makes us think twice. It makes the world a little bit bigger and our truths a little stronger. And it just makes things a little bit more, more bright and colorful. And I really think it is to all of our benefit not just to not be homophobic or not be transphobic, but to be open. To be open, to learning and to loving differently than we have before.  

Shira Kline: [00:10:47] I love that. I've been thinking a lot about in these conversations, like what are the gifts that the queer community and queer identity has brought to the world? I hear you saying some of that right now. Like some of the, your ideas around just learning how to love bigger and how to see bigger. Anything else? Like, tell me, what do you think of that question? Like what, what other gifts would you say queer identity and queer community and queer folks are bringing to the Jewish world?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:11:19] I think that queer folks are often the people at the forefront of leading change because we already have lived lives that have defied expectations of who we would become. So, to think that we might change again is not so unfathomable for people who have been through coming out processes or transitioning processes. And like, what an incredible gift to have grown up, hopefully with positive experiences of rejecting a social norm that was thrust upon you. Because it means that you then have the skill set to apply to something else that you don't want or something else that needs to change or give a little bit. And that is something that other people, that straight people and cis gendered people don't grow up with. That’s a skill they have to have to build, especially in the Jewish community, when we're looking at all sorts of institutional change.  

Shira Kline: [00:12:07] You know, I keep thinking that, like, we've done a lot of work, you know, we and our parents and like our teachers before us have done a lot of work to bring the LGBTQIA community into the synagogue life, you know. But what is, now what? Like what's the change that you're talking about?   

Caroline Dorn: [00:12:28] Well, now what if there is no synagogue life? What if synagogues weren't our way of connecting? There are people who are in Boston, we have so many opportunities for Jewish connection that lives outside of or just adjacent to synagogues, but not necessarily in synagogues. And what does that mean for who we become, how we educate our children should we choose to have them? We have infinite opportunity. Like Jewish ritual is there. Jewish tradition is there. Jewish text is there. Jewish community is something that we build, and we choose how it looks and we choose how it feels and we choose who we associate with or don't. And so, we have all this opportunity to think, to think about what we want in a world that hasn't paved the way yet. It's all new and it's very similar, to me, as the process of coming out. Doing something completely brand new. And just seeing what it looks like on the other end.  

Shira Kline: [00:13:23] OK, now I'm following, I’m following to the other side of the rainbow with you right now. And I want to know what is in that pot of gold. Like what, what's your vision?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:13:33] You know, I think that the best resource that the Jewish community has, is people. It's our relationships. It's our connection to one another. It's how we move through the world and the people that we hold close to us while we do it. In times of great sorrow and times of great joy. And I want an invitation to the community where relationships are held as so sacred. Not just romantic relationships or partnership relationships, but friendships are sacred and mentorships are sacred and invested in and held as almost holy. Yeah, held as holy. I mean, I think relationships should be the forefront in the center of how we operate in the world. And I would love an invitation to that dinner party, to that Shabbat dinner, where, like, all we're doing is getting to know one another in a real meaningful way. And thinking about what it looks like from beyond that moment too. It's the power of individual moments of being gathered together around the Shabbat table or in other contexts of Jewish ritual. But, it's also how we grow together and knowing that growing might mean changing.  

Shira Kline: [00:14:43] I know that you are an improviser, right? You do improv? 

Caroline Dorn: [00:14:47] Yes, I'm taking musical improv right now.  

Shira Kline: [00:14:50] What does Jewish queer improper look like?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:14:52] Oh, what an awesome question. You know, the best thing about improv is that it's one of the few spaces that you not only can be, but you are required to be extremely vulnerable. And anyone who's read any Brene Brown, who's the really amazing author and leader in research about wisdom and bravery and vulnerability, is familiar with these concepts. But the idea that, like vulnerability is a superpower. And it is so unbelievably holy to gather in a space with like eight or 10 people and be like, “We're going out on the stage. And no matter what happens, whether no one laughs, whether everyone laughs, whether we have some drunk person in the audience, whether the stage lights break, whether we get booed off stage, I got your back”. Like, how cool is that? That never happens in real life. That you just have a bunch of people who are like, “No matter what I, got you. This is not about me, this is about the team”. So, for Jewish queer improv, like, how amazing would it be to apply that same level of vulnerability to being Jewish? For instance, I'm someone who doesn't have a ton of background in text and I often feel very self-conscious about it in Jewish spaces. And I can't really read Hebrew. A lot of text study is unfamiliar to me. I, like, just started learning some Torah and I'm twenty-six years old.  

Shira Kline: [00:16:16] And you mean, when you say text, you mean like, you know, Judeo text, like ancient texts, like stories and uh… 

Caroline Dorn: [00:16:22] Yes, correct. 

Shira Kline: [00:16:23] Legal debates and those sorts, uh huh, OK. 

Caroline Dorn: [00:16:26] Yeah. All of that stuff is super unfamiliar to me and it's not an area of comfort and I wish that it wasn't something I had to feel self-conscious about. But I often do, like there's a little bit of a barrier in Jewish institutions, for knowing that sort of thing. And I have to imagine, as someone who grew up in the reform movement, who has two Jewish parents and who went to what was called Hebrew school at the time, that I am at a vast advantage then many of the people who walk into our institutions, who grew up in interfaith homes or without a Jewish education or who are Jews by choice. So, the level of vulnerability to be like, “this is new to me and it's something I want to learn more about as an adult. And this is something that I don't know about and isn't my comfort zone. But I want it to feel like it belongs to me, too”. I think is a really cool idea.  

Shira Kline: [00:17:22] So what's your superpower like? What's your queer Jewish superpower?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:17:24] My superpower is I'm an extrovert. I love people so much. And I'm not afraid of talking to anyone. And I find people wherever I go. I find queer Jews in, like, the most unlikely spaces. I think that is my superpower is, like, finding the people who, like, who need something and getting them looped into the right place.  

Shira Kline: [00:17:55] What do you like to ask people? Like what's the one thing you want to know about people?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:18:00] I often ask people, when I go to a lot of coffees with these people for what I do for work, and I often ask people, like, “what's your story? What's your background? What's, what's the thing that is, that brought you here?” Because often the story is more important than the reason they're here now.  

Shira Kline: [00:18:09] Mmm hmm.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:18:11] You know, sometimes I like to think about myself and all people as like tiny little systems with a lot of control buttons. And everywhere we go, we're like, “Ok, I’m gonna turn that off and turn that one on. I'm going to dim this for a little bit. I'm going to, like, turn up my excitement and turn down my queer for this moment. And I'm like put on my professional hat” and like, you sort of like set up your system for how you want to operate in this exact moment. And then you go to the next thing or the next place and you like reorient. And where are the places where we get to put all of our switches on? Where are the places where we like get to be completely and utterly ourselves? And we talk a lot in the Jewish community about being warm and welcoming in a place where you can bring your whole self. And I appreciate that. And I often, like, am overwhelmed by that concept, because if I was my whole entire self all of the time, like, I think the world would feel like too much for me. And I like the ability to be like, I'm gonna just dim this for a moment or I'm not going to bring this to the table at this time. I think it’s beneficial. And it also is, like, indicative of privilege. Right? That you can be like, “I’m gonna turn this off and people won't know that I'm queer”, that's a privilege not everyone has in terms of like people who have, People of Color can't turn their skin color off. You know, there are certain things that we just don't get to ever turn off. So, I'm aware of that and I'm grateful for it.  

Shira Kline: [00:19:38] Tell me about the programing that you do for your queer community in the Jewish world, at queer 20s and 30s. Is this programing that you pull out? Is it exclusively queer programing? Like, tell us a little bit more about that.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:19:57] Sure. It started because I had been going to a lot of Jewish events around Boston and I didn't find a space that was exclusively queer. And to be quite honest, I was looking for a date. So, I was like, how could I gather, like, a bunch of queer people in a room together? And what would that look like? So, I hosted a little Shabbat in my apartment. And then that grew into a really big Shabbat at synagogue. And then that grew into some regular programing that happened among a cohort of like 80-ish people. And we came together actually after the Pittsburgh anti-Semitism incident happened for a healing Havdalah. I feel like was a real turning point for that community in terms of, like, we had all been to some sort of vigil at that point, but none of them had been in an exclusively queer space. And it was really fascinating to see what it felt like to be mournful of an anti-Semitic incident in, in a group of people who also had been victims of incidents of oppression.  

Shira Kline: [00:20:55] And you're speaking about when there was a shooting in the synagogue of, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:21:01] Yes.  

Shira Kline: [00:21:03] In the world of, like, in the Jewish world and just in general, in the community organizing world, we are always asking this question, you know, “is it, is it necessary, is it more… you know, does it create a more strong gathering, if we narrow the invitation, you know, and we continue to narrow it?” But I guess it has to do with what's the purpose of the gathering? And so…  

Caroline Dorn: [00:21:28] That's very The Art of Gathering.  

Shira Kline: [00:21:30] Exactly. I sure did. So… 

Caroline Dorn: [00:21:31] My favorite. 

Shira Kline: [00:21:32] Priya Parker. Thank you, Priya. But that's exactly what she's teaching us, you know, and I think that's what you're speaking to. So, do you want to talk a little bit, a little bit more about that?  

Caroline Dorn: [00:21:42] Yeah, there is something really special about narrowing down invitations. First of all, because I think it's really holy when I get invited to a Shabbat dinner that my friends were like, “we thought intentionally about who was going to be at this table and we want you there”. So, I think there is something really nice about intentional communities that are geared toward specific people and specific people who share life experiences that may not be the case for everybody else in the room. There is something really powerful and holy and special and cool about that that I don't want to give up. And we still have work to do into making that possible. That feeling of warm and inclusive and welcoming and making that feel possible in all of our Jewish spaces. So I think it's a requirement for all of our Jewish institutions to do the inclusive, inclusive work and to do the Anti-racism work. And there's still something to be said for having queer spaces where we don't have to coach people on that.  

Shira Kline: [00:22:36] Yeah, I really hear you and I appreciate what you're saying. There is truly that feeling of relaxed, to be able to relax and know that you are seen without having to come out.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:22:50] Yeah. Exactly.  

Shira Kline: [00:22:52] Totally.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:22:54] I get so tired of coming out.  

Shira Kline: [00:22:57] You know, it's, I will say that in a lot of these conversations, I've heard that. And it's something I'm starting to learn more and more about our community, is that we, we talk about the welcome mat, like you said, you know, and like making sure everybody feels so warm and welcome. And then, now we have them here and there are officially queers inside this building. And there's even one like on the board maybe. And there's like, we had an inclusivity training and we did all that. But the question is like, what's the vision for what happens next and how do we not become invisible within our own community, so that we then have to continue to come out. Because it's real, it's real to have these different identities. So, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. So, I hope to come see you perform in musical improvisation.  

Caroline Dorn: [00:23:46] Yeah, I'll make up a song about being queer and Jewish. You can’t really do that because now that I just made it up, it's not improv anymore.  

Shira Kline: [00:23:53] All right. Thanks again.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:23:55] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism. Hope you have a good week and L'hitraot.