Coming Out & Inviting In

I wrote this piece of Keshet’s Blog in honor of National Coming Out Day.

When I entered the waters of the mikveh directly after my bet din for conversion to Judaism, my Jewish life began—but as Jew-by-choice, I felt like I was hiding a secret.

After my conversion folks treated me as an “average” part of the Jewish community, I was passing as a Jew-by-birth. This passing meant of a lot of different things. It allowed me to take leadership roles at my Hillel that I was previously barred from. It allowed me to function and be treated like everyone else within the Jewish community. To everyone else in my community, I was not any different. There were no invasive questions asked, just a slew of assumptions and a feeling that I was hiding.

As a Jew-by-choice I often feel forced into playing along as if I remember that time in my life where there was a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend, or that I know exactly what a stereotypical Jewish mother is like. I don’t have an answer when folks ask me what it was like to be in a Jewish military family because, while I came from a military family, I’m not from a Jewish military family. The assumption that my childhood looked like every other Jew’s silenced me and kept me from sharing stories of my non-Jewish past.

This feeling of keeping a secret was not a new one for me. By the time I came out as Jewish, I had already come out as queer. The feeling of “playing along” was, in many ways, akin to how I felt as a closeted youth. I feared that sharing parts of me would only mark me as different and knew that people don’t always take kindly to “others.”

So what do you do when you’re afraid of how people will react to your difference?

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An Open Letter to the Georgia Board of Regents

To the Georgia Board of Regents:

The question, “Are you proud to be a Georgia Bulldawg?” is asked to me as graduating senior from the University of Georgia. The answer is no, I am not proud. I am rather ashamed. I will not hang my diploma on my wall, because that piece of paper will served as a constant reminder of the students who are barred from this institution. These students are my undocumented peers who I studied with 6-12 grades.

You see I did not to move to Georgia until sixth grade because I am Military child. As the daughter of an Air Force active duty father, I learned the real meaning of “hazard pay” as my Dad was sent off to defend the rights and freedoms of our country time and time again. This country is the very one that served as refuge to my Cuban grandfather and met my grandmother’s family with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. We are a nation that has offered hope to so many. Are we now turning our backs on those in our country who want the same basic rights our ancestors came for? It appears we have already done so particularly here in Georgia.

Education is a basic human right and the United States acknowledges that as we ship thousands of Peace Corp members to foreign countries to spend 40% of their time teaching. Yet, we deny education here at home. It is time that for the Board of Regents to remember the principles of this very nation and end the discrimination of policy 4.1.6. Not until that policy is removed will I be proud to be a Georgia Bulldawg and hang my diploma on the wall.

Firsts: Pride & Antisemitism

This past weekend I experienced two major firsts; it was the first time that I attended Atlanta Pride and the first time that I experienced Antisemitism. I came to Pride to experience what I thought Pride festivals and parades were intended to be, a space for individuals of all kinds to come together and celebrate acceptance and community.  While I enjoyed myself overall, there were a few things that didn’t sit right with me and still aren’t sitting right with me.  There is a serious lack of solidarity between oppressed groups.

Atlanta Pride is a weekend long event with a variety of activities in Piedmont Park.  I participated in two of the many marches held over the weekend, the Trans March and the Dyke March.  As I lined up for the Dyke March, my friend and I were talking and making a joke about being on “Jewish Time” and how like many collectivist cultures, Jews frequently run late.  One of the women standing next to us stated something to the affect of “I figured they’d be on time, if not early because, ya know, the connection between time and money.”  I was stunned.  My friend and I made it clear to the woman that that was a hurtful statement and she apologized.  We let it go and went on with the March.

Writer with a sign that reads: "This Queer has Chutzpah"

Writer with a sign that reads: “This Queer has Chutzpah”

The following day was the main event, the Parade.   I had decided to join SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity because of my love for the organization.  I climbed aboard the float with people of all ages from different congregations and organizations from around Atlanta. I even made a sign, that I loved.  As we drove, the kids on the float eagerly threw candy and trinkets to the crowd.  I warned them to pace themselves because we still had a good bit of Parade left.  Yet, within the first leg, they had nearly thrown everything and began to toss anything they could get their hands on into the crowd.  It was shortly after we had run out of items that a woman on the street asked if we were throwing anything.  The music was blaring and her question went unnoticed.  A few seconds after having asked her question, I watched the woman turned to her friend and maje a comment that of course they weren’t throwing candy, they’re Jews…insinuating that Jews are too cheap to throw candy.  I believe I was the only person on the float that heard the comment and we still had a good bit of the parade to go, so I let it roll of my back and continued on.

It wasn’t until now, a day later that I have time to process what happened this weekend. To be honest, I’m not at all certain just quite what to make of my experience at Pride. I can say this, I am vastly disappointed in the queer community. These experiences have made be seriously rethink what it means to be a part of Pride and what being in the queer community means.  I expected pride to be a place of solidarity and understanding, where people gather to support one another and feel accepted when at other times they do not. I was let down, marginalized, and made to feel like I did not belong and that so many others did not belong. I am disheartened. This is not what having pride looks like and this is not the queer community I want to be a part of.  I guess I expected solidarity, and I guess that expectation was too high. I wanted to come to Pride and experience togetherness and acceptance, but it was clear to me that that was reserved for few groups and I was not in one. As sad as it may be, Pride left me feeling rather ashamed of the queer community. But the one thing I’ve learned it’ the value of Jewish space in the queer realm and queer space in the Jewish realm, but most importantly Queer Jewish Space.

There are issues that fall at this intersection that need a space to be discussed and that is why I am so glad to have had the opportunity to be in Queer Jewish space through Nehirim and NUJLS conferences. I am overwhelming grateful for the work Keshet and SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity in creating  dialogue and change at that intersection. My pride experience confirmed just how important that work is and how I need to be a part in making that change.

My Story

As I shared, story is powerful. I am hoping that in sharing mine others will find piece(s) that resonate with them. I began this blog because my search to find a voice that could speak to my experience as a person who holds unique amalgam of identities came up short. I hope that sharing my experience will not only make others’ searches fruitful, but provide a means toward a greater understanding of the diversity that can be found, even within an individual. So here is my story written in 2012:

My Path

A Spiritual Autobiography

I often find myself explaining to people that I was raised in a Mormon family. I figure that once they know that they can better see where I come from. My background will always be part of me and I’ve grown to not only accept that but cherish it.

Early Childhood

            My first memories of anything spiritual are at a very young child, in my toddler ages. I recall learning songs Christian songs from cassette tape that my grandmother had bought me. She would often play the tape when she drove in the car. So at any early age I knew about Jesus and the little prayer to say before bed, the “Now I lay me down to sleep” one. But at such a young age I can’t really say that these were spiritual events, they did however get me familiarized to Christianity.

My earliest memory of going to church is in the Kaiserslautern ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany. I remember being in Sunday school. My sister and I were called up to the front of the Primary class. I remember not quite understanding what the teacher lady meant by “had we unpacked”. In my mind it was yes… and no. Yes, I unpacked my suitcase, and no our house stuff hadn’t arrived yet. We had just PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station )from Panama City, Florida to Ramstein Air Force Base. What the heck did this lady mean! I was five years old and I was stumped. Luckily, she just moved on to the more embarrassing part, the welcome song. I remember it to this day, sung in every Mormon primary around the world (that’s probably not an exaggeration).

“We’d like to welcome you to primary.

We sing this song for you.

It’s nice to be

in primary.

We’re happy that you came too.”

I was so happy when my sister and I got to sit down. The rest of church flew by and as we left the church parking lot all of the nerves melted away. Meeting new people made me nervous.

Within that first year of regularly attending there was an object lesson. The woman asked who would eat this, holding what appeared to be potting soil. She asked me if I would eat it and to myself I was like, “Are you nuts”!

Come to find out some kid did and it was really just crushed up Oreos. Apparently, it was supposed to be an object lesson on trust or blind faith but I did know this woman! Why the hell would I eat dirt?! I guess I was logical even as a child. I try to recall my feelings about going to church, but I believe it was much like anything else when I was that age. I liked to go because they had treats. After all, that was the ONLY reason I played soccer or T-ball.

The Temple

Traditionally, when Peter Priesthood and Molly Mormon fall in love after meeting each other at BYU (Brigham Young University)  they get married in the temple. A temple marriage is crucial to all Mormons; the wedding vows aren’t “until death do we part” but rather you are sealed “for time and all eternity”. The belief is that you and your spouse will be together in heaven as well as any children you have because they will be born under the covenant. This is pending on the worthiness of every individual.

My parents did not take the tradition route. They got married straight out of high school, my father eloped; it was a court house wedding and they wouldn’t change it for the world. They always impressed upon me that it is the marriage and not the wedding that matters.

When we moved to Germany, church became a bigger part of our lives and mom and dad decided they wanted to go get sealed. Our family went to the Frankfurt temple.

Here is what I remember from that day:

I remember when we got there I had a sense of peace. I understood what we were planning to do and I knew the significance of the temple. As we entered we went up a staircase and my parents took me and my sister to the children’s room. A lady from our church was in the nursery room where my sister and I stayed while my parents were elsewhere. There we played and colored for a while. I’d ask the lady where my parents were and when they were coming back. She just said they’d be back in a little. After a while of play, my sister and I were told to get dressed in these all white jump-suits. We also had to change into white underwear. They didn’t have any of the girl underwear in my size ready to be used so I had to wear boy underwear; this is something I told my friends about … a lot. I was confused about the zipper on the jumpsuit because it zipped in front instead of in back. Either way when my sister and I were both dressed we were escorted into the sealing room.

Other people from our church there which I wasn’t expecting and many people in the room looked like they were about to cry with joy, including my parents. I remember my dad being in this weird hat that looked like a French man’s hat with a red ribbon on it. The guy who was leading the service told us to kneel with our parents and then said some things and directed us to look into the mirror to our left. There were two mirrors on opposite walls. When we peered into the mirror we saw our family going on forever. The man explained that when we are sealed we are sealed forever and we never end, we are always together. As for the rest of the ceremony, I don’t remember much else. I just remember being really happy and having that peace and calm of the Holy Ghost. I was happy, truly happy. I was happy that no matter what happened I’d always have my family, forever.

I recall before we went to the temple my parents would talk to us about what it was we were going to do and what it all meant. I remember asking questions like “What if we don’t like each other later?” and “No matter what?”. My parents used this as a reason to say that we had to be nice to each other because we would be together forever and that made sense to me. They explained at as long as we were all worthy it would be forever and in heaven. I took peace in that.

8: The Age of Accountability and Baptism

In the Mormon faith, eight is considered the age of accountability were you are mature enough to be responsible for your own actions. Previous to eight your parents are responsible for your transgressions but at eight you take responsibility. Aside from being the age of accountability, it is also the age were children are able to enter into the covenant of baptism. The majority of children raised in the faith anxiously await their eighth birthday and their baptism. I recall in my CTR 8 class some of the other kids had turned eight and been baptized. Baptism was often a topic we went over in class. We’d talk about what it felt like to be baptized, what it meant, how we felt attending other’s baptisms.

I recall that before my baptism I had attended two, one of which was a girl around my age. I watched her go into the baptismal font in the white jumper. Her dad entered from the other side and the blessing was said and she was dunked. I recall the other children crowding the front to be able to see, there were two men peering into the font to make sure she had dunked completely or else it would have to be repeated. I don’t recall it as a spiritual moment in my life just something I witnessed.

The other baptism I watched was that of a girl who had a mental handicap and was a severe hydrophobe. I recall her screaming and flailing fighting every moment of it. I remembering thinking, did she do that when she had to take a bath at home? Also, wasn’t there any other way to baptize her something besides baptism by immersion? I remember feeling awful for her but thinking about how important it had to have been for her parents to have her go through it. I also wondered if her parents had the same sorts of talks with her about baptism as mine did. Was it really her choice?

Leading up to my eighth birthday my mom really wanted to make sure that I was the one making this decision and that I fully understood it. I had been hearing about baptism every Sunday and Wednesday of my life leading up to my eighth birthday, or at least that is how it felt. However my mom was adamant that I completely understood what I was about to do and that I really wanted to. She would ask me to explain what baptism meant and what it meant to me. She would comment that yeah sure lots of other kids were getting baptized but I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. I felt that I almost had to fight to convince her that I was really what I wanted. I mean who wouldn’t want to commit themselves fully to their religion, take on the name of Christ, and receive the Holy Ghost as a constant companion to guide me on the right path in my everyday life. I knew what it meant and I knew that I wanted it more than anything else. I looked forward to my baptism day.

I recall the weeks the led up to my baptism were filled with preparation. I was able to plan who gave the opening prayer, certain talks, lead the music, what songs we did and etcetera. I recall wanting the Bishop to do the baptism because I saw him as the figure head of the church and the most appropriate to do that job. My mom had to talk me into letting my Dad baptize me (Its traditional that father’s baptize their children). At that age I didn’t realize how important doing that ritual was to my dad. I am his oldest child and I would be the first person he baptized to my knowledge. I agreed to let dad do it with a bit of reluctance.

I recall that my baptism was after church on a Sunday. I remember getting ready, putting one the white jumpsuit, tying my hair back, and running amuck around church with white socks.

Before the baptism is what I would describe as a mini church service. I had chosen songs and who would give the talk on what. I chose my mom to give the talk on the Holy Ghost. I remember her welling up with tears of joy and pride when she gave her talk. I became overwhelmed with a feeling of love, peace, and the Holy Ghost. I too cried.

After the short ceremony we all went down the hall to the baptismal font. My dad entered from the men’s restroom entrance and I entered from the women’s restroom entrance. I remember being afraid that the water would be terribly cold. I thought about the stories other kids told me about how there was no hot water in theirs, or that they brother thought it would be funny to put ice in the font. So I entered with copious amounts of caution. But to my delight the water was a nice lukewarm. I remember walking in standing next to dad and looking up at all of the kids gawking at me through the glass. I remember seeing the two men, one on each side of the font ready to be the look outs and act as witnesses to my baptism.

Dad took my hand and placed them in the correct spots told me what was going to happen and told me to remember to bend my knees.

Young girl being baptized.

Then he began, I closed my eyes as he said the prayer. I remember feeling anxious. He finished and I took a deep breath and I was dunked. As I came up I looked to Dad and saw him looking at the guys who were keeping watch. They didn’t look pleased. They commented to Dad, “Holy Ghost”. There are only a few scripted prayers in Mormonism, baptism was one of them. Apparently dad said, “Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost” so we had to do it over again. I thought that was silly, isn’t that the same thing anyway. So there we went again eyes closed blessing said, this time I repeated the blessing in my mind to make sure Dad was doing it right and when we got to “Holy Ghost” I emphasized it in my brain. I was annoyed.

After the baptism dad and I hugged, we exited our separate ways and I got dried off and changed. The next part was when I was going to receive the Holy Ghost. Many of you may be wondering what that means. Well, the baptism acts as a covenant that I take upon the name of Christ. The second part is confirmation and getting the gift of the Holy Ghost, as it is called. This gift is that of having the Holy Ghost as a constant companion as long as you’re worthy. The Holy Ghost is supposed to guide you in your actions.

So after I got dried off and put on my Sunday dress we went into another room, a small room. As I entered, there were man standing around in a horseshoe with a chair in the middle. They welcomed me to come sit. I was familiar with this process; it is the same for every blessing just this time there were more men. So I entered and had a seat, My sister and mother followed after me and took seats outside of their ring. The men introduced themselves and then circled around me, each placing their right hand on my hand and the left hand on the shoulder of the man next to them. Then someone said the blessing, I don’t remember if it was my father or not. What sticks out to me was the words “Receive the Holy Ghost”. It felt forceful almost like a command as if they were thrusting the Holy Ghost upon me. The blessing was over, I awkwardly shook every man’s hand and then went on to enjoy the goodies that I had requested be made. I don’t remember if I cried during the blessing or not.

And that was my baptism. I schmoozed with the other guests who had attended and when I got home I made sure to journal about it because that is what my Sunday school teacher said to do. I remember her saying to journal about it and the feelings you have because you will want to remember that forever. So I obeyed and I journaled.

Extreme Devotion

We lived in Germany from the time I was in kindergarten till the summer before sixth grade. While in Germany, we actively attended church. My parents held several different leadership positions. They were Sunday school teachers and higher positions; dad at one point was President of the High Priests and mom came to be in the Young Women’s Presidency. I enjoyed having mom involved in Young Women’s, I use to think of how cool it was to be a young woman. I’d see all of the teenagers and think that I couldn’t wait until I would be able to be like them. Young Women’s had the Young Women in Excellence Program which I thought of to be a lot like earning a really big Girl Scout badge but with a spiritual twist. I really wanted mine. BAD.

We moved to Georgia and I began sixth grade and we found the local LDS church and continued on with them. If you asked me I would have said I knew the church was true, I was happy that I was going to be with my family forever, and I was working on spreading the gospel but it made me nervous to talk about something so important. I was afraid of what the other kids would think. I knew all the things people thought about Mormons and they were all wrong. I remember growing frustrated that my family wasn’t perfect at everything. I constantly compared our family to the others at church. We often didn’t say prayers over meals, skipped family home evening, or just did a very informal kind of family home evening. I remember getting really mad at my parents for drinking coffee because they knew, they KNEW that it was wrong but they kept doing it! Apparently what I said upset my parents and the coffee pot was promptly thrown out. I was adamant. I was extreme. Either we were in it fully or not at all. This sentiment grew the older I got.

Treats and Testimonies

My parents continued to be active in the church with in the various callings they received. Mom and dad, both, had unique things they did for their Sunday school class. Dad ALWAYS brought treats, years later I asked him why church people always brought cookies and why he always made goodies for his classes. He responded that it was to make the association with church and things that are sweet. It was a lure, a subliminal connection, a heuristic of sorts.

Frequently Sunday school lessons would talk about building a testimony, sharing your testimony, testimony, testimony, over and over. When mom taught a lesson about testimonies she ALWAYS stated that it was important to build your own testimony and not rely on the testimony of your parents. Looking back, I think she was speaking both out of her observances with people in the congregations we were in and also from her own experience having grown up in a semi-religious house of a different faith tradition and converting only after marring my father. But either way every Sunday school class, we only half listened and never really gave these comments much thought.

 Young Women

I finally turned twelve and was able to enter Young Women’s as a Beehive. Words cannot describe how excited I was to finally be a part of the group I had looked up to. Everything about Young Women’s excited me. I was eager to learn Young Women Theme:

“We are Daughter of Our Heavenly Father. Who loves us and we love him. We will stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places as we strive to live the Young Women’s values which are:

Faith

Divine Nature

Individual Worth

Knowledge

Choice and Accountability

Good Works

And Integrity

We believe as we come to accept and act upon these values we will be able to strengthen home and family, make and keep sacred covenants, receive the ordinances of the temple, and enjoy the blessings of exaltation.”

(a few years later they added Virtue, but by then I was on my way out)

I eagerly started my Young Women in Excellence Program and earned it within a few years. I was very enthusiastic about the Young Women’s program. I received a callings to be the president of each level of young women’s. I was active at young women camp and looked forward to being a YCL (youth camp leader).

CampOUT

Camp was heaven to me. I loved that at camp, no one cared about the way you looked. Everything superficial faded away at it was all about having fun and truly getting to know one another. The second year of camp is also where I met Deana[1].  I was fifteen. We became close friends at camp and I was defiantly crushing on her. We would hold hands and I would forcefully swing them to make it appear as though we were “only friends” tra la la. Camp lasted only a week and we parted. Throughout the summer I made an effort to see her, she lived an hour away. I invited her over for a sleep over … and she became my first kiss. The next day we drove her home, one of the most awkwardly silent car rides of my life. The following week my brain reeled as I tried to make sense of it all.

I remember thinking; it means something if your first kiss is a girl. This can’t be. This is wrong. What will I do about church, hell what will I do about eternal life. Oh My God! I’m gay?  No I’m not gay, I still like guys. But my first kiss was a girl, this means something. Okay, okay breathe, so I like guys and girls. Now don’t tell anyone! Don’t think about it. It will go away. It WILL go away.

It didn’t go away. My mind kept replaying the evening over and over again. What was I going to do? My entire religious life was going to crumble because of this.

One week later, I told.

I couldn’t keep it in much longer. I can’t lie and to me this was a giant secret and a lie of omission. I sat Mom and Dad down across the table from me. They said, just say it we love you no matter what. I struggled to even have words come out of my mouth I repeated “I like girls” over and over in my head trying to get something  to exit my mouth. Finally, it rushed out of my mouth and I was relieved that I finally got it out. But a new set of panic set in, what are they going to say?! Oh my God, did I just say that? SHIT!

The rest seemed like a blur, everything was a fog. I walked away from the conversation only knowing this: they loved me, dad thought it was a phases and mom was just really concerned about my happiness. From that point on it was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in my house. It was something we all knew and something we never talked about.

Authentically Me, Jewish

            After I came to accept myself, I felt more and more distant from church. I knew that being gay was nowhere near acceptable. I wanted to feel that I didn’t have to hide a part of me, it felt like lying. I began to distance myself from church telling my parents that I did not want to go. They never forced me. When I stayed home from church I would secretly get on the computer to search out different religions. Doing this felt like I was sneaking around, I would grow paranoid when it got close to the time they were expected back. I wanted to be sure to log off and not get caught.

I really was just searching for a religion where I could be authentically me.

Through this process, I thought back to my mother’s words on testimony and how we all should have our own. I took her words to heart and one day I set out to create a list of the things I believed. I pulled up a word document and sat in front of the screen. I recall the fist twenty or so things that I typed were, “people are inherently good”, “service, compassion, knowledge”, it grew into a list of attributes a person should have. I sat in front of my list and thought, this is not a religion. I knew that what I had to do was ask myself the big questions.

I asked:

“Do I believe in God?” I knew that answer was yes.

The next question was:

“Do I believe in Jesus?” I sat there for awhile. I didn’t know.

So I followed the prescription for finding out if you believe something as prescribed by Mormonism. I prayed, read my scriptures, pondered, did some research and repeated the processes for about a week trying intensely to receive my answer. After about a week or so I still had nothing. I didn’t get that warm fuzzy feeling or anything else. I receive no affirmation or confirmation of a belief in Jesus Christ. So I arrived at the decision that I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I could not make logical sense out of it and I was not having the spiritual experience to confirm its truth, like I’d had with other things before.

So I knew that I could not be myself at church and I knew that church was a big part of who I was so I couldn’t just throw in the towel on religion. So, again, while everyone else was at church I would search the internet looking for a religion where I could be authentically me. I knew that I believed in God and I didn’t believe in Jesus as a savior, but I did like all of the Christian values I was raised with so it in doing the math.

Christian values – Christ = Judaism, right?

I did more research looking around and I found that something really just rang true with me in Judaism. I knew that growing up I always was intrigued by all things Jewish, but I didn’t take that to mean anything. But now researching it, it felt … homey. There was this pull that I could not explain. I wanted to know everything about Judaism from the religious to the cultural. I wanted it all. I fell in love.

However, there remained this fear knowing that I was not Christian. How was I to tell my parents? Also, what if the Mormons are right? Did I just ruin everything? I would no longer get to see my parents in heaven. I ruined my eternal life with my family didn’t I?

So how did I tell my parents I wanted to convert to Judaism?

I don’t really know. They allowed me to stop attending church and they saw my slow move away from church. So I can’t help but think they knew I wasn’t going to be Mormon. But I don’t think they ever thought I would be Jewish. If fact I distinctly remember my father saying  to my sister and I that he he didn’t care what kind of Christian we were. He always assumed I would believe like everyone else. When I told him that I didn’t want to be Mormon, back in high school, he asked why and I told him how I had to ask myself the difficult questions and I knew I believed in God, but that I didn’t believe in Jesus. The look on his face was as though I had ripped is heart out. He was crushed and blind sighted. I to this day remember that pain on his face.

He expressed how he thought by hang up would have been with the Joseph Smith story because that was his hang up, but he never anticipated this.  I think that like all Mormon parents he would pray for me and hope for my return. I still think he feels that way. But that was the time I came out to them as not Christian

First Jewish Experience: Chabad

             When I moved to college I felt like I now had the license to seek out what I had always wanted. Before I had arrived at college I had stalked every website known to man about anything and everything Jewish on campus. I came across two organizations on the Campus Ministries page: Hillel and Chabad. I remember driving past their buildings on a college visit and making mental note of where they were so I could come back.

My first visit was only a few months into school, an RA on in my building invited us all to go visit the Chabad on campus. A few of use decided we would like to go. I recall not really knowing what to wear and searching the internet for appropriate dress. Friday had arrived and a group of us walked over to the Chabad house. We arrived a little early while they were still setting up the partition. I remember feeling very awkward because I wasn’t completely sure what to do and no student said hello or welcomed us.

Two of us sat in the back row of services. I could barely see our guy friend on the other side and we all felt bad because he had to sit alone with a lot of older men. I remember trying to follow along and eventually just giving up and observing. I noticed the Jewish girls designer shoes and handbags and their contentment to gossip during services. Needless to say it wasn’t the greatest. Service came to a close and everyone was moving the fake trees that made up the partition into the closet and setting up for dinner. It was then that the rabbi’s wife came over and introduced herself. Boy was I relived! She was really very nice and even waved us over when the women were about to do the blessing on the candles.

Dinner came and we took our seats still none of the students introduced themselves. We sat on our own at one end of the table and chatted amongst ourselves and tried to be polite. I noticed the bottles of wine on the table and was a little taken back to read that they indeed were alcohol. The RA that invited us had no clue and seemed really embarrassed that she had invited residents to a place with alcohol. Dinner was delicious that I do remember. The rabbi’s wife was an amazing cook and I kept peering into the kitchen and noticing the way it was set up to keep kosher with two of everything ovens, sinks, dishware, and I even think two refrigerators. After dinner we didn’t hang around very long, we made sure to thank the rabbi’s wife and leave. On the walk back we all talked about how awkward it was. Many of us tried to see the positive side but that didn’t make up for the fact that no one greeted us. I mentioned Hillel and asked if anyone knew what it was like and mentioned that I wanted to check it out. No one seemed eager to join me.

Hillel

            The first time I went was just AWE-some. Yes, it was a little awkward because I was new to everything but it was great to be learning everything first hand. I was met with such warmth and I really felt at home. I remember being greeted by the Director, Joel, and his charming British accent. Many of the students walked up to me and introduced themselves. I particularly remember Adriane because she was also my age and seemed really friendly. It was great to feel so welcomed. I also remember seeing a safe space sticker on of the doors, once I saw that sticker I felt so much more relaxed knowing that this was a place that was truly welcoming.

That first service I attended was lead by Mara Price, a beautiful redhead with curly hair. She led what she called a “meditation service”. She had us all sit on the ground and it grew apparent to me that this was not how regular services went, but I was loving every minute of it. She led service with a guitar and her singing voice was beautiful. I struggled to keep up with the transliterations and just gave in reading the English. I’m sure I had a really cheesy smile on. The sound of the Hebrew prayers felt like a lullaby to my soul. I was home.

After service there was a dinner which had a ton more people. Everyone was very chatty and lively. Even more people introduced themselves and I had a great time. I continued to attend Hillel from then on.

Conversion First Steps

            At Hillel I met another student who was also considering conversion. Knowing someone personally that was doing what I wanted to do gave me the courage to look out for a rabbi and start my process. She and I began together with a Reform rabbi in the area. We attended weekly classes and were assigned to read a few different books. During the course of my study I had lots of questions, but when I came to the rabbi with questions he really wouldn’t answer them and just sent me back to the text. I had gone through months of reading and classes and it was nearing my date to make it all official by turning in my take home test but I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel Jewish.

I didn’t feel ready and he wasn’t helping me get there. I wanted my conversion to serve as a time of transformation. I wanted to truly feel like part of the Jewish people before becoming a convert.

So I looked elsewhere. I didn’t want my conversion to be something to take lightly. I wanted to put the effort in so I truly got something out of it. Within that month,  Rabbi Josh came to Hillel from Atlanta. He was a Reconstructionist rabbi and it just so happened he was gay. It amazed me to see a religion so amazingly accepting. He also felt warm and inviting. I contacted him about a week later and I switched over my conversion process to him.

I read even more books with him and we talked about mikvah and a bet dien all of the things that I had read about and wanted to have as part of my conversion. It felt right. He wanted me to complete a spiritual autobiography before moving on. This is what that is.

I took a year.

I fell out of contact with him and worked on this. I wanted to take my time in writing to truly work out the feelings I had tied to Mormonism and give them their proper time and respect. I had plenty of hard feelings and I didn’t want to feel like I abandoned a faith that had shaped me to the person I am. I began writing, working out the fears that I had, and honoring special moments I had felt.

Holidays

I continued attending Hillel and celebrating the passage of time through holidays. I helped in putting up the sukkah. It was the first time I had done something that felt more meaningful. I was not merely helping to construct a hut I was performing a mitzah, remembering that I had a great sense of satisfaction.

A few months later I celebrated Hanukkah and as for the first time faced the awkwardness of experiencing the Christmas season as an outsider. Everything got on my nerves from the inescapable Christmas music, to the Merry Christmas of passersby the intruding question of what gift I would give.

Hanukkah fell before we let out for winter break. I remember the cold night air as Chabad and Hillel came together on Tate Plaza to light the giant menorah and eat goodies. The tunes sung were unfamiliar to be, but the warmth I gained from feeling a part of the community warmed me on that frigid night.

A week or so later school let out for winter break and I went home. It was truly an odd feeling going home to traditions that felt foreign. I did not in any way feel connected to the Christmas tree, or the festive dinners, or the gift giving on the morning of. I was truly an outsider looking in and in all honesty, I hated Christmas that year.

My first Passover at Hillel remains a vivid memory. I was so engaged to hear the stories that were rote to those I sat around. I took in all the symbolism, the stories, and the community. I felt as though I was there having been delivered from Egypt. It was times like that in which I felt intensely Jewish.

Doubt

            Fact: Mormons never cease to contact their inactive members. I know this from both sides. As a youth growing up I remember reaching out to inactives, plastering their door with cut out hearts to “heart attack” them, swinging by with plates of cookies, and even planning Wednesday night activities to suite an inactive members interest. I retrospect all of my actions seem rather insane but in holding the beliefs I did then it was all so right.

In going through the process of conversion, I saw the other side. I was the inactive being reached out to. They visited me randomly with plates of cookies or called me to remind me of the things they had planned. It always felt weird. It acted as a reminder that I was not Jewish and often times they occurred and the worst times. I remember coming back to my apartment from a terrible day at school and looking forward to the solace of my home when the doorbell rings and I delivered a bag of goodies. I close the door after they are gone and my emotions rage. How did they know where I live? Why do they keep looking for me? Why can’t I be left alone? Why is my life so terrible? I hated it. But these visits did something that I had feared, they raised doubt. Am I doing the right thing?

One day on campus I ran into some sister missionaries. I greeted them kindly since so many do not. Eventually they found out that I was Mormon and I shared why I no longer went to church, because I did not believe in Christ. After our conversation they gave me their card and asked if I would meet up with them again. I agreed. We later met up at the branch building on campus. I had no idea what they had up their sleeve. They were warm when the greeted me, there were others there as well another set of missionaries and a few members of the branch. They said they were about to watch a movie and that I should join so I did. It was a set up. The movie was about Jesus, I remember as scene in which a father sung itsy bitsy spider to his daughter over the phone. I lost it. I began to bawl. I was overcome with emotion and I felt that I believed in Jesus. The looks on the faces of those in the room were as though I had come to accept the greatest thing, Jesus Christ. I cried uncontrollably. I said that I felt like the prodigal son and we talked for a while. The missionaries wanted to close with a prayer as per tradition. They gave thanks for me returning to Christ and many things like that.

I left and headed back to my dorm overcome with emotion. I continued to cry. I found my journal and wrote an entry documenting this occasion. My tears dripped on to the page and I grew exhausted. I wanted to tell the Christians living in my dorm this great news: that I found Jesus. My day was overwhelmed with emotion and I grew exhausted from running about and crying so much. I went to bed.

The next morning I awoke in a daze. What the heck had happened to me? Was that even real? I read the journal entry again. It had all most definitely happened. I was shocked. I knew that I did not believe in Jesus. Now I had to go about trying to figure out why I had had such a reaction to the film. After a few days of thinking I came to the conclusion that I missed my family. I had been away at college and had not seen them in months. The church reminded me of home and the father in the video made me miss my dad. Needless to say the episode was weird and I still don’t really know what to make of it and it left me with doubt.

This festering doubt lead me back to church. As I sat in church, I felt so terribly out of place this was not where I belonged. This didn’t feel right. Yet, I was glad to have gone because it affirmed what I already knew. I am not Mormon, I do not belong there. I did still have to reconcile the fear of my eternal salvation and connection with my family but I took faith in knowing I was doing the right thing. During that church service I prayed to know whether or not belonged there. The feeling of unrest never left me and I knew that was my answer.

Coming Out Revisited

            I think I told my parents I wanted to be Jewish when I started going to conversion classes during my freshman year.  I don’t remember there being much discussion about it. It was just a thing I was doing and really, what power did they have to stop me without being entirely unsupportive of my life?

With me the coming out process never ends. I later came out about wanting to be a religion major. I think this came with greater repercussions than the conversion, because they had finical control over my schooling. They were not happy and by “they” I mean dad. There was talk about what I would do with such a degree and how he felt duped into letting me go because I said that I had wanted to go to the school initially because they offered genetics.

For dad everything read as dollar signs and being a religion major had little to no return on investment. He stated he would rather me come home and get a generic degree at the local college. There was talk about me having to pull school loans if I wanted to stay. If that was the case I said that I would do that.  Fortunately, for me there was a change of heart somewhere and they decided to continue to support me through college. Remaining here I could continue my conversion.

Continuing

            After about a year intermission I contacted my rabbi again. I finally felt ready to continue on after putting this all out and working through my relationship with religion. I contacted my rabbi and we are continuing my process.

I continued to receive phone calls from the Mormon missionaries wanting to meet up with me. I’ve been trying my hardest to avoid their phone calls. I finally had the courage to send my letter to Salt Lake to have my name removed from the records. I’ve thought about doing it for a long time but I always had the “what if they are right” fear. I’m relieved of the weight and fear of Mormonism, the fear that I was ruining my eternal family.

All in all, I feel ready because I feel Jewish. Now, when someone asks me if I am Jewish I respond yes, because I know that my soul is Jewish. I feel a part of the Jewish community and as the Director of Hillel says, I am ready to take on the weight and history that is being Jewish. This process has really given me a chance to work through complex emotions. I am whole and ready to be officially Jewish, to get my Jewish name, to create more Jewish traditions, and continue to learn, study, and grow.


[1] name was changed

The Power of Story

I have always loved consuming information. I was one of few high school students that enjoyed watching the news. When asked what my favorite movie genre was I would respond “documentaries” and then fumble realizing that my answer wasn’t really accepted and then add “…and romantic comedies”. My love of information consumption has been a constant. In my first year in college, I was introduced to TED talks and I loved them. The longest of ted talks is around around a half hour and all of them share information about a subject of expertise and often times they would be accompanied by story.  As many iphone owners do, I looked for the app and download it. Most nights before bed I would watch talk with my phone holding my phone over my face and only occasionally did I drop my phone having it land on my face. But I loved my new nightly ritual and used these TED talks as a sort of bedtime story. I even ran across this talk  about a journalist who decided to be homeless for a year and loved it.

But, I never really knew the power of story. No one in my family was an amazing storyteller, in fact most of them were pretty bad. They would tell the same stories with lack luster detail and I would be bored. It wasn’t until I discovered podcasts that I grew to understand the power a story holds. I first discovered podcast through Cory*, the graduate assistant who advised the student group I was director of. One day I walked into the office and pulled up a chair next to Cory’s* desk like I normally did and we talked. We talked about where the group was and what would need to happen at the next board meeting, but we also talked about life. We talked about how frequently I would go home and I shared that it was only every other month because I hated the 3 hour drive through back roads it took to get to my parents house. Cory* shared that he listened to podcasts as a way to pass the time on long drives and gave me the names of a few to check out.

This American Life Logo

So I did and was hooked. Now I can say that I am very much a podcast junkie. My favorites are The Moth, This American Life, Risk, and StoryCorps. The things these podcast have in common is they all center on storytelling. Some podcasts are shorter than others but they all share a story. In preparing to go home I would download several and listen to them as I drove. So many times I would be shocked by the overwhelming emotion these stories brought up. I empathized so deeply with these stories that as I drove I would begin to cry. Despite having never experienced the storytellers same story, or anything close to it in some cases, I could empathize. The power of their story evoked emotion in me giving me the understanding of what that experience was like. I understood wholeheartedly the emotions tied to the experience through the story. As I listened to more stories I grew to have a better understanding and appreciation for the human experience and all of its diversity. I know that sound hokey, but the truth is I just felt more connect to humanity. The stranger I would pass on the street took on a different feeling because I knew they carried a story and eventually I came to the realization that I too carried stories just as powerful.

Lately, I’ve been working on telling my stories because I want others to feel that same connection to humanity and maybe even find an element in their stories that is reflected in mine.

So… what’s your story?

A Jewish Response

Rainbow flag with Israeli flag in the corner

Whenever a big world event occurs Jewish media provide the “Jewish response”. Most recently it was the Supreme Court’s decision to name both DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. The decision is considered to be major progress for the queer community. Not but moments later the Jewish response was issued. In the heat of the moment I was too over come with joy to consider it, but now I sit and ask. Why was there need for a Jewish response? Why did every major event have a Jewish response? and What is a Jewish response anyway?!

When I first began to muse this idea of a Jewish response, I was brought to the concept of call and response: a response is to answer, an answer to a question. And boy to Jews love their questions. Jews historically have always encouraged questions, from the four questions Passover seder to the millions of “ask a rabbi”‘ pages you can find online. Jews encourage questions because Jews value knowledge and how are you to learn if you don’t ask? Dr. Misha Galperin, the President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development, added this on the importance of asking questions: “Asking questions is a form of engagement. It shows that we care, that the future matters to us and that we are personally invested in outcomes.” When a major event occurs a question is asked and the Jewish people engage to find a response.

But what is the question that is answered? I believe the question is: As a Jew, what do I do about this? What is the Jewish knee jerk reaction? After reviewing numerous Jewish responses to major events I’ve found that the Jewish response stems from the value of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. It is Jewish to have a commitment to actively engaging and making the world a better place. We, as Jews, are charged with doing our part to right the ills in the world and stand up for justice, not just for the Jewish people but for the entirety of the world making us “a light among the nations”.

Difficult Conversations

Over the past few years I’ve found that talking to stranger about things you care passionately about is a lot easier than talking to people you care about things you are passionate about. I’m not sure if that really makes sense, but let me try to explain. When I give a presentation to a class, sit on a panel, or interrupt a conversation I overheard on the bus and talk about why saying “that’s so gay” or “that’s retarded” isn’t the best word choice, or any other other social justice issues, it’s not that hard. I think it comes easy for me for two reasons:

1) I’m a people person and talking to strangers is something I do with ease.

2) They are strangers; I have little invested in what they think of me or what I have to say.

I think the second point is most important. I have nothing invested in the relationship with that person. If they walk away disagreeing with everything I say and hating me it will be okay because I will more than likely never see them again and it will be relatively easy for me to “let it go”. But this scenario changes entirely when I speak with someone I know and care about. In these situations I am invested in their reaction and our relationship. I want them to walk away agreeing and thinking highly of me. I worry about t how the conversation will impact our relationship and future interactions. This is particularly so when it comes to talking to family members.

So here is the story:

Approximately six months ago I watched a very specific interaction between  my grandmother (not the Mormon one, but the devoutly Christian one on my mother’s side) and my eight year-old cousin, Rachel*. I watched my grandmother reach out her hand and pat Rachel’s* stomach and say “suck it in” while sucking in her own stomach as a demonstration. I stood there in shock. SHE IS EIGHT. I began to remember when my grandmother did that to me and how that made me feel about my weight. Not to mention that fact that SHE IS EIGHT and I’ve worked with too many girls with body image issues and eating disorders as a Girl Scout camp counselor and mentor. I know the seriousness these comments carry.

Young girl measuring her waist

After the shock subsided, I walked away. Yep, I just left the room. Who was I to say something to my grandmother? Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to bring it up and it continued to play in my mind as I worried about how that comment might affect Rachel’s* self image. I remembered my grandmother saying those exact words to me and how it impacted me. I recalled that every time my grandmother came over I was conscious of sucking in my stomach and presenting myself in a way where I would receive praise for the way I looked. Her message a long with countless others affected me day to day. All through middle school I would wear baggy clothes and carry a sweater every day to school and living in Georgia it was hot. But I would carry a jacket and would place it in my lap to cover my stomach when I sat. In hearing those words said to my cousin opened an old wound. Yet I remained silent and did not feel it was my place to correct her.Until on day not but a week or two ago a bunch of the family was gathered a the lake to have a good time. We all wore swim suits went off on my uncle’s boat and enjoyed the day. As we were all cleaning up from eating lunch Rachel came up to me, patted my stomach, and said “suck it in”. Again shock, it had taken Rachel* only six months to not only internalize that message, but to use it against other people. I wondered how Rachel* thought of her own body and what she had said to other children. I don’t believe Rachel* could articulate that this message was one that reinforce the societal expectations of beauty placed on women, but she I do believe she would say having a stomach was bad and everyone should suck it in. It was then that I knew that I had to say something to my grandmother.

Earlier this week my grandparents were in town and we got together for lunch. In conversation I brought up what Rachel* did and how I felt about it. I shared my experience about when my grandmother said that to me and how wanted her to be more intentional with her words. I knew all along that my grandmother was  coming from a good place. The messages her and my grandfather intended when saying phrases like: “suck it in” and “should you be eating that” came from a place of wanting their grandchildren to be healthy and happy. For my grandfather it was very much about preventing others in the family from inheriting his diabetes and high blood pressure.

In our conversation I was able to explain that these messages were body focused and not really health focused. I helped them to explore other ways of getting the same point across and explained how messages like “lets try a new vegetable” and “lets all go for a walk” not only reinforce positive behavior, but they also avoid shamming by offering a suggestion of action and support. Starting that conversation lead to further conversation around how we talk about health in our family and how that has attributed to unhealthy eating habits in myself as well as habits we notice developing in other cousins.

Having that conversation was not easy, but it was more than worth it. I felt nice to finally be heard and it gave me hope that they will at least think twice the next time they are about to say body shamming comments. But most importantly in has strengthen our lines of communication and has left the door open to future conversations.

An Introduction

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Photo of author

I figured it was only appropriate to start my blog by introducing myself and the context behind the creation of this blog. I began this blog because I was looking for a voice that could speak to my experience as a person of many identities, particularly that of being a Queer Jew-By-Choice. My search came up short and whenever it came close it was never informed by my other identities. I suppose finding another Hispanic, Military Brat, Queer, Feminist, Ex-Mormon, Jew-By-Choice College Student isn’t exactly the easiest thing and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. So my search came up short, but don’t want others’ searches to.

I hope that in sharing my experience others may find something they more closely relate to. I also hope my writing can provide a means toward a greater understanding of the diversity that can be found in the world or even within an individual. But ultimately, I want my readers to know that people are people. We all hold a unique assortment of identities that shape our experience and face difficulties with them; yet, we are all here carving out our story.