by David Gee, Core Volunteer at Keshet UK
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
Eighteen:22, the first ever Jewish LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Queer) international think-tank event, brought together over 60 Jewish leaders from all over the world. The conference was located at Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria – one of the filming locations for The Sound of Music.
Day two was about identifying what we currently do and how we can do more. The participants, from over 22 countries, have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Despite some having had over 20 years of experience in their roles everyone had the attitude that there was always more to learn and so much to teach one another. Having only come out 2 years ago I am very much at the beginning of my LGBTQ journey. It is inspiring to see how much has been done already and the plans for the future. It is from this perspective I can really see all that people have achieved and the significance of what they are doing.
On the second day we studied Jewish texts and heard participants’ personal stories. I realised that the experiences which I once found alien to myself, with a lack of understanding or knowledge of, strangely resonated deeply within me. So often we find it hard to empathise with others but I saw that we sometimes share some very similar experiences, just under different guises. Ironically the day ended with a masquerade ball, where I realised that we all wear masks, some that we choose to wear and others that we have no choice over. I’ve seen that deep beyond these masks there is something which unites us, the state of ‘being human’. Because of this we should fight for and celebrate our differences.
Non-Jews often ask me why I don’t wear a kippah, black hat, tzitzit or have payot – why I don’t look like the Jew they imagine. Whilst it is easy to be offended by such comments, most of the time they come from a place of innocent curiosity. Many people I know identify themselves as part of the orthodox community, yet most don’t regularly attend synagogue nor keep Shabbat or Kosher. People sometimes find it hard to understand LGBTQ identities as they seem so different from the constructs that they know. However the fact that we know that there isn’t one type of Jew illustrates that we all know that identities are fluid and never binary, and that we often simplify them into black and white checkboxes and that stereotypes are never representative of the truth or individual.
Whilst learning of the holocaust we often ask how could people just stand by and let these atrocities happen. Yet through volunteering with Keshet UK, I see that many stand by whilst whitnessing discrimination against members of their own communities. And now I realise that I can’t stand by whilst discrimination and a lack of understanding exists within the Jewish LGBTQ community too. I have learnt so much about myself. When I hear people say things like “Oh I’m not homophobic because I know someone gay and I don’t have a problem with them” I often scream inside. How can people not know they need to do more? But the irony is that despite volunteering for Keshet UK, I don’t currently proactively seek to understand more about the LGBTQ identities with which I do not identify. And I’ve realised that it is vital for all of us to fight not just for the identities with which we affiliate, but also to be an ally; to listen to those who have different identities to yourself and fight alongside them. We all have the ability to do so.
Our diversity is something that unites us and strengthens us; no one fits solely into one box and fulfils all of the “criteria” of the box they are in.
All of us have something to give. All of us have things to learn. In Keshet UK we recognise that learning requires one to take themselves out of their comfort zone and to challenge their knowledge and assumptions. Eighteen:22 has shown me that I still need to continue taking myself out of my comfort zone and to push myself into a learning zone, because we have all “been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) and we all have the ability to aid our community. Challenge yourself to do more and to know more, because just being LGBTQ or having an LGBTQ family member or friend is not enough.