The doorbell rings. Before I know it, there are over 50 people in our living room on a Sunday morning. Bagels and lox are included but it's not the free food that has enticed these 20 something year olds. Base, where I live and work, has partnered with Jewish Queer Youth and Keshet to host an event called Voices; An LGBTQ and Ally Mixer. Queer or straight, all are welcome to come and share their story.
After twenty minutes of mingling, each host organization introduces themselves. JQY supports LGBT Jews and their families in the Orthodox community. Keshet, Hebrew for rainbow, is New York University's only LGBTQ club with a Jewish focus. Base is the home of a pluralistic rabbinic family serving 20-30 year olds interested in experiencing the Jewish calendar, Jewish learning and service work. And so, the open mic begins.
Spoken word pieces, poems and songs follow suit. Stand up comedy routines even make their way into the line up. The spectrum of speakers is as diverse in their Jewish practice as the rainbow; each live their lives fully, as a member of the Jewish community and queer, with struggles but with deep pride simultaneously.
I invited a friend of mine I knew was active in JQY to join. I hadn't seen Ely for many years, since elementary school, but I knew he had come out of the closet relatively recently, and also stems from a prominent Orthodox family.
I had been reading Ely's Facebook posts with a strong desire to rekindle our friendship, curious how I might be an ally. He would write how friends and family refrained from wishing him mazl tov on his recent engagement to his partner. He'd post, pondering how halacha might make space for someone like him and his soon to be husband.
I was excited when Ely accepted my invitation and we shared a long hug when he finally arrived. It should be noted that Ely gave me his permission to share this story and use his name.
When Ely stood to speak, I leaned in close to listen.
"It's special for us to be here, of all places," Ely said, "I know Avram from yeshiva, and I don't think he knows this, but he was my first crush. But more than that, he really was one of my first close friends."
Ely went on to say how when he and his partner got engaged he asked his Orthodox yeshiva high school to announce their engagement where alumni celebrations are listed in the school's newsletter. Ely's rebbe, with whom he was quite close, wrote back saying how it "wasn't personal" but didn't think it would be "appropriate." Ely wrote back a passionate letter, which he shared with our living room full of allies that Sunday morning explaining how other yeshivot had made similar announcements, kindly asking his rebbe to engage in conversation with him if nothing else.
"There was no response," Ely said and finished.
Meanwhile, one of the event's organizers had texted me during Ely's talk to see if I would lead singing and dancing after Ely finished speaking. I said I would but now felt an impulse to share something myself.
"I wasn't planning on saying anything," I said just as Ely finished, "but after listening to Ely, I felt compelled to offer something of my own." This is what I shared.
I always felt like I grew up in a mixed family of sorts, growing up speaking Yiddish but not from a Hassidic family. I would spend winters and summers at Klezmer and Yiddish folk arts festivals, learning with and from the queer community at a very young age, and then headed to the Young Israel for Shabbes. While life was confusing as a kid, I came to cherish this dissonance, as it informed my belief in the plurality of Judaism and the oneness of the Jewish people.
But yeshiva was hard and isolating and there was Ely, a sensitive, dear friend with whom I could sing and be silly. Rebbe Elimelekh of Lezhintz teaches the importance of finding a chaver ne'eman, a trustworthy friend. Ely was that trustworthy friend and we all need them.
"And you mentioned, Ely," I said raising my orange juice, "about not having a space to celebrate, sadly, no communal response. Well, here, in this room, you will hear a resounding response, a loud and full mazl tov."
We went on to sing and dance in our backyard. With Ely at the center, he later shared with me that this was the first time he got to dance after getting engaged. For me, this was what being an ally was all about. That those who have been made to feel like the other by their communities of origin might still feel there is more than enough room for them, not merely to be tolerated, but celebrated and loved. Our Jewish community is stronger and more vibrant because of their voices.