Eshel Goes to the Midwest!

Amram Altzman courtesy of the American Jewish World

“Eshel is the only place where I feel completely comfortable. I am completely out as a lesbian and I am not being judged (by outsiders) as an Orthodox Jew.” This quote, from Shulamit, one of the participants at Eshel’s recent Midwest Retreat, epitomizes the two goals of Eshel: to create a community of traditionally observant, queer Jews and to work to build understanding in Orthodox and traditional communities for LGBTQ Jews.

This past July, 46 participants — of which ten were children — gathered at the Ronora Lodge and Retreat Center in Watervliet, MI for Eshel in Eden, Eshel’s first retreat in the Midwest. The event was planned by and specifically for Eshel members living in the Midwest; however, participants came from both the East and West Coasts and from as far as Winnipeg, Canada. In comparison with the national retreats held every January, Eshel in Eden was meant to be a smaller, more intimate event. Because the Midwest is much more spread out than the East Coast, it is often harder to create Jewish programming, let alone programming for queer Jews. However, Eshel in Eden has shown that not only is there a community of traditionally observant, queer Jews living in the Midwest, but that Eshel members living further away, such as in New York and Boston, were also willing to travel to be part of the community that Eshel works to create.

With sessions that covered parenting, shame and pride, and an introduction to the Eshel Speakers’ Bureau, Eshel in Eden kicked off Thursday evening after dinner and concluded on Sunday afternoon. Saturday night, following Havdalah, which officially ends the Sabbath, brought a talent show headlined by Y-Love, a rapper who converted to Judaism and came out of the closet earlier this year and who traveled from Los Angeles to join Eshel participants in Michigan for the weekend. Since the retreat drew a much smaller crowd than the national retreats — only 46 participants as opposed to over one hundred participants that attend the national retreats — all of the meals were home-cooked by participants, which added to the more communal feeling at Eshel in Eden.

Eshel was founded at a conference of LGBTQ Jews in Berkeley, CA, in 2010 under the auspices of Nehirim, an organization based in New York, and began with the help of the Arcus Foundation. Since then, Eshel has become independent of Nehirim, and is now under the auspices of the FJC. Eshel’s work is primarily done through grassroots community building and through national and regional retreats. It is now that Eshel’s work is crucial, as more and more synagogues and community leaders are “coming out” as supporters of the LGBTQ community and are making it easier than ever before to allow queer Jews to become and remain full-fledged members in the community.

Although the retreats — there are national retreats every winter at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut, and, more recently, the Midwest Retreat — began primarily as social events for a community of traditional LGBTQ Jews, many members have begun to go one step further, and are working to promote Eshel and to advocate on behalf of the traditionally observant queer community to their own Jewish communities back home. To promote tolerance and acceptance for LGBTQ traditional Jews, Eshel is working to create a grassroots campaign as well as the Eshel Speakers’ Bureau, which trains members to effectively advocate on behalf of LGBTQ Jews in their religious communities back home.

In addition to advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ community through the Speakers’ Bureau, Eshel is also working to enable traditionally observant, queer Jews to share their stories of coming out and finding acceptance through its Oral History Project. Through the Oral History Project, Eshel will become the premier voice for traditionally observant, LGBTQ Jews and not only advocate on their behalves, but also provide an outlet for them to tell their stories.

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