By Caroline Dorn
It’s Saturday night. I’m on the rooftop of our hotel in Buenos Aires, standing in a big circle, 25 of us arm in arm. It’s Havdallah, the Jewish ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. Twisted candles glow, warming the night as we pass around the bisamim (ritual Havdalah spice box). I smile at my new friends, our voices reverberating through the air as we pray in English, Spanish, and Hebrew. Together, we sing:
Baruch atah, Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha’olam, boray me’oray ha’aysh.
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, Ruler of the universe, Creator of the fire’s lights.
As we sing, it strikes me that I feel completely at ease with these people, who I feel like I’ve known all my life. We met only five days ago after arriving in Montevideo, Uruguay for JDC Entwine’s first ever LGBTQ+ Leadership Trip to Uruguay and Argentina.
Entwine is the young professionals initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the global leader in supporting Jewish communities in need. In 70 countries, they support Jewish communities ranging from Jewish day schools, homes for the elderly, synagogues, youth groups and more. When a Jewish community, or others, are affected by natural disaster or violence, JDC is often there working with these communities from the ground up to ensure they continue to thrive.
As Jews, we have an obligation to help other Jews who are in need, and one of the ways JDC enacts this value is by bringing groups of young people across the world to witness and contribute to the holy work of empowering Jewish life and leaders. Our group is JDC’s first ever LGBTQ+ trip, a momentous moment in the history of JDC and the global Jewish community.
There are a lot of firsts on this trip. For me, this is the first time I have prayed in a group of only LGBTQ+ people. The magnitude of this doesn’t strike me until the last day, when I realize how often in Jewish circles I am either assumed to be straight or prompted to out myself. I am incredibly blessed to have supportive family, friends, and colleagues, but it’s not to be understated how uniquely holy this moment is.
Standing next to me, a new friend taps his feet in joy as we create the music of Havdalah. This is his first time performing Jewish ritual wearing high heels. We smile at each other and look around the circle. There are men wearing heels, women wearing button downs and ties, and no one bats an eye other than to acknowledge how mutually blessed we are to share in each other’s joyful moments. Not all of us can freely express our sexual or gender identities easily. Not all of us have welcoming, inclusive synagogue communities to return to, although all of us should. Not all of us are even out to our families and friends. But all of us have this moment, together, to remember. It’s the most holy and sacred Jewish moment I have ever had.
Baruch atah, Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha’olam, boray minay vesamim.
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, Ruler of the universe, Creator of the different spices.
I have participated in many different Havdalah rituals in my life, but tonight this blessing strikes me differently. When we pass around the spice box, I feel gratitude for not only the different types spices meant to soothe the soul on Shabbat, but for the different types of people that surround me in this circle, all created in the image of God. Often, people ask me if I believe people are born gay and why. I don’t have a good answer for that, and I’m not sure it matters, but I do know that for me, I see my sexuality as a unique blessing that allows me to see the world in a different light. Just as being Jewish colors the everyday choices we make about helping others, being a good friend, and committing to inclusion and equality, being LGBTQ+ impacts the way I interact with the world. The intersection of these identities is sacred in a way that I haven’t understood until I became part of this group – now a community – that grapples with language, identity politics, our understandings of privilege and oppression in a truly intelligent and caring way.
We challenge each other to be better people – by discussing and using the language and pronouns that feel appropriate to us, by wrestling with what it means to be a group of LGBTQ+ people and questioning how “out” we want to be individually and collectively. We ask ourselves: If all Jews have a responsibility to help other Jews, do LGBTQ+ people hold those same obligations for people across the world? If so, how?
We also get to be silly in a way that doesn’t happen in the same way with our straight friends. We jokingly call each other “Honey Nut Queerios” and our tour guide taunts us for drinking most of the wine in Argentina. When pointing out the Eternal Flame at an ancient synagogue to a particularly flamboyant new friend, he deadpans, “I thought I was the Eternal Flame.” Amidst serious conversations about relationships, coming out, homophobia and more, we find time to watch (and for some of us, perform!) drag and tango, point out every rainbow flag in the country, and sing show-tunes on the bus. These small moments are just as much part of our culture as the big ones, and have their own elements of holiness that illuminate us all, much as the glowing Havdallah candles illumine our faces tonight in Buenos Aires.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol.
We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You distinguish the commonplace from the holy.
In this holy moment of prayer, we hold each other close and remind ourselves not to take this community for granted, and to commit ourselves to creating a world where Havdalah in heels and Shabbat with same sex partners is globally accepted and embraced. May we teach and share with others that the values of inclusion and love are not only the most important component of Jewish community, but the deepest, most vital values to enhance and make it better . We wish each other Shavua Tov, a good week, and look ahead to the work in front of us to create a better world.
Caroline lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and works for Temple Shalom of Newton where she is honored to support inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life.