Isolation is an unfortunate norm for LGBTQ Jewish youth. The Coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.

By Idit Klein, Rachael Fried, Asher Gellis, Miryam Kabakov,
and Rebecca Stapel-Wax

As leaders of organizations that advance LGBTQ equality in Jewish life, we know how important it is to create antidotes to loss, fear, and isolation – especially in the midst of a global pandemic and waves of racial violence. Due to COVID-19, countless LGBTQ young people will not have the opportunity to feel the power of attending their first Pride. Yet in our conversations with queer youth, we uphold Pride’s origins as an uprising against police repression of LGBTQ people and we stand in solidarity with worldwide protests for racial justice.

In response to the range of emotions that young people in our networks are feeling – sadness, disappointment, righteous anger, or a mix of all three – we are finding new ways of adapting in-person expressions of solidarity to online opportunities for connection and relief.

Many LGBTQ teens are sheltering at home with families who are unsupportive of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Leah, a college student from a very traditional family whose parents rejected her when she came out as a lesbian, had to move back into her parents’ home due to the pandemic. For Leah, the weekly Zoom meetings run by Eshel provide a vital outlet to express herself, find comfort, and get support. “They’re a place where I can feel I belong,” she says. “It’s a lifeline.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Keshet has also offered weekly online meet-ups for LGBTQ Jewish teens. J, a trans teen who regularly attends Keshet’s online gatherings, shared, “Being in a virtual setting where I can be validated with my name and pronouns has been really important for me and others, especially for those of us who are still closeted or not feeling affirmed at home or in school.” J also describes the new Jewish learning and connections that are happening even now. “Since I don’t go to day school or Jewish summer camp, these virtual programs help me learn about my Jewish and LGBTQ identities and delve more deeply into both identities.” 

In response to these changing needs and new opportunities, JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), has added new virtual group therapy sessions on more specific topics such as “Talking to your Orthodox parents about Gender While in Quarantine.” In addition to a weekly virtual Drop-in Center, this allows youth from all over the world to access vital conversations with teens just like them. Sadly, some of these teens literally find the closet is the safest place to be. It’s not uncommon for teens joining online programs offered by JQY to log on to their computers from closets in their home. Even then, fearful of being overheard by their Orthodox or Chasidic families, many of these teens choose not to speak aloud and can only share their thoughts and feelings by typing into the website chat-box.

JQ in Los Angeles is attuned to the heightened anxiety of LGBTQ Jewish teens during this time. In JQ online virtual club meetings for youth, chat rooms, and on social media, teens in the JQ community express fear and shock at the violent treatment of people peacefully protesting. Moreover, they worry about what kind of future awaits them given that many of their own Jewish communities are not affirming. In the case of one transgender teen forced by COVID-19 to shelter in close quarters with unsupportive parents, JQ’s teen outreach professionals are worried that even with access to online support groups, this young person is sinking into serious depression.

Staff at SOJOURN, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity, note that the canceling of public Pride events, the closing of most Jewish summer camps, and myriad other changes to the kinds of communal summer fun teens look forward to is manifesting itself in young people essentially mourning the loss of outlets to find relief from months of isolation and stress. Many queer youth in the SOJOURN community are going through the classic stages of grief: anger, bargaining, depression, denial and moving slowly toward acceptance.

One of the ways our organizations are supporting LGBTQ teens amid all this turbulence is to help them move beyond just accepting their circumstances. We are providing them with tools to adapt to the present moment and connect to their own resilience. We also remind them that all of our Jewish communities are stronger when LGBTQ youth feel a sense of belonging in Jewish life, even at a time when these communities largely exist online. We urge all Jewish community leaders to note who does and doesn’t participate in your online spaces. And if your spaces do not include queer Jewish youth of all racial and ethnic identities, now is the time to understand why and begin the process of building more inclusive communities. We may not be able to accelerate the development of a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, but each of us can play a role in cultivating Jewish communities where all feel seen and valued.

Idit Klein is the President & CEO of Keshet. Rachael Fried is the Executive Director of JQY; Asher Gellis is the Executive Director of JQ; Miryam Kabakov is the Executive Director of Eshel; and Rebecca Stapel-Wax is the Executive Director of SOJOURN.