MLK Day Rewind — “On Being an Observant Jew at a Non-Denominational LGBTQ Volunteer Event”

Last year on Martin Luther King Day, I helped out at this community service initiative, and posted this on Facebook several days later. It was a very special experience, very appropriate to Dr. King’s legacy, and definitely worth a re-post.

 

(image source: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4071/4545938765_fa3d8df5fa_o.jpg)

 

“Here’s what I tell people about the photo release,” said one of the volunteer coordinators of the Hetrick-Martin Institute to a few newcomers. “Imagine that this picture could get to literally anyone. Anyone. If there is anyone out there that you can think of who could get their hands on this picture and that would be unwanted, and that would make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t sign the form.”

“But we’re just helping make supply bags for homeless kids,” said one of the volunteers, confused. “Why would that be a problem?”

I wanted to high-five that lady for her confusion. Because it shouldn’t be a problem. Helping people in need should never be a problem. Sure, in the internet age, some people are wary of putting any images of themselves online, but this wasn’t really about that; this was about the demographic we were helping, and how associating yourself with the LGBTQ community can still sometimes get you into varying degrees of trouble.

For instance, five years ago, I probably would not have been so unquestioningly willing to sign that release. I’d have been worried that the pictures might find their way to my Modern Orthodox Jewish parents or other very religious members of my Orthodox community, and I’d have been extremely uncomfortable at the thought of having to withstand their scrutiny or answer their questions. Now, after several years of being very clear about my allegiances to this cause, that’s no longer a concern. But I still don’t talk about it with certain people, because I know it makes them uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because this event, and other work done by the Hetrick-Martin Institute in Manhattan, is really wonderful, and I don’t use that word lightly.

The event I attended was organized in honor of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, and it involved assembling bags of essential supplies for New York City’s homeless LGBTQ youth. A donation drive had been held previously, and the first thing we did was dump everything out of the donation boxes and sort them into other boxes and piles, which we then put into bags: soap, shampoo, socks, gloves, Chef Boyardee cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, disinfectants, condoms, and a miscellaneous box with items ranging from sunblock to earplugs to shoehorns. There were a few kosher snacks, but kosher food was clearly not a priority here. I chuckled to myself at the thought of what some people I know might say about the idea of handing out condoms to kids on the streets, but hey, it can be really important. (The most homophobic religious people I know would joke that “we should just let them all get AIDS and die out” but since that’s not remotely funny, I made triple-sure my bags had condoms in them.)

Each bag was also given a pamphlet small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,with information about the Hetrick-Martin Institute. One of the other event coordinators, June*, explained that the bags are part of their outreach program. Homeless LGBTQ youth are understandably not the most trusting people, and HMI hopes that having something to give them, something that comes with no strings or expectations or pressure, will encourage these young people to investigate further and eventually take advantage of the other services offered by HMI. It’s been a successful strategy for them.

June took some of us volunteers on a tour of “the space” to see these other services.That’s what she called it, nothing clinical like a “facility” — just “the space.” HMI is located on the 3rd floor of 2 Astor Street, and during the day the space is shared with the Harvey Milk High School, a transfer high school for LGBTQ youth who earned at least 60 credits elsewhere but for whatever reasons could not complete their educations there. After the school day ends, HMI offers programming and services for anyone who walks through the door. This includes access to professional counselors like June, who showed us her small office, and “the pantry,” which is fully stocked with clothes, shoes, food, and other essentials like the ones we’d put in the bags.

June mentioned that they make an effort to stock “gender-affirmative” clothing, for young people who may not otherwise be able to access or wear clothing that affirms their gender identity or matches their preferred presentation. “Sometimes we’ll have a young person come in, pick out an outfit, and just wear it for a few hours,” she explained. “Because out there they may not feel comfortable presenting themselves that way, but here they feel safe.” I found that beautiful and gut-wrenching at the same time, since I do know plenty of people who’d be uncomfortable at the thought of what they would see as enabling “cross-dressing” (although that term implies a gender binary that is fairly antiquated at this point), and I know it’s a complex issue in Jewish law. But I just can’t bring myself to be at all religiously concerned in any way about something like gender-affirmative clothing, that causes no harm to anyone and helps with the comfort and psychological well-being of a person who needs it.

When asked what people could donate to the pantry, June suggested clothing, toiletries, and large women’s shoes, “but really anything. We get some wild donations — someone once donated a clown nose, and a young person saw it and was like, ‘that’s exactly what I need right now!’ ” (June always used the term “young person,” not “child” or “kid,” a word choice I support because referring to someone as a “child” immediately takes away some of their agency as well as the validity of their opinions and rights, which is the last thing these young people need.) I would add that they could probably use some kosher and halal food, because you never know who might walk through those doors and what that food option might mean to them.

As a community-entrenched observant Jew, I have a great appreciation for the concept of extended, non-blood family. HMI and the Harvey Milk High School share this idea. They offer a High School Equivalency (HSE) program (the apparently very new name for the GED), and, knowing that there is no official way of celebrating an HSE, they hold a proper graduation ceremony twice a year for those who earn one, to which all family and friends are invited. They also organize events like family retreats, and June explained that they operate with a flexible definition of family: “it can be chosen family, biological family, or friends,” because if that is what you have, that is your family, no question about it.

The décor for the space is striking — vibrant colors, murals of super heroes and super heroines, the HMHS of Harvey Milk High School painted in rainbows on the walls. June’s office has an enormous Hello Kitty poster tacked up. The place exudes warmth and safety.

It makes me so happy to know that such a place exists and that all this work is being done. That people care about this cause, that people are invested, and that they’re passionate and empathetic and creative in the ways they tackle the numerous issues. But it’s bittersweet, because you can’t help but remember that the all the warmth, compassion, and rainbows are needed to combat a much harsher reality that exists just beyond the edges of the safe space. And it can be upsetting to know that people who follow my religion’s doctrines are sometimes responsible for some of that harshness.

Attending this kind of event, clearly, has the potential to be uncomfortable. It involves working with people who have no familiarity with the complexities of my cultural and religious background, and of the prejudices I’ve seen in my community, which I may have absorbed and that I work continuously to overcome. It’s certainly not an event that caters to any religious affiliation, least of all mine.

Which begs the question that my mother always asks me: “There are Jewish organizations that do these types of things too; why don’t you volunteer with them?”

And the truth is, to me, it’s about the cause. This is a cause that transcends religion. It transcends race or culture or class or any other divisions we institute in other parts of our lives. There are LGBTQ youth in every community imaginable. I am aware that specific, nuanced needs will vary — the needs of Jewish LGBTQ youth will differ from the needs of Latino LGBTQ youth, just as both of those will differ from the needs of African American LGBTQ youth, and so on — but I personally can’t waste this opportunity to overcome differences and see shared cross-cultural humanity.

While I have the utmost respect for those who fight the Jewish LGBTQ rights fight with all the nuances therein, volunteering my own time is a more personal decision. Narrowing the lens of these issues to focus only on fellow Jews feels antithetical to why I’m drawn to this cause in the first place, which is why I donate my time to places that are non-denominational. But I hope people will continue to give their time and energy to Jewish and non-Jewish causes, because both can always use it.

(*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.)

 

 

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