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:


“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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#FlashbackFriday — “World Suck vs. World Awesome”

I missed yet another Throwback Thursday post because I was baking and cooking last night, so here’s another Flashback Friday post, originally from November 29th 2011.


The chocolate cake I baked does not look like this. But this looks awesome.


Warning: I be moderately philosophical here.

For those of you don’t know, there’s an online community, formed around a certain Youtube channel, that I identify with: Nerdfighters. Not religiously, but I keep up with the main videos and read some of the tumblr posts. For basic info, see here:, but for the purposes of this post, the important thing to know is that Nerdfighter philosophy believes that there are two ways to make the world better:

1)   Increase World Awesome


2)   Decrease World Suck.

To clarify, “increasing World Awesome” means what it sounds like: increasing the amount of awesome stuff in the world. This can include anything from rocket ships to fantastic TV shows to elaborate Lego castles to settling down and having children. That’s how many people make life worth living — by creating new and beautiful things that weren’t there before.

On the flipside, we have “decreasing World Suck,” which is also just what it sounds like. This is the idea of finding the line against the darkness and holding it there, or trying to push it back. Homelessness, joblessness, bigotry . . . These things suck, and life is more worth living when people work to make them suck a little less.

Basically, as drunk Blaine Anderson said, increasing World Awesome and decreasing World Suck amount to: “Make art and help people!”

What I’ve been thinking recently is that some people have a greater inclination toward one than the other. Or at least, in some areas.

Take me, for instance. I’m a writer. I’m not a crusader, I don’t go to rallies, I’m incredibly ignorant of most politics. Writing is creation of something new and beautiful. I create stories and characters and situations, and I try to be proud of everything that I write, because it’s my most tangible contribution to the world. I should be easily categorized as someone who wants to increase World Awesome.

But in almost every other area of my life, it’s more important to me to decrease World Suck than to increase World Awesome. I want to help people. It’s not something I want to do professionally. I’ve never been interested in becoming a doctor or a psychologist or a social worker. But when I’m put in a position to help, I really want to make things better.

A friend of mine refers to this tendency—sometimes affectionately, usually exasperatedly—as “being a fixer.” I think of it as “being a problem-solver.” But even that’s too strong. I don’t expect to solve problems, to fix, or to cure. It’s not a savior complex; it’s a helper complex. Most problems are much too big for me to solve. So I have a choice. I can hide away and do nothing, or I can help in whatever limited way I can.

Let me tell you a story. Because that’s what I do.


It’s a story about me. And someone else.

I was about ten or twelve years old. It was a Saturday afternoon. My family had finished our big Shabbos lunch, and most of our guests had gone home. We have lots of guests every week, generally; in addition to hosting people we like, a rabbi’s house and table tend to be magnets for lost souls.

That day, one of those lost souls did not go home when the meal ended. He didn’t go home when the rabbi bid him adieu and went to take a nap. He didn’t go home even when there was no one left in the living room aside from ten-year-old me, curled up on the recliner with a book.

Instead, he sat down across the room on the couch. At almost regular intervals, he’d heave heavy sighs. Or stretch. But still made no move to leave.

(Before anyone gets worried, it’s not like my parents left me alone with a dangerous stranger. My family had known him for years, and he’s about as harmless as they come. One of the so-depressed-he-probably-wouldn’t-have-the-energy-to-throw-himself-off-a-building type of guys. Mid-thirties, unmarried and unhappy about it and plenty of other things. That probably doesn’t sound very reassuring. Sorry.)

I must have looked up from my book after a while. I must have asked a leading question, probably one of the classics: “Is something wrong?” or “Are you okay?”

Because what I vividly remember happening that afternoon was this: A grown-up poured out his grown-up problems to me as if I could understand them. He told me about a falling-out he’d had with friends, about his constant loneliness, about his fear that even the people who like him the most don’t really like him. He highlighted incidents, tried to analyze them, and asked if I thought he was making sense.

I remember sitting there and being very acutely aware that this was not the kind of stuff you’re supposed to talk about with little kids. He said, a few times, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this . . .” I silently agreed with him, but the rabbi was sleeping, and a therapist costs money, and the rabbi’s ten-year-old daughter was the only one willing to listen. So I listened, and listened, and maintained eye contact, and nodded when he asked if I understood, because I did. And when he finished, he went home.

I don’t have any illusions that I fixed anything that day. These days, he’s in his mid-forties, still unmarried, still unhappy. But he did go home that day.


Sometimes, that’s the best anyone can do: be a listening ear, a patient, non-threatening presence. Make the current moment a bit more bearable for the person who’s got more suck in their life right now than you do. I’ve somehow cultivated that presence. People tend to feel comfortable telling me things. I’m not a people-pleaser, but I’m not a people-hurter, either. I want and like to help, and I respect that about myself, naïve and idealistic as it may be.

And then there are other areas where I want to do more. There aren’t that many, and you’ve probably all seen various things I’ve posted about homelessness and LGBT rights; those are two causes that have inexplicably resonated with me when nothing else does.

I also want to adopt, if I ever feel like raising kids. I’ve never felt any longing to have kids of my own — the pull of the World Awesome increase of creating a kid is so strongly outweighed in my mind by the possibility of the World Suck decrease of taking in one that’s already here. Obviously, no objective measure I could use would confirm this, but that’s how it balances on my internal scale.

Most, if not all, of us have our instincts for creation, for increasing World Awesome, and most if not all of us have them for justice, for decreasing World Suck.

Where do you fall in the spectrum? What do you create, and what do you fight for or against?




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REVIEW: Adaptation by Malinda Lo




I try not to go into anything with expectations. Having no expectations that something will be good means you’re free to absorb whatever it is — a book, a movie, a TV show, a game — with fewer biases, and are less likely to be disappointed, because hey, you never expected it to be good in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes I can’t help but get excited about something before I even read or see it. This book was an example of that. A 40 page preview was released a few months before it came out, and I read it and it was fantastic. Intense, fast-paced, action-packed, with dozens of questions set up to be answered in the rest of the book. So I was excited about that.

I also knew a bit about the author, Malinda Lo, who is a Chinese-American lesbian Young Adult writer who is known in the YA publishing community for being a wonderful voice on issues such as racial diversity and LGBTQ portrayals in YA literature. Adaptation was nominated for a Lambda award, plus I knew there would be at least one major LGBTQ character, and I was looking forward to seeing how Lo would balance that aspect with the action-adventure plot. I was really excited to read a book with an LGBTQ main character that wasn’t ABOUT being LGBTQ, but rather having that as just one element of the character and the story.

And well . . . I should have known better than to have expectations. I was unfortunately disappointed.

The opening chapters are riveting, no doubt about that. The book starts with the main character, Reese, and her high school debate partner and their coach waiting to fly home from a debate tournament, and then suddenly planes start crashing all over the country. No one knows what’s going on, all flights are grounded, people start to panic, and to top it off, all information about the plane crashes is being systematically wiped from the internet. It’s intense.

But then . . . things slow down. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need nonstop action to keep me happy as a reader. But the problem is, when the action slows down, the faults in the characterization become more apparent. I really wanted to like Reese and be invested in her story, but I felt like I didn’t have a good enough handle on who she was as a person, what makes her tick outside of direct influences from the plot, and that made it difficult to empathize with her.

Perhaps this was because there was so much frantic action in the first few chapters — it’s hard to establish personality under those circumstances. But also, Lo seems to skimp on details that aren’t directly plot-relevant. For instance, Reese and her debate partner, David, just lost a huge tournament after making it to the finals. But we never once hear what the topic of the debate was. We never once hear about any topics for any debates, which presumably there have been a lot of if they made it all the way to the finals. We never see Reese use any possible knowledge she learned in her years as a debater. Research skills, methods of arguing, reasons why Reese was so driven to succeed in this particular area, specific memories relating to previous debates — none of these are demonstrated or explored. This was frustrating to me from a character perspective. I love when female characters are given passions that have nothing to do with romance (sadly all too rare), but this passion seemed sorely underdeveloped, to the detriment of the character.

And then I had issues with the romance. Not to give too much away, but toward the middle of the novel, Reese meets a girl who makes her question her sexuality, and they begin to pursue a relationship.

As someone who has close friends who identify as bisexual or fluid and have struggled with it, I was really glad to see it represented so matter-of-factly. Unfortunately, I didn’t think highly of the romantic relationship because of the underdeveloped characterization. Romance is a great way to reveal character — you learn about what a character values, what they need, what they respond to in another person, what they connect with. Disappointingly, it seems that most of what Reese is shown to connect with in her love interest is that she’s hot, like really really hot. And flighty and adventurous in the vein of the manic pixie dreamgirl. Not much substance to the relationship at all. And I guess being able to show that hormone-driven high school relationships (cough Twilight cough) have every right to be homosexual as well as heterosexual is a good thing, but it’s not very satisfying.

So overall, I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of good ideas and interesting elements, but the execution was lacking. There’s a sequel in the works, and I’m on the fence about whether I want to read it or not. Characterization has been known to improve over the life of a series, though, so I might give it a shot.

Image source