Pittsburgh Judaism is undergoing a renaissance. Young queer Jews are leading it.
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Centuries ago, Tu B’Av was a Jewish holiday for matchmaking. Today, if celebrated at all, the vibe tends to be more Valentine’s Day-esque: it might involve singing, dancing, cards or flowers.
Or, at Moishe House Pittsburgh, reading queer Jewish love poems.
Moishe House is part of an international organization with communal houses in many cities. It subsidizes Jewish millennials’ rent, and they in turn plan events for Jewish young adults.
It isn’t officially a queer community, resident Kayla Reiman, 29, said. Anyone can live there, and Moishe House events cater to all audiences. Still, in recent years, most residents do identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community — and that’s special.
“When I’m exploring ritual with other queer people, there’s just this sense of comfort,” Reiman explained. “I don’t need everyone to be queer. I just need to know this part of me is fully accepted.”
Queer Jewish spaces are not new in Pittsburgh. The city’s first LGBTQ+ Jewish congregation, Bet Tikvah, was founded in 1988 and is still active today.
Yet the needs of the LGBTQ+ Jewish community don’t look the same today as they did in past generations, Bet Tikvah member Deb Polk said. Each generation builds upon the progress others have made, challenging norms within established communities and creating new spaces based on their concerns and interests. Today’s young queer Jews are on the leading edge of a more inclusive future.
It was Ami Weintraub’s senior year at Pitt. Weintraub, who uses he and they pronouns, was working at Hebrew schools and the Jewish Community Center daycare and also coming into their trans identity.
People in those Jewish spaces weren’t trying to make them uncomfortable. People were pretty trans-affirming, on the whole. But they felt out of place.
“I was different. And it’s hard to be different,” they said.
Their sense in queer spaces was similar. “I’m Jewish,” Weintraub, 25, said. “It impacts the foods I eat, the culture that I have, the holidays I celebrate, the languages I speak.” In queer communities, they often felt like they needed to leave that part of themself behind.
“It’s like, where’s my space? Where do I belong? How can I be whole?” they said.
Weintraub knew other young queer Jews could relate. They could point to blatant acts of transphobia, homophobia or antisemitism they had seen or experienced.
Yet many wouldn’t call the Jewish community homophobic or transphobic on the whole, nor the queer community antisemitic. What many felt on a day-to-day basis was a subtler form of exclusion: the power of people’s assumptions. People pictured Jewishness or queerness looking a certain way — white, cis and straight in the first case; white, secular and/or vaguely culturally Christian in the second — and queer Jews, especially queer Jews of color, didn’t fit the mold. Queer concerns didn’t map onto the unspoken “norm.”
Some young queer Jews, like Shoshanna Barnett, have sought to challenge that norm within institutional spaces. Barnett, 35, is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, an LGBTQ-affirming Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh. As a bisexual woman married to a straight man, she can pass for straight — and sometimes in her past, it felt easier not to correct people when they assumed that. Now, she’s speaking up.
Visibility is important, she said — and not just at isolated Pride events. When she was a kid growing up in a Jewish community, she was taught to think of sexuality like a flowchart: “OK, you like boys? So you’re straight.” She draws imaginary lines in the air to illustrate. “You like girls, then you’re gay.” At Beth Shalom, she’s working to normalize other options.
As for Weintraub, they created a queer Jewish community.
With the help of grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, they founded Shulayim L’Shalom in 2018, a queer Jewish youth group, and, more recently, Ratzon: Center for Healing and Resistance, a physical gathering space for queer Jewish young people and community activists.
Shulayim L’Shalom means “from margins to peace” or, in another translation, “from margins to wholeness.” Ratzon is Hebrew for “yearning and possibility.” The names speak to the spaces’ purpose: to help people heal in community and resist unjust structures.
“Once we bring in the people from the margins, then we can all be complete and whole,” they said.
Havdalah is a ritual of transition. It marks the close of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath or day of rest, and the start of a new week.
Earlier this year, Congregation Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh hosted an event reflecting on Havdalah as a moment of both grief and celebration. One speaker talked about loss. Another talked about celebration. A third — Sai Koros, a member and the congregational manager at Dor Hadash — talked about transitioning between the two.
Koros, 24, sensed the intimacy of the topic. Havdalah is one of their favorite traditions. “It’s like this really intensive sensory experience,” they said. “You’re supposed to smell besamim, these herbs and spices, and light a candle and put your hands in front of you to watch the light come through.” They pause to demonstrate, arms outstretched and fingers spread. “It’s a very human and embodied ritual.”
Koros’ experience of transness — “this forever-transitional space” beyond masculinity and femininity — shaped and enriched their understanding of Havdalah. They could bring insights to the ritual, rooted in their bodily experience, that others wouldn’t necessarily see.
For Weintraub of Ratzon, that’s the exciting promise of queer Judaism within the larger Jewish community.
Queer Jews are “not just here to be helped,” they said. They’re bringing something to Judaism. They’re “kind of creating a cultural renaissance.” Rather than inventing something new, queer Jews are uncovering aspects of Judaism that were present but marginalized all along.
That queer Jewish renaissance can include fresh takes on old traditions.
Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, co-founder and leader of the independent Jewish community Kesher Pittsburgh, recalls a wedding ceremony she attended. Although the officiant knew the couple well, the ceremony was formulaic and impersonal. “He officiated as if he had only met them that morning,” said Fife, who uses she and they pronouns. When she became a Kohenet, a Hebrew priestess, she committed to doing things differently — to letting people “show up” in ceremonies or shape the character of rituals.
As a queer Jewish woman of color, inclusivity — “making space for people” — is a key part of that practice. It’s why she uses nonbinary language to call people to the Torah and hosts gatherings that honor Indigenous lands and waters. People should get to be fully themselves “without having to advocate,” she said.
Today’s queer Jewish renaissance also involves fresh takes on old texts.
One of Olivia Devorah Tucker’s most formative Jewish experiences was attending the international organziation SVARA’s Queer Talmud Camp. Tucker, 28, worked with a study partner to interpret the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish law, in its original Hebrew.
It was empowering, said Tucker. Something that had been historically closed off to queer people — this act of ascribing meaning — was now being made available to them. Tucker has since started working at SVARA’s camp to help others have that experience.
“SVARA talks about a particular definition of queer, where your existence destabilizes the norms or the meta-narratives of society,” Tucker said. To practice queer Judaism is to do this destabilizing work.
For Tucker, that inherently ties their queer and Jewish identity to political concerns — and further marginalizes them in religious communities that, for instance, rely upon police for security or are unwilling to discuss atrocities against Palestinians.
“And so we build our own spaces, right?”
The future is fluid
Rachel Kudrick was 21 years old when she came out. The year was 1989. At the time, she was a student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and she began speaking on campus about being a lesbian.
“It was really ugly,” she said. “I got death threats. I got rape threats. I was beaten up multiple times, and the police laughed at me when I tried to press charges.”
Kudrick was a fundamentalist Christian at the time, and that further complicated matters.
“It was the late ’80s. You know, it was very much still people saying AIDS is God’s punishment for gays.”
Kudrick didn’t foresee converting to Judaism. For several years, she identified as an atheist. But she also had lingering questions about the divine and her identity, and, in Judaism, she found places to ask them.
“Within Judaism, it’s like, if you’re not questioning, what the hell’s going on, you know? Like, we argue with God, that’s what we do.”
She started attending Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh and has found a supportive community there ever since.
“I feel incredibly welcomed,” she said. “And not like, ‘Well, we’re welcoming you despite…’ and not like, ‘Well, we don’t see that…’” Instead she feels valued for who she is.
Danielle, too, has felt affirmed and included in synagogue life, following a traumatic upbringing. Danielle, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, grew up in a South American country where “boys were strongly preferred” to girls. Although she knew from age 3 that she was female, she was sent to an all-boys Catholic school, where she was bullied. Her mother screamed and spanked her when she spoke of being female. Her grandmother refused to hug her. She was sexually assaulted.
“It was like half my life that I didn’t have any relationships,” she said.
In 1999, when she was 22, Danielle performed an at-home surgery to rid her body of testosterone. She almost died. Her family then accepted her female identity and agreed to pay for her other transitional surgeries.
The experience made Danielle more religious. She felt the divine must have a purpose for her, providing these resources or support in her life.
She converted to Judaism. When Danielle moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2007, she felt welcomed into a local Conservative synagogue. The congregation members have taught her “the most amazing thing,” she said. “Unconditional love.”
As to her place in Pittsburgh’s queer Jewish community, Danielle feels more hesitant. Trans women tend to politicize their identities in ways that don’t align with her values, she said. “I am kind of an old-fashioned person. I am conservative. I believe in a traditional family.”
One challenge for synagogues is to allow multiple narratives to be true. Today’s young queer Jews may have different experiences or expectations than previous generations, Kudrick said. She sees millennials and Gen Zers pushing Judaism to grow in new directions — to become inclusive in ways she wouldn’t have thought of.
For one thing, they now have the internet. “I always say it’s pretty hard to find queer people in the wild,” Koros said, grinning. “Even more so, if you want to find queer Jewish people.”
With the help online spaces, young queer Jews can form local networks and then link them to national or international communities. As Fife suggests, this is especially important for queer Jews of color who may live in places where they feel isolated or tokenized. She is the lead facilitator for an online “LGBTQ+ Jewish Youth of Color” group, hosted by the organization Keshet.
They also foresee new possibilities, moving forward, to establish queer Jewish lineages.
Many queer Jews of previous generations have died, said Julie Mallis, City Director of Repair the World Pittsburgh. The AIDS crisis, police brutality, carceral violence, mental health challenges, a lack of access to housing and employment — all have been barriers to passing down queer Jewish traditions. Mallis hopes the present might catalyze a new era: a moment of richer, intergenerational community building.
Youth group leaders like Weintraub of Ratzon and Fife of Kesher Pittsburgh already see the next generations advancing new visions or expectations.
Fife described talking with her Sunday School students about the nonbinary nature of the world. “They got it so quickly, so easily,” she said. “I didn’t have to explain anything twice. I barely had to explain it.”
For Tucker of SVARA, the key now is to let queer Judaism keep evolving.
“People are gonna be living authentically younger and younger,” Tucker said. Today’s queer Jewish leaders should be ready to adapt to the next generation’s innovations — “whatever kind of hyper-gay they come up with.”
Such change is good, they said, and natural.
“Why would you ever expect us to be the same kind of Jews that we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 100 or 200 years ago? Like, we’re still Jews. It ought to look different.”
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.