By Rakhel Silverman
A tight squeeze and warm embrace signaling unconditional love is not something I will ever take for granted.
I grew up in an unstable household. The dysfunction and trauma I experienced from my family of origin, in conjunction with my community’s homophobia and transphobia, left me depressed and alone. I craved physical and psychological safety: a family, especially elders, who would care for me and embrace me for who I am.
I was not the only young, queer person who experienced this isolation. The Trevor Project recently released their 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People, amplifying the experiences of more than 28,000 LGBTQ young people ages 13 to 24 across the United States. Their findings are unsettling but not surprising: there is a national mental health crisis for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, especially those who do not have LGBTQ+-affirming homes, schools, or communities. Being LGBTQ+ does not make youth prone to mental health struggle, but environmental and systemic discrimination, exclusion, and stress can have a negative impact.
But even in the face of hardship, queerness can be a source of strength and celebration. Just like the Jewish people, the queer community is one of resiliency, resistance, and joy. We hold each other with care, support, and love. It’s from this place of holding one another that we developed the concept of “chosen family”: (defining our family on our own terms based on the relationships most important and sacred to us)
Chosen family is essential to understanding queer history and our contemporary communities. From the networks of lesbian and bisexual women who cared for men who had AIDS in the 1980s, to honorary and legal foster parents who take in houseless queer and trans youth, to mutual aid crowdfunding online to help us afford life-saving mental health and gender-affirming care, to queer Facebook groups where people volunteer to offer care and share resources, these networks define us.
This concept has been invaluable to me on my journey. While I have many beautiful bonds with some in my family of origin, there are other relatives with whom I do not feel the unconditional love and safety that I deserve. Chosen family allows me to decide which of my relationships constitute my family. I think of my communal network and many queer mentors- from older peers, to professors, to rabbis, and Jewish leaders, who offered me a listening ear, support, advice, and affirmation.
I am not alone; there are many in the LGBTQ+ community for whom family of origin can be complicated and painful. Many LGBTQ+ youth and young adults do not experience safety and support in their household, and many even face rejection and houselessness. We all have the power to define our family, and which households become our home.
Chosen family is also rooted in Jewish tradition, most notably in the Book of Ruth, which we read on the upcoming festival of Shavuot. For those who are new to the Book of Ruth, here is a quick summary of Chapter 1 (Here you can read the full text). Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons travel from Judah to the country of Moab. Elimelech dies. Naomi’s two sons marry two women, Ruth and Orpah. When Naomi’s sons die, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah travel back to Judah. Naomi begs the women to return back to their land of Moab so that they can find husbands.
Ruth replies with the most famous line from the story: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
This scene is very emotional, with the women in tears and embracing one another. The text makes it very clear that Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi is not one out of obligation, (Orpah, for instance, returns to Moab), but because she wants to remain close to her. The declaration that only death will part them is incredibly intimate. Even after Ruth marries and has a child, the text focuses on her relationship to Naomi. The story closes with the women of Judah declaring that Ruth’s son has been “born to Naomi,” signaling their close bond. Whether you believe this connection is platonic or romantic, there is no denying that it is rooted in love.
I, and many LGBTQ+ people, have been touched by how Ruth and Naomi chose each other as family and became life-long companions. Their story reminds me that I can create my own family and that these connections are important and sacred. In 2018, I created a Queer/Chosen Family Blessing based on the Jewish practice of blessing children on Shabbat. It includes a blessing for your chosen family loved ones, as well as a prayer holding queer youth in our hearts.
This Shavuot, I encourage you to take stock of your relationships and offer a blessing or thank you to your chosen family, whether with my words or words that are from your heart, and remember that these sacred relationships are powerful connective gifts rooted in both our queer and Jewish histories. And if you do not yet have anyone who fits in that category, I am holding hope that you too will find your people just as I did.