This year I was graciously invited to Keshet’s annual OUTstanding! event that honors LGBTQ Jewish leaders and allies and, honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Many events have been canceled or moved online in recent months out of necessity, and while I have attended a few streams and Zoom calls, I was curious how a large-scale virtual event would play out.
The event was hosted via Shindig, a large-scale video chat platform that allows organizers to spotlight honorees onstage and attendees to join small video chats with those around them. Though there were hundreds of attendees, the atmosphere felt cozy and intimate, with people joining across the country to congratulate honorees Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Abby Stein and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.
The event’s emcee was the esteemed S. Bear Bergman, who addressed those gathered with an effortless and charming wit that made me feel like I was in an elaborate banquet hall rather than at my kitchen table. He went on to introduce Idit Klein, Keshet’s president and CEO. Klein spoke of the difficulty of this year, how many closeted Jewish teens returned to places where they could not be themselves and joined online meetings from their literal bedroom closets. As the pandemic progresses, she noted, Jewish organizations are moving into emergency mode and many are reverting back to factory settings, with work for LGBTQ Jews taking a secondary place. “Who decides which work is essential?” Klein asked. “The old ways of doing work are not serving us well.”
She also introduced Rivkah Schafer, a 15-year-old student who placed a Keshet LGBTQ safe space sticker inside their Jewish day school and kept putting it back up even when it was torn down. Schafer thanked Keshet for showing them that they could have a wife and be Jewish, rather than having to pick one or the other, and it was at this point that I started to cry.
Even writing about the event after the fact, I’m welling up at the memory. Throughout all of the wonderful supporters and videos detailing Keshet’s work with the LGBTQ community, providing programs and groups to support teens, I cried at the sheer volume of love and gratitude present in that space. It seems a little silly now, to cry alone to the computer at my kitchen table, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in attendance must have felt a sense of community and connection, even when we weren’t physically together.
The first recipient of the Hachamat Lev Award, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, appeared with her partner and a serendipitous prismatic rainbow on the wall behind her. “I want our communities to honor everyone,” she said, speaking about Black and brown rabbis and the beautiful diversity of the Jewish community. “And I want our Jewish community to be less racist and homophobic.”
The second recipient was Abby Stein, a trans woman and former member of the Hasidic community. Stein began transitioning in 2015 and has since given between 400 and 500 public speeches. “One of the first public events I did was for Keshet,” she said. “We don’t just want to help LGBTQ people, we want to help LGBTQ people in the context of Judaism.”
Receiving the Landres Courage for Dignity Award was Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, who is ordained three times over and has dedicated countless hours in service to the LGBTQ and social justice communities. Of the organization, he said: “Keshet supports all of us in our efforts to make the Jewish community a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ Jews and their families.”
Even though the speakers attended from their homes, even though every face peered out from the screen, the event felt incredibly warm, well-planned and celebratory. It was no wonder that attendees broke Keshet’s donate button. I left the call feeling connected and joyous, not only because of the wonderful work that Keshet does for the LGBTQ community, but that they were able to hold such an event as a bright spot in this uncertain time.