Taking a Leap of Faith

March 25, 2024

By Shana Aviva Cohen

As I completed grad school in 2011 with a Master of Social Work, I vividly remember my professors urging us to choose career paths where we could enact profound change within our own communities. Their words resonated deeply with me as a young Jewish woman. I wanted to apply my social work background and my passion for Jewish life to effect change in the Jewish communal world. 

Yet as a queer woman in the Jewish professional space, I was taking a leap of faith. I felt insecure to be openly lesbian, and I felt compelled to conceal my identity in order to build my career in the Jewish sector. I then served as the Director of Young Leadership for a Jewish Federation in the Midwest at a time when the landscape was starkly different. Same-sex marriage remained illegal, and discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues were often met with discomfort. 

I worked every day to foster a sense of belonging and inspire philanthropy among young adult Jews, yet I grappled with the dissonance of doing so within the confines of a predominantly cisgender and heterosexual environment. My colleagues were indifferent towards LGBTQ+ concerns, especially regarding same-sex marriage. It was deeply unsettling, especially when my then-partner had just proposed to me. The personal joy of my engagement was overshadowed by the dismissive response I received in my professional circles, leaving me to conceal my happiness and joy.

I contemplated leaving the Jewish professional sphere, and my inclination was shared by many of my closeted Jewish peers at the time. But instead of succumbing to disillusionment, I chose to confront these challenges head-on. I chose to pave the way for future generations of LGBTQ+ Jews.

And I had help! It was during this tumultuous time that Keshet emerged as a beacon of hope, making it possible for me to reshape my dilemma into an opportunity. Through Keshet, I could help change the Jewish community from within.

My heart soared when I accepted a role at Keshet back in 2015! It was a moment of revelation. I had stumbled upon my dream work community—not just a workplace, but a sanctuary where I could embrace my dual identity as a proud Jew and a queer woman, without fear or hesitation. The warmth of acceptance enveloped me from the moment I walked through those doors in Boston.

Flash forward to today, when my journey has brought me back to Keshet as our Senior Philanthropy Officer. Now based across the country in California, I am Keshet’s first-ever employee to come back for a second tenure. The process of returning has new meaning for me in the current political climate, and it has reaffirmed why queer Jewish liberation continues to be my life’s work. 

I recently had the privilege of participating in the Bay Area launch of Shivyon: Keshet’s Equality Project, alongside twenty Jewish institutional leaders who did the hard work to challenge their implicit biases and reassess the centrality of heteronormativity and cisgender identity within their institutions. I knew that my younger self would not need to hide in their company today.

Reflecting back, it’s almost surreal to recall the times when LGBTQ+ individuals faced alienation in various Jewish spaces. Equally disheartening is the persistence of antisemitism, casting its shadow over the professional trajectories of countless Jews even today. These are indeed trying times, filled with a sense of isolation that weighs heavily not only on the queer Jewish community but on Jews at large.

And while there is ample space for queer Jewish joy today, the shadow of pain still looms large. Even within the most welcoming Jewish organizations, there remains a palpable disconnect for many between their queer and Jewish identities. Far too many individuals feel compelled to conceal parts of themselves even today.

My journey stands as a testament to the enduring impact of Keshet and my colleagues, then and today. What was once questioned as a niche concern—LGBTQ+ equality within Jewish spaces—has now become a focal point of inquiry and action among Jewish leaders. Witnessing this evolution over the years has reminded me that change is possible.

I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with you in building a world characterized by love, justice, dignity, and compassion. Your unwavering support and generosity serve as a beacon of hope for the LGBTQ+ Jewish and ally community. Thank you. 

I eagerly await the opportunity to learn about your journey and what motivates you to support Keshet. Please feel free to reach out to me anytime at [email protected].