Growing up in a reformed Jewish family has provided me with a solid moral foundation based on respect, empathy and compassion toward others. While my family belongs to a synagogue, and my mother even works at one, I have always been more humanistic than religious while relating to Judaism. But Jewish culture, ethnicity and history still remain an essential part of my being and the key to understanding my ancestry to its fullest extent.
When I came out to my family and friends during my sophomore year of high school, obstacles pertaining to religious acceptance were the last issues on my mind — and for this I am very thankful, especially considering the adverse coming-out experiences faced by several of my friends. My family lives in a Southeast Michigan town with a rather substantial reformed and conservative Jewish population, which generally identifies as socially liberal.
While I have never felt ashamed or hesitant to step into a synagogue or to proclaim that I come from a Jewish heritage, I’ve undergone a slight religious transformation over the past few years. As I mentioned, Jewish culture and tradition have always offered me enriching and comforting insights into my roots. But when I examine my religion as opposed to my ethnicity, I tend to think of myself as more of a secular humanist, which I feel allows me to be the most empathic and respectful person I can be. In fact, humanism lies at the foundation of every ancient religion and is called for by every sacred text — it is no obscure philosophy.
When I settled into the University campus, the last thing I expected to do was become involved in religious groups or student organizations. But I soon defied my expectations and surprised myself. Upon visiting both Gayz Craze and Festifall, I discovered a student group, Ahava (meaning “love” in Hebrew), which connects and explores the intersecting identities of Jewish and LGBT-identifying persons. I received an instant feeling of gratification when I chatted with the Hillel liaison, who left me with a permanent impression of kindness and compassion. These are two virtues I have sought for and valued in forming my beliefs. I decided to attend Ahava’s first meeting and am definitely glad that I did so.
Having attended multiple Ahava meetings, which take place in a laid-back, open atmosphere, I felt I had reaffirmed and reestablished my connection to my Jewish background. During these meetings, group members would engage in constructive dialogue pertaining to our Jewish and LGBT identities and discuss any obstacles, inquiries or positive experiences we had encountered. Not only was I able to share my own values and beliefs in this setting, but I thoroughly appreciated being able to hear about different perspectives and diverse backgrounds relating to both identities — I had seldom spoken with Jewish, LGBT-identifying individuals beforehand. Before I knew it, I’d made many new friends and acquaintances, as well as established ties to welcoming faculty members at Hillel and throughout the Ann Arbor area.
Through Ahava and alongside other Jewish student organizations on campus, I soon became involved in preparing for the arrival of Danny Savitch, a champion of LGBT rights in Jerusalem and Israel as a whole. Ahava members also welcomed a director from the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan in a screening of “Hineini”, a documentary about a young Orthodox girl who comes out as a lesbian to her friends and instructors in her high school. Aside from these events, Ahava held a personalized Shabbat dinner, which to me exemplified the warmth and hospitality that is so integral to Jewish culture.
Judaism has continuously offered me enriching and convivial experiences, and my time as a first-year student at the University has only strengthened my bond with Jewish ethnicity. Even if I tried, I would not be able to ignore my characteristically Jewish mother, who cooks for an army and calls me five times a day to ask if I’ve eaten. She drives me meshugeh (but I still love her).
Matthew Shur is an LSA freshman.