Community Care: A Talk with Avodah Alum Emily Saltzman

Published Jun 8, 2021

While Avodah’s mission is focused on social justice through a Jewish lens, we are proud to say that our programs often help participants gain a deeper understanding of their own identities. One such program alum is Emily Saltzman (New York City Service Corps, 2008-2009). 

Emily lives in Minneapolis with her partner, Jen. She currently serves as the Associate Director of Education and Training for Keshet, facilitating LGBTQ-inclusivity workshops for Jewish communities and organizations nationally. 

Emily said that her Avodah experience helped shape her connection to Judaism. “For me, in 2008, I didn’t know you could weave together social justice with Judaism — that wasn’t my experience growing up in the Midwest. I felt that Judaism was for my grandparents. I hadn’t previously connected with Jewish peers that shared my values. Avodah opened up another world to me that integrated social justice practices into Jewish rituals,” she said.

Emily was the first Avodah Corps Members to be placed at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, a former placement partner and advocacy organization fighting to end the AIDS epidemic. Through her service, she gained a deeper understanding of the people who had done service and advocacy work before her and the legacies they created — a “life changing” experience as someone who was coming into her own queer identity at the time. 

“I came out to myself a couple years prior to Avodah. In college I had been heavily involved in the LGBTQ community as an ally. After that, I went through a period where I felt disconnected from the queer community and the Jewish community. I knew another Avodah alum and asked if it was cool to be queer in Avodah. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ Having a space that was supportive of my LGBTQ identity is part of why I applied.” 

At the beginning of her service year, Emily said she was the only out queer person in her cohort. That changed as time went on, and Emily started dating her closest friend from the program — her first queer relationship. “Everyone was so loving and supportive. Avodah was a really big part of my own identity development.” Today, over half of Avodah’s cohort identifies as part of the queer community.

Emily and fellow Service Corps Members at the AIDS Walk in 2009.

“At Avodah, we are intentional about fostering a culture that recognizes all identities, and allows our staff, our participants, our board members and our alumni to show up as our authentic selves,” says Avodah’s CEO, Cheryl Cook.   

Today, Emily is a self-described “professional queer Jew” with a background in sex education and social work. She moved back to Minneapolis from New York five years ago, a tough transition at the time. It was difficult to find community, but as a community organizer, Emily remained committed to finding her people. 

“When I moved back to Minneapolis, I wondered ‘Where could I find the progressive Jewish community?’ I got connected to the National Council of Jewish Women and had a one-on-one with the Minnesota director within my first few weeks of moving back. And from there I connected with other leaders and Jewish community members. My biggest piece of advice to queer Jews seeking community is to connect with at least one person and share what you’re looking for. Then ask that person if they can connect you with other like-minded community members and continue repeating the process. Pretty soon you’ll have a whole new web of connections!” 

Emily and Jen.

She especially appreciates the intergenerational nature of the LGBTQ Jewish community in the Twin Cities. “I can see so clearly the important work that is continuing in our community and know that it would not be possible without the challenging conversations that LGBTQ Jewish leaders had over many years. I am honored to continue in this legacy of visibility and belonging.”

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