In honor of Pride Month, we’re spotlighting queer Avodah alumni leaders like Rakhel Silverman. We sat down with them to discuss their experiences and work as a queer Jewish person.
What was your year with Avodah like?
I did the Service Corps in 2019-2020 and was placed at Jews United for Justice in D.C. It was weird because it got interrupted by COVID-19, but it was a great transition from college into the workforce and independent living.
Avodah gave me the support and community I needed, to have someone looking out for me but to be able to dip my toes into the professional world. I was able to figure out what kind of Jewish professional I want to be, and I now plan on attending rabbinic school in a few years.
What is your involvement in Jewish social justice work these days?
I am the Chapter Engagement Coordinator for the western region at PFLAG, the first and largest organization for queer people and allies. I oversee 100 chapters across the region. Although PFLAG is not a religious organization, religion comes up a lot, whether it’s from talking about the intersection of faith and queerness or religious trauma people have.
I also work part-time for Judaism On Our Own Terms, an organization that builds radically inclusive organizations on college campuses. I advise 20 campuses across the country. I help the students who feel marginalized or dissatisfied by the traditional Jewish community on their campus so they can build their own student organizations. We also do national programming — we had a national Shabbat with 50 students in January that was social justice driven.
Outside of work, I am really involved in local Jewish communities, like Kavod Boston, where I serve on their Disability Justice and Access Team. I am still involved with the New Synagogue Project in D.C. I lead some of their ritual programming and recently co-led a workshop series on how ritual innovation can be liberatory and queer.
I always find ways to advocate for the causes that I am passionate about. I try to get involved in local activism as much as possible, doing mutual aid work in Providence and going to protests when I can.
What has been your experience with the intersection of religion and queerness?
I grew up in a very traditional Jewish community. As someone who was assigned female at birth, I wasn’t allowed to read Torah or lead services — I was taught that queerness was a sin. I totally relate to people who have that religious trauma and I validate however they want to proceed — if they want to seek ways to be affirming of religion or they don’t. I like to share that I work in a queer Jewish world. I think it inspires people to hear that religion and queerness can not only be compatible but integral to one another.
What motivates you to do social justice work?
As someone who’s fat, trans, disabled, and queer, with not a huge amount of financial privilege, I want to advocate for people who have marginalized identities. I’ve seen the gatekeeping that happens in Jewish spaces and queer spaces. If we can’t find a space for us, we can build one.
For Trans Day of Visibility, I presented at the Trans Day Are Here Convening and led a space for trans, disabled Jews. Moments like that are really beautiful, especially during COVID-19. They serve as a reminder that the queer Jewish community is here. We’re strong, resilient and motivated. We can make space for ourselves.
How do you avoid burnout?
Well, I just got a new cat so that helps. My partner is also incredibly supportive and involved in Jewish social justice work.
Especially as someone who is disabled, I am always thinking about sustainability in what I do and knowing my limits. I know when I need community support and I know I need to not be afraid to take a sick day when I need to. Part of being a good leader is about knowing when to step back and delegate a task to someone else, so that the world doesn’t fall apart when one person has to step out.
What advice would you give to younger queer Jews?
I would tell them they are not alone, especially with so many things being more virtual now. I also want to validate the pain they may feel from the cishet-normative Jewish world. There are other communities out there that will accept them.
I live out near Boston and radical communities exist nearby. Not everyone has access to that, but now there’s Facebook groups and virtual programs for those seeking community. There’s also people like me and other Jewish community leaders who would love to talk to them. From organizations like Keshet, that advocates for LGBTQ+ inclusion in Jewish life, to SVARA, the radical yeshiva that does Queer Talmud Camp, we’ve built so many great organizations that are being led by lovely queer Jews that would love to have them and hold them.