The Avodah Blog

Reclaiming Judaism: A Conversation with Temmi Merlis

In honor of Pride Month, we spoke with Temmi Merlis, an alum of Avodah’s Justice Fellowship and member of the LGBTQ community. 

Photo credit: Sophie Kietzmann

What’s your connection to Avodah?

I was in the New York City Justice Fellowship in 2017-2018. It was great. I felt comfortable there. For the first time, I was in a space where people asked, “What are your pronouns?” Growing up in the Modern Orthodox community, and still today in my daily work, I’m not asked that commonly. Right off the bat, it gave me pause — I had a lot of respect for that.

I also appreciated the fact that Avodah really stood up for marginalized groups, and they recognized how we can connect with other people who might be different from us because of our marginalization as Jews. Most people focus on our differences, but Avodah focused on highlighting how we’re similar. The Fellowship focused on how it’s important to stand up for people and, by standing up for them, we’re standing up for the larger marginalized community as well. 

It was a place for me to explore my responsibilities as a Jewish person to the larger community — in addition to the Jewish community. Avodah takes social justice to the next level.

What does work look like for you right now?

I am working from home as a social worker with the United Federation of Teachers, helping retired teachers, school social workers and other personnel with issues related to life and retirement — everything from LGBTQ issues to substance abuse. You name it, I’ve seen it. A typical day includes a series of short-term counseling sessions. We have a phone reassurance program to call isolated older adults to make sure they are not lonely and that their needs are met — it’s been especially important during COVID. 

What do you enjoy about the work you do?

I enjoy making people feel seen, valued and heard. A lot of times older adults get pushed to the wayside during their retirement years. They’re seen as takers as opposed to givers, but that’s not the case. No one wants to feel like they don’t matter anymore. Everyone wants community, which is a feeling I relate to. 

What drives you to do social justice work?

I grew up in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. While I had a good childhood, I felt I couldn’t talk about being gay. It was painful because I didn’t see any outlet for that — being gay was not commonly discussed. It’s important to feel like you matter and that you have a community. As Jewish folks, it’s important to uplift those who are othered. It’s our responsibility to have everyone feel celebrated — not just tolerated or accepted, but to actually feel proud to be themselves. 

Are you involved in the community outside of work? 

I volunteer at a compost site in Brooklyn, Nurture BK, that was started after the city shut down composting. Every Sunday morning I collect organic food waste scraps and prepare it for the composting process. We are partnered with Flatbush Fridge Food Collective, a food pantry. All types of people from all walks of life are coming together to get compost and food, and to help the environment. I also volunteer with Flatbush Cats to trap, neuter and release feral cats, so fewer cats are on the street. We feed the feral cats and identify friendly ones who can be fostered and adopted. I believe animal welfare is a social justice issue, because it alleviates suffering. I am also involved with Keshet, an LGBTQ organization for youth. I staffed one of their weekend retreats last February — it was a really important experience for me.

Why was that experience important for you?

It’s something that I would have loved to have had in elementary school or high school — to have known it was okay to be Jewish and gay, or Jewish and non-binary. Keshet was the first time, coming from my background, where I got to see kids be unapologetically themselves, whether they were trans, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. It was so affirming for me to feel like I had a home in that community.

Although I have always been proud to be Jewish, for a long time in my adult life, I stayed away from observing Judaism because the laws and prayers were triggering for me. Keshet was completely opposite for me. For the first time, I didn’t feel anger. It was a familiar place and it felt like home. It was a version of home. 

It made me realize there are parts of Judaism that I will always love and hold onto, and will always seek out, regardless of my level of observance. It was my right to stand there and take part in our Judaism, which was inclusive. There are various communities that are welcoming. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have community.

What advice would you give to younger queer Jews still seeking community?

I want more people to know there is a home for them within the Jewish community, one that will celebrate their LGBTQ status. There are resources out there — a lot more to make use of than when I was a kid. 

Surround yourself with community and understanding people of all backgrounds. Join hands and go out of your way to create community and lessen any feelings of shame, internalized homophobia or transphobia. 

I want them to feel normal. I want them to know there’s Jewish community out there. Don’t give up, and be proud of who you are. There can and will be dark times, but they have to be and remain proud of who they are, exactly as they are.

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