During Pride Month, Repair the World published interviews with the people and organizations who are on the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. Pride Month 2013 is officially over, but we have one more interviewee who is too great not to share. (Think of it as a bonus feature!) New York resident Alyssa Finn talks about her transformative experience at a retreat led by Nehirim (a national community of LGBT Jews, partners, and allies), and how she transitioned from being an enthusiastic participant to a committed volunteer and board member.
How did you first find Nehirim?
It’s a funny story! Back in 2009 I was on J-Date and this person contacted me who said, “I don’t know if you and I would be good for each other romantically, but I think we’d be friends and I’d like to meet you.” So we met up and, as she thought, we totally clicked as friends. On our first meeting she told me about Nehirim and how they were hosting their first ever women only gathering. I’d never thought about combining my queerness with my Judaism, so this seemed like an interesting opportunity.
And how was the retreat?
It was incredible. I’ve never felt so whole in my entire life. Sometimes in life I think we inadvertently shine a light on different parts of ourselves depending on what the situation calls for. And by doing that, the other parts of our life grow temporarily dimmer. But at the retreat I felt like all my lights were on, and I didn’t have to dim anything. I found community I didn’t even know I needed.
What was it about the retreat that made it so powerful?
There was a good sized group of people all around my age, who were all experiencing a Nehirim retreat for the first time – so having a cohort to bond with and share the novelty of the experience with was really great. I was also blown away by the community as a whole. I’d thought everyone was going to be just like me – a bunch of Jewish queer folks all getting together. But we were all really different in ways I didn’t anticipate – religiously, our ages, socio-economically, racially. It gave me more freedom to be who I was because, while we came together with one commonality, we all had our own special take on it to share.
How did you stay involved after the retreat?
I actually kind of became a Nehirim junkie! I immediately signed up for a multi-gendered retreat, which was four months later, and ended up going to another retreat that same year. Along the way, queer Jewish community has become my norm instead of something I thought I could never have. It changed the way I viewed myself and also encouraged me to find Jewish queer circles outside of the retreats. In Massachusetts, where I was in medical school until recently, I also participated with a lot of Keshet programs – I actually met my fiancé Lisa through a Keshet shabbat potluck! Then about two years ago, I was asked to play more of a facilitator role at a Nehirim retreat. That’s when I started really owning the experience and realizing I could play a creation role in this work. There was this shift from just taking things in to being like, “wow, I can help give this experience to other people.”
What does it mean to facilitate at a Nehirim retreat?
We have these small groups that meet three times over the course of the retreat, which allows people to get to know some of the other participants really well and have a smaller, safe space to listen and be listened to. I helped facilitate one of those small groups. During the third meeting we do a “blessing circle” where each person steps into the center and asks for a blessing to bring with them after the retreat ends. So everyone stands around them and gives their blessings at the same time. With everyone talking over each other it’s not about individual words, but about the act of bestowing and receiving blessings. It’s really powerful.
When did you join the Nehirim board?
I joined last October. It’s been a pretty loose commitment so far, but we have a board visioning retreat at the end of June. We’re transitioning to a new executive director, so at the retreat we’ll talk about how to best move forward and transition with our new leadership. We’ll also envision what our roles on the board could and should be. I’m looking forward to it because our board members are spread all over the country, so this is the first time we’ll all be face-to-face. This is my first time on a board, and I’ve found it really interesting. Overall, it’s great to be able to help take something that has been powerful for me and try to bring that energy outward to other people.
Find out more about Nehirim’s work at their website.