It wasn’t until I was 32 years old that I finally experienced a waterslide the way they’re supposed to be experienced—with pure bliss.
As a Keshet staff member, one of the best perks of my job (there are many) is the opportunity to join our teens at our LGBTQ and Ally Shabbatonim* that take place periodically throughout the year. This is a space where our teens (and the staff!) can bring their full Queer AND Jewish selves. Not only are we all accepted, but we’re embraced and celebrated!
This past summer we had our first ever official Summertime Shabbaton, and I was pumped. When I was a kid I loved everything summer: camp, catching lightning bugs, staying outside extra late, riding my bike around the neighborhood for hours, the Fourth of July, popsicles, and…the list goes on.
There was one summertime staple that simply brought me anxiety: the pool. Every time I had to put on my bathing suit, I felt a pang of inauthenticity. I felt trapped because I knew something was wrong and, at the same time, I didn’t have the awareness or language to articulate why this was happening. My answer was one that could only be achieved with the power of hindsight, years of therapy, and soul searching; I was missing a deeper authentic happiness and connection to my mind and body and, ultimately, to most experiences I had. I knew deep down that something stood between me and pure happiness, and now I know that it was my relationship with my gender. As I got older, and my body changed in a way I was ashamed of, my visits to the pool became less and less frequent.
While we were planning the logistics of our upcoming Shabbaton, I learned that there was a pool at the site, and we had booked pool time! This would be my first chance to hang by a pool since having top surgery at the beginning of the summer in 2016. I followed my fear, dove in head first at the opportunity, and volunteered to be the staff person.
As our pool time approached, my anxiety started to surface. I kept reminding myself that I was a different person in a different body; it would be okay! Still, I thought about backing out multiple times, but I forced myself to challenge the fears that kept rising up.
As we settled into Shabbat, I was reminded of the incredibly supportive, excited and embracing community I was with. My anxiety started to subside.
On our walk from the main lodge to the pool, I started talking myself into staying out of the pool to keep my shirt on; I could use the excuse that I didn’t have a towel, that it was “cold” out, my watch wasn’t waterproof, or I would be a “better” staff member watching from the side—basically any excuse I could think of to avoid taking off my shirt and getting in that pool. But, wasn’t I supposed to be a role model?
My moment of truth was approaching quickly and I needed to make a decision. As the teens were ripping off their clothes and jumping into the pool, I had quietly decided to chill with my feet in the water. It only took about 0.4 seconds for the teens and the Keshet Shabbaton Fellows to call me in, begging me to join them in the water. Instead of dishing them one of my pre-concocted excuses, I was honest. I told them I was scared because I had never been at a pool with my shirt off. They continued to cheer me on, even harder. How could I say no? If I had to pick any scenario to do this for a first time, THIS was it. Lead by example.
Luckily they quickly shifted their focus, huddled in a circle, and started singing every single word—acapella and exactly on beat—to “Alexander Hamilton” from the musical, Hamilton. So, I quietly pulled my shirt off and slipped in the water.
It. Felt. Awesome.
Then, every single teen and Keshet Shabbaton Fellow swam over to me, asked if they could hug me and, with my permission, did! One of them asked if they could sing the Shehecheyanu** to honor the special moment and my eyes welled up in tears. YES, PLEASE. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this moment would come.
In all the hubbub around getting me in the pool, we had ALL neglected to take advantage of the awesome water slides that were right there, and the teens decided to try them out. One by one, all went down and it looked like FUN. The support and love I was feeling catapulted me into going down the slide too. I hadn’t gone down one in over twenty-five years. I slowly climbed up while simultaneously letting my guard down.
When I got to the top, I heard everyone’s voice below cheering me on, so I took yet another leap of faith and let go.
The next three seconds could definitely be categorized as one of the Top Five moments of my life.
The pure joy and bliss I felt going down that slide is something I will never forget. I simply couldn’t contain my shrieks and giggles. My heart was racing and my whole chest was swelling with excitement, pride, joy, and accomplishment. I’d never in my life been able to fully enjoy and engage with this activity in a way that felt authentic to ME. In that moment, I felt like I was truly a kid for the first time. I swam to the edge, cried again, and was welcomed with warm cheers and more hugs.
I left that weekend a changed person. The confidence I gained and the self-love that grew are things I will carry with me forever. I am eternally grateful for my community lifting me up when I was feeling scared and buoying me into an experience I will never forget.
If you are an LGBTQ-Jewish teen in grades 8-12, I hope you will join us this year in helping create that community. While we won’t have swimming available at our upcoming Shabbatonim in March 2018, we will have an amazing time together!
*This program is made possible through the generosity of our supporters: The Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation; E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; Jim Joseph Foundation; Krupp Family Foundation; Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation; Charles and Lynne Schusterman Family Foundation; and Denise Littlefield Sobel.
**Shehecheyanu: Blessed are you, G-d, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.