The Nehirim East Retreat poster

Gay Jews celebrate their faith and sexuality at Conn. retreat

FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. (RNS)  Jews from across the country have converged on the Nehirim retreat for a weekend of prayer and reflection. They come from different branches of Judaism, but they share one thing in common: They are "queer."

The Nehirim East Retreat poster

The Nehirim East Retreat poster

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“It’s a chance to step into one’s self fully and be completely Jewish and queer at the same time,” said Corey Friedlander, who has attended every retreat since 2004 and is now chair of the Nehirim board of directors.

Nehirim, which develops programs, campus events, and advocacy work for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Jewish community, began hosting retreats at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center as a way for gay Jews to celebrate their dual identities. This year's 10th anniversary retreat begins Friday evening (March 7) and ends Sunday.

Rabbi Debra Kolodny, the executive director of Nehirim, said the retreat is a place where no one feels diminished or ashamed. Every person feels blessed.

“We go beyond mouthing the words of welcome,” she said. “We celebrate our unique strengths and gifts. It’s a true celebration.”

Some go to reclaim their faith, having left Judaism when they came out. Others, such as secular Jews not used to prayer services, find their spiritual selves. The retreat staff is as diverse as the participants and includes Orthodox Jews.

Seth Morrison, who belongs to the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, said the retreat offers a safe place for Jews from all sexual orientations and traditions.

“For me the retreats are spiritually meaningful,” said Morrison, who lives in Virginia. “And for those who come from a branch of Judaism that is less understanding, it’s a place to feel empowered.”

Ranging in age from 20 to 80, participants spend the weekend worshipping in song and prayer and partaking in the rituals of their faith. They attend spiritual workshops and small groups where participants express themselves freely in staff-guided discussions. Parents, spouses and partners are welcome. Non-gay Jews may participate as well.

“We look at Judaism through the lens of a queer," Friedlander said, “and at being queer through a Jewish lens.”