Retreat a guiding light for LGBT and queer Jews

Chaya Rivka Mayerson hadn’t been to synagogue in nearly two years when she went to a retreat last year aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews.

The retreat had a profound effect on her.

Mayerson, who identifies as queer, started learning Hebrew again and created a Shabbat chavurah with about 15 other female queer Jews. She met many of them at last year’s Nehirim retreat, which was held in Petaluma and drew around 90 people.

BAlgbt retreat Dev Noily

Dev Noily

“It was very inclusive, very warm, and you didn’t have to worry about telling your coming-out story,” said Mayerson, a San Francisco resident. “It takes off a layer of stress to be in an environment where you don’t have to explain yourself.”

The second annual Nehirim West retreat will be held May 8 to 10, again at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma. It’s the undertaking of Jewish Mosaic and Nehirim, a national organization that provides spiritual and cultural community for LGBTQ Jews and their partners and allies.

Mayerson is excited to attend again this year. “I want to learn more,” she said. “I really deepened my spirituality last year.”

Nehirim means “lights” in Hebrew. The organization has held retreats in New York and Connecticut since being founded in 2004; in March 2008, it branched out to the Bay Area.

“All Jews have this task — to engage with our tradition in ways that speak to our lives. And for queer people, that need is more front and center,” said Dev Noily, coordinator of the West Coast retreat and a rabbinical student in Philadelphia.

This year’s retreat in Sonoma County will bring together a diverse community: people ranging in age from 18 to 73; Orthodox and secular; singles, couples and families; affiliated and unaffiliated Jews; rabbis and political activists.

“It’s a good melting pot of backgrounds and personalities,” Mayerson said.

Workshop topics include queer theology, Chassidic music and social justice activism.

Max Strassfeld, a 32-year-old doctoral student at Stanford University for the past three years, will teach a workshop on gender diversity and the Talmud. However, what he’s most excited about is being a student.

“There’s something powerful about being in room full of queer Jews bringing their creative and spiritual energy,” Strassfeld said. “I’m excited to be a presenter, but I’m also excited to learn from everyone who will be there.”

Shabbat services will range from meditative to traditional egalitarian — and include a hiking option. On Saturday, all will come together for the Torah service.

“There’s a tremendous amount of creativity and energy among [LGBTQ] people, but they’re broadly spread out in the world,” Noily said. “Bringing all that energy together in one place is a tremendous treasure.”

Nehirim West takes place May 8-10 at Walker Creek Ranch, 1700 Petaluma Marshall Road, Petaluma. $200-$400. Financial aid available. More information: www.nehirim.org/west.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.