by Gabriel Blau
In our new normal, every day brings new threats to our civil liberties. The attacks and potential attacks are too numerous to keep track of. This week, in addition to weakening our stand in the international community, right here at home the administration is weakening our commitment to civil rights. In Alabama, the faith of some adults is granted priority over the needs of youthwho need homes. And in Texas, a similar effort that denies the needs of kids is under way. This all comes after the Trump administration revoked hard-won and common sense guidance to protect trans youth in schools, arguably the most marginalized population in America. That comes on top of other Trump policies and orders that incite increased public abuse of people of color and immigrants (also, science, facts, free press, health care, etc.).
This is an era in which the American values of freedom, justice, and liberty are being put to the test. The gains in civil rights made since the 1950s are threatened in ways so obvious and direct that it’s hard to comprehend as real. In a time when, thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists, we were finally beginning to have what looked like a sustained conversation on race and intersectionality, we suddenly feel we’re moving backward.
More than ever, we hear the call: Rise up and come together. Sometimes we do both at once, and sometimes these are necessarily separate activities. We are obligated to lace up and get out there, put pen to paper, or take to the streets, the phone lines, and social media. We have no choice but to dedicate our time and energy to our values every possible moment to protect ourselves and our children. But to do this, to burn our candles at both ends, as it were, we must also find time to nourish and rejuvenate. If we don’t partake in self-care on personal and community levels, we can’t sustain the drive needed. We must feed the humanity behind the work, addressing the needs they and we have every day. We need to address both the struggles that existed before this election and the challenges of this work itself. One fight did not end so that this one may begin. The difference is that now it is bigger, more threatening, and impacting more of us.
I am exhausted, and almost everyone I know is too. And so I recall the lessons learned from countless conversations with fellow activists across the country, but especially those in black and brown communities who have long lived the life many of us are now only getting a taste of. They teach how to do that self-care. For those of us with privilege, it’s a notion that may seem “soft,” but to those of us without, it is about survival.
Last summer I was invited to be an activist-in-residence at a retreat for families like mine. All the families either had LGBTQI parents or LGBTQI children. We were there to spend Shabbat together, feeding our Jewish communal needs in a rare space for and by us. I’ve been part of many of these kinds of programs, including years on the faculty of Nehirim, a now-defunct organization that created retreats for queer Jews, and as executive director of the Family Equality Council, where a key element of our theory of change was creating and supporting community. Each of these “instant communities” served each attendee differently. For some, it was life-changing; for others, it was no more than a weekend away with friends and without judgment. These programs are a space where you can assume acceptance and understanding. They are a refueling station, an escape from the glances and questions, the assumptions and accusations, that pepper our lives.
As we drove into the Berkshire Hills Eisenberg Camp last Labor Day, my husband turned to me and said, “You owe me. Big.” I’d dragged him to many of these kinds of things — and the idea of ending our summer with a bunch of strangers was not at the top of his priorities before getting back to the real world. We unloaded our stuff and took a deep breath of the Berkshire air.
What unfolded was, for us, a retreat and rejuvenation of the greatest kind. It was a soothing balm during an election we could hardly comprehend. The conversations were easy but not shallow. The children, a variety of colors and ages and with a variety of family stories, roamed the hills, swam in the lake, and circled the campfires in the most natural way. The adults talked about adoption, civil rights, our favorite recipes, and the challenges, awesomeness, excitement, exhaustion, diffculties, and opportunities of being parents. We also talked about nothing at all, biking through farmlands and climbing a to a zipline so that our kids could cheer us on,and make fun of us for being scared. It was one of those experiences, so well-crafted that it felt not crafted at all. You looked around and had trouble believing it’s only been 24 hours since you first met these people.
I used to work at retreats for an organization called Nesiya. At one of them, the founder wrote on a wall, “A retreat is the act of stepping back to move forward.” More of us need these retreats these days. We need opportunities to build community, feel safe and secure, and breathe. Perhaps we all should have been activists before November 8, but most of us certainly are now. If we’re going to keep it up, we need to take care of ourselves, body and soul.
My family is lucky to have many incredible communities. We have a diverse group of friends, a diverse school community, and diverse synagogue. Still, we’re heading back to Berkshire Hills for the LGBTQI Jewish Family Camp in August.
Even in our world in which we don’t always seem like strangers, Family Camp is welcome. I can’t imagine what it feels like for families who feel like strangers most of the time, but I bet camp feels awesome. So we join the other families to be renewed and help renew others through listening and talking and caring. It’s how we keep the hope of lived equality for all going. Personally, I couldn’t do what I do without experiences like these. So for this multiracial Jewish LGBTQI activist New Yorker family, that means camp over Labor Day weekend.