I Wanted a Place Where I Could Be My Full Jewish Lesbian Self — So I Made One

Creating "Gay Shabbat" taught me that my identities feel more complete when joined together as one.

I spent the first week of June baking challah. It was probably the twentieth time I’d baked challah this year, but this time felt different.

I was hired to bake a rainbow challah for Pride Month by a woman I met the week prior at a particularly important Shabbat dinner. As I wove each colored strand together, I felt an overwhelming amount of emotion and began to cry. I stood there in my pride-themed apron, with color stained hands from hours of kneading dough and began to reflect on my coming out experience — not only as a queer person, but also as a Jew.

Growing up, I felt no true connection to my Jewish identity. I became a bat mitzvah and though that symbolizes the beginning of Jewish adulthood, it felt like the end of my journey. I wasn’t surrounded by a Jewish community and didn’t understand its greater purpose or cultural implications that plant deep roots into peoples’ lives.

It wasn’t until college that I intentionally immersed myself in a Jewish space, when I became a regular at Michigan State Hillel. On the last Shabbat of my senior year, I found myself crying; I was afraid that this was the last Shabbat I was ever going to celebrate. I began to understand the greater impact of community that this space had allowed for — and also realized that I also had the tools and resources to recreate it on my own.

Around the exact same time, I was also beginning to understand another facet of my identity.

The first time I said out loud that I felt I was queer was during Passover Seder my senior year of college. Coincidentally, as I began to understand the true meaning of the holiday, how the Israelites freed themselves from slavery to embrace their own identity, I was in the beginning stages of breaking out into my own too. And it was extremely painful and difficult.

Everything suddenly happened at light speed. I was supposed to spend my first year after college living in New York City with my boyfriend of five years, but instead I chose a different path. The main thing I remember from that time is being plagued by confusion, isolation and the unknown.

I felt the only person I could turn to was myself. This time forced me to look inwards and question: Who do I want to be? What do I want more of in my life?

Over the course of the next year, I began to remember that the Jewish community centered me. I turned to Judaism to feel a sense of belonging, not realizing that would naturally allow me to feel more secure in my queerness.

When Rosh Hashanah next rolled around, I was incredibly adamant about going to services, in a way I had never been before. My family did not even belong to a synagogue, so my dad and I attended services at a friend’s congregation, which has now become a tradition every High Holiday season. And more importantly, after services we also go to a deli to get Dr. Browns and pastrami on rye.

Though I began to find pockets of myself within the Jewish and queer communities, the first time I truly felt comfortable simultaneously expressing them was the following summer, July of 2023.

Through Jewish geography (everyone’s favorite game), I met my now best friends, Jakob and Blake. At the time, they were the only queer Jews I knew in the city.

We connected deeply and immediately; it wasn’t unusual for the three of us to close down a restaurant, lost in a perfect mixture of laughter, deep conversations and nonsense. It is now so obvious to me that we understood each other in a very specific way because of our multiple shared identities.

That summer, we became not only best friends but also co-founders. We created Gay Shabbat, a nonprofit organization that hosts Shabbat dinners for LGBTQIA+ Jewish New Yorkers. What began as a way for us to expand and explore our own connections within these communities exponentially blossomed into something greater than ourselves.

I didn’t understand the need for a community like this until it was right in front of me. After our first Shabbat, there was a near immediate demand for more. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones who had been feeling the absence of a space dedicated to queer Jews, not just accepting of us but made explicitly for us, by us.

The eleven months since Gay Shabbat’s inception have been filled with a whirlwind of our queer Jewish community skyrocketing from just the three of us to more than 400 members, learning more about both affiliations than I could ever have imagined and even meeting my girlfriend.

On May 31 of this year we celebrated ‘Erev Pride’ to close out Jewish Heritage Month and ring in Pride Month together. As I uncovered my rainbow challah and Jakob passed me the microphone to welcome in Shabbat, I stared out into a sea of faces, ranging from people I had known for months to some I had met just seconds prior.

The two most important parts of who I am shined so brightly in that moment. In the past, I had always been uncomfortable confidently claiming my identities; I always thought that there was a ‘right’ way to be Jewish or a ‘correct’ way to be queer. My journey and the creation of Gay Shabbat have taught me that these identities are not only limitless, but feel more complete when joined together as one.

That’s what challah symbolizes to me: the weaving together of my identities and passions, showing their unity. After it’s braided and baked, any one strand cannot be separated. I am a proud lesbian Jewish woman; these are undeniable parts of me that were once separate strands, but over the last two years, have become one. A challah is whole, and so am I.

Julia Bretschneider

Julia Bretschneider (she/her) is a co-founder of Gay Shabbat and a professional baker. A Long Island native, Julia now lives in NYC and works as a Social Media Manager at Maxwell Social.

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