Dotan Appelbaum may have just graduated from St. Louis Park High School, but he has a big picture plan for the LGBTQ Jewish community in the Twin Cities. Ahead of Pride Festival weekend, Dotan talks about that, his internal struggles with Judaism, and his skills in the kitchen in this week’s Who The Folk?!
I was reading up on you, you’re a gay, Jewish, Republican. You don’t find that combination a lot, do you?
I’m not a Republican. What changed, a lot of it, was the election cycle. I thought I was a Republican for a while, starting in the 8th grade. I had a teacher who encouraged us to question things and do our own research and look at stuff. I was into that and civics. In terms of questioning things, I went away from the liberal norm of my house, school, and community. I realized over the last year that’s not really where I’m at.
Emily Saltzman, the JFCS Minneapolis Community Services Director, nominated you for this. What was the class at Yachad that you met her at?
It’s called “Many Faces.” It’s a class where we look at diversity in the Jewish community, specifically issues of queer people, people of color. It was a lot of us learning about these things and these communities. For some people, it was learning and understanding terminology or different identities.
Through that, did that help you learn something new about the different faces of the community?
I went in with a basic knowledge already. Others didn’t. For me, it was learning about identities that are different than mine and engaging in discussions with people.
When did you come out?
I came out last year.
How did family, friends, and those around you react?
I was very fortunate. People around me reacted very well. Everyone was really accepting. I didn’t deal with anyone that wasn’t accepting or negative towards it. Everyone will deal with implicit heteronormativity or things that are maybe homophobic in ways that people didn’t realize because they didn’t do it with malicious intent.
Through meeting with Emily and your process over the last year, have you gotten involved with J-Pride?
A little bit. I was there at Pride last year. One of the things I’ve wanted to see happen and I know something Emily is working hard on is getting a more involved Jewish teen community. Unfortunately, when we had an event I was at the Keshet Shabbaton. Being at that Shabbaton – I went to both East and West Coast – and being at them highlighted this contrast between the queer teen Jewish community here and other places. The people are there, but the community isn’t. Obviously, they have these communities in Boston, New York or L.A., but they also have them in Westchester or the suburbs of Philly. For some reason we haven’t – I don’t want to say mobilize – but gotten this community active. That’s something I really want to see
The population is there, but what makes a community?
Well, that gets into the question of what is a community. What I see missing is programming that gets attendance. People going to activities and programs that they would have in other places and not have here. Programming specifically for this community. But also the sense of “these people are here, these people are like me.”
I’m not asking you to out anyone, but are the numbers there?
No one exactly knows. There are a lot of Jews; there are a lot of queer Jews. I know plenty in the Twin Cities. There are a lot we don’t know. There are a lot of queer Jews that have a sense of Jewish identity. The question is how do we get to them.
Do you still see yourself falling between Conservative and Modern Orthodox?
My religious identity has gone very back and forth the last couple of years. I grew up in a conservative household that wasn’t very shomer. We would go to synagogue on Saturdays, but we didn’t keep Shabbat, we kept Kosher in the house. The summer going into 9th grade I had this connection at camp where I started being more religious. Then I lost that connection quick. I spent a semester in 10th grade in Israel on TRY, and that connection really came back. I was observant and practicing for about a year, up until last summer. And then last summer brought up a lot of questions. It’s that kind of program where you question everything you believe. I don’t have that foundation right now that I can say ‘I’m this.’ It’s a lot of questioning where I’m at.
Where are you going to school next year?
Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
What do you plan on studying?
We don’t declare. I’m probably going to head towards a civics, or politician science or government.
Talking about what you want to see happen with J-Pride, do you see activism or community organizing in your future?
Potentially. I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate, but maybe doing that work really interests me. It’s something I’m passionate about.
How did being a Bronfman Fellow shape you?
It was a very big experience. Challenging. Amazing at times, difficult at times. It’s really interesting because they put together this group of 26 people from all different backgrounds and beliefs, from people questioning if they’re Jewish to Orthodox with deep foundations. The biggest requirement of you is to question everything. It sort of requires an identity crisis.
Doing it shortly after coming out, did that add or create any confusion?
I think it did. I noticed that I had more ill feelings towards orthodoxy. I was regularly going to Orthodox synagogues and studying with orthodox rabbis before I left, and I haven’t really done that since I got back. There hasn’t been a direct reason, it’s just these reservations I now have. I know they’re reactional, but they’re still there.
Was there any negativity from the Orthodox community when you came out?
I never talked about it with people from that community.
What’s your favorite food to cook?
I don’t have a favorite food to cook. I really enjoy making Moroccan-Israeli food. I’m happy to cook anything. Unless it’s more of a baking thing. I don’t do as well with baking.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Shavuot is a fun one. It’s a really cool holiday that’s a mix of a festival and the cool, intellectual parts of Judaism. Studying but having a good time doing it. House-hopping and having good food.
Favorite Jewish food?
Challah. I’m a fan of bread. Good bread. You’ve got baguettes and sourdoughs. We’ve got challah.