Who The Folk?! Heather Renetzky

For the first time, J-Pride is hosting a Community Summit, which will bring together LGBTQ and allied teens and adults to connect and gain tools around self-advocacy, and to engage in difficult conversations. Heather Renetzky, the J-Pride program coordinator, has been instrumental in pulling it all together. Find out more about it and learn all about Heather in this week’s Who The Folk?! 

Are you originally from the Twin Cities area? How did you end up here?

I’m originally from Los Angeles. I came here to go to Macalester and stuck around after graduating.

How did you first get involved with J-Pride and the LGBTQ Jewish community here in Minneapolis?

It’s hard to think of the exact origin. I’m Jewish and queer myself so I started as a J-Pride participant. As an undergrad, I went to a few events, and I was just really excited that there was an organized group of Jewish LGBTQ folks in the Twin Cities. In terms of how I got to the position of J-Pride program coordinator, that’s a little more complicated. But the short version is that it was a role that fed into my passion for creating welcoming Jewish spaces for queer and trans folks. Long story short, here I am.

Will this year be the first J-Pride Community Summit?

This is our first-ever community summit, which is really exciting. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time in communication with community partners about what they wanted to see from J-Pride. What became abundantly clear were two things. There is a real thirst for learning about how to create inclusive spaces, and we really need to be doing more to support teens and youth. The J-Pride Community Summit will be an opportunity to do both of these things. It’s a chance for LGBTQ and allied adults and teens to come together, build community, and gain concrete tools around self-advocacy. We’ll also spend time in small groups, diving into conversation around “what’s next” for our individual congregations or organizations in terms of becoming more inclusive.

What are the biggest issues among Jewish LGBTQ youth and young adults right now?

It’s a little difficult for me to say because I’m not an LGBTQ youth. What I can say, is that I think LGBTQ youth will always struggle in a way that is different than adults. While adults have the autonomy to seek out and choose welcoming places and welcoming communities, teens and kids don’t necessarily have that option.

Something that’s definitely in the national spotlight right now is the conversation around bathrooms in schools. But we can’t forget that inclusion is about so much more than bathrooms, both in the Jewish community and beyond. It’s about not feeling obligated to marry a “nice Jewish boy” or a “nice Jewish girl” based on your assumed gender and sexuality. It’s about having your religious school (and day school) teachers use the right pronouns for you. It’s about being able to come out in your youth group without feeling isolated and alone. Even with the Hebrew language, it’s a gendered language, and that’s something we should be thinking about. I was just talking to [a rabbi] about this … Being called up to the bima is supposed to be this big honor, but if someone identifies as gender-queer or non-binary it can be painful to hear themselves referred to as a gender that doesn’t match the way they feel. I think there’s a big misconception that since we’ve come such a long way in embracing the LGBTQ community, we don’t have any more work to do. And that’s just not true.

Why is it important for Jewish LGBTQ folks and allies to come together and discuss issues like this?

I think it’s important to be in a room together because we’re not going to complete this work or do good work without coming together. For me as a queer person, it’s one thing to feel supported by other people who identify similarly. But it’s a whole other level of support to have straight folks stand up and say, “Hey, I see you, and you matter.” Especially in the context of the summit, I think it can be really powerful for a teen to see their rabbi or their youth director present. It sends a message that they are loved and supported, that this person cares about them as an LGBTQ young person. At the end of the day, all of us, no matter what our gender and sexuality, are one Jewish community, and so we need to be doing this work together.

What do you think the relationship is between LGBTQ issues and Jewish issues? Do the two identities overlap?

LGBTQ issues are Jewish issues. I think the fact that there are so many LGBTQ Jews is evidence enough that the Jewish community needs to be thinking about queer and transgender inclusion. If you look at Jewish texts, even the Torah lifts up gender diversity. It’s a little known fact, but there are at least six different genders represented in the Torah. To reference a more well-known Jewish concept, the often quoted idea that we are all created in the image of God feels relevant to me. No matter what a person’s gender, sexuality, race, socio-economic status, ability, etc., we need to honor and respect them as a creature of God. You don’t have to look very hard to find Jewish texts and values that mandate us to be inclusive.

A lot of recent politically-motivated hate crimes have targeted Jews and LGBTQ individuals in particular. Within the Jewish LGBTQ community, what steps are being taken in response to these incidents?

When I think about the Jewish LGBTQ community, I don’t think of it as a silo. I think of LGBTQ Jews as being part of the larger Jewish community. So in this way, I think it’s better to focus on what the Jewish community is doing as a whole. Responding to these incidents is about coming together as a community in solidarity, and it’s about maintaining and growing connections beyond the Jewish community. Recently, Jewish Community Action held an interfaith solidarity event that was really powerful, and I think events like the J-Pride Community Summit allow us to do some internal reflecting and coming together on how we can support each other now and in the future. At the end of the day, what matters is that we continue to care and we continue to come together, no matter what laws are being passed or who is in power.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Probably Rosh Hashanah. I really love the chance to kind of reset and reflect at the beginning of the new year. I also just love the community of Rosh Hashanah. I think the community aspect is a little tainted on Yom Kippur because everyone’s really hangry, but on Rosh Hashanah everyone’s in a good mood.

Favorite Jewish food?

I feel like it’s probably matzo ball soup. It’s hard to go wrong with matzo ball soup.

For more information on the J-Pride Community Summit, check out the event’s website.

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Eliana Schreiber is a TC JewFolk Guest Author

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