Happy Friday! On this week’s Feature Friday, Benjamin talks about what it was like growing up in a very orthodox Jewish community. He discusses how he felt constantly having to hide his sexuality, what he would say to those who believe homosexuality is a sin, and how free he feels today now that he can finally be his true self. His words really moved us, and we found ourselves inspired multiple times while getting to know him, taking in every word. We wanted more! Maybe he should write a book? Take a look below to see what we mean and to learn about Benjamin’s story…
Where are you from? I am from Long Island, New York.
Where do you live? I still currently live on Long Island but attend college in Pennsylvania.
Instagram handle? My Instagram handle is benj_katz
Age: I am 19 years old.
On traveling to South Africa: Traveling is one of my favorite things to do. I must say that South Africa was probably the coolest place I’ve ever been to so far. While the flight is not easy, it was definitely worth it. Aside from the safari that I went on, which was so incredibly special, Cape Town was a different experience in of itself. The beach is breathtaking, the food is delicious, and the people are so kind. My experience in South Africa was everything that a vacation should be. I highly recommend making it out there if you can!
On growing up in an orthodox Jewish community: Before I begin to explain my experience growing up in a modern orthodox Jewish community, it is important for me to disclose that my experience is not indicative of Judaism as a whole. Like all religions, there are sects that follow a very rigid, conservative, set of values. The community I grew up in was exactly that. On that note, growing up in my community was similar to seeing how long you can hold your breath for. Sure, there were aspects that were nice. Every weekend was Shabbat, and the whole family gathered around the table for dinner. We would walk to temple for services, at which my friends and I would run around and play handball, or something to that extent. However, the atmosphere was heavy, and saturated with ignorance. From a very young age I was told to pray from the Siddur (which means bible in Hebrew), how to act, be dressed, and speak. There was little to no room for individuality. Observance of all Jewish holidays and events were a must. If you did not observe, you were looked down upon. If there was any facet of your life that was seen as ‘too secular’ then you were shunned, gossiped about, and the entire town would not let you live it down. So, while the community I grew up in did have positive aspects, the overarching notion was that of unacceptance. You had to conform.
“…growing up in my community was similar to seeing how long you can hold your breath for.”
On going to a Jewish school: Gosh, to this day I don’t know why I chose that. My parents even encouraged me to transfer to a public school after we left my town, but I insisted that I stay. I like to look at things in two different perspectives. On one hand I do think that attending my modern orthodox private school instilled important values, secular and religious. However, on the other hand, I do strongly believe I was continually pushed to conform. I know of only three people, in my school’s entire history, that came out as queer. The first one was openly bullied, and almost kicked out of the school because of it. He was about 6 years before my time at my school. The second person was only a year ahead of me, and he came out just before his senior graduation. He was able to get out quick enough, as to not suffer any consequences. Then, the third person was a girl a year behind me. She came out and added her own individuality to her forced conformity. It was amazing. I was so inspired by her. However, on the other side of things, people I used to call my friends, bashed them. Just for being themselves. It was a constant battle in my school. Kids just did not mind their own business. It was such a different way of life back then. There is one situation in particular that sticks out to me when recounting my experience as a closeted queer man in my high school. There was an app called Whisper. I don’t know if it is still popular. However, it was in my school for a point in time. One kid I was friends with, who was also queer, used it to ask how he should come out to his best friend. For those who don’t know, Whisper allows people to anonymously post questions to your high school page. He told me, and showed me proof, not that I needed to see any, that people were blowing up his phone asking who he was. They were dying to know just who this queer kid could be. Long story short, they found out. One of them posed as another queer closeted guy and found out who he was. They then outed him to the entire school and he was the new talking point for everyone. That didn’t stop until the summer came. It was the winter when this happened. This kind of ridicule swept the school like a plague, and every time I heard about it, my heart sank, worrying that I could be next.
On his religious beliefs today: I am not religious anymore. I grew up in a modern orthodox household, but around middle school I stopped observing modern orthodoxy along with my immediate family. Since then, I’ve been more traditional. The appropriate term for my level of observance is known as conservative Judaism.
On people who say homosexuality is a sin: I’ve experienced this kind of rhetoric many times, both inside and outside of the classroom. At first, I was never sure how to approach it, and that partially was because a part of me believed it was a sin. I always used to think I was broken somehow. However, I’ve grown since then, and to anybody who says that being myself is a sin, well, I feel sorry for them. In the moment I would question them. Maybe it’s because of their upbringing, which because of what I witnessed firsthand, I can’t blame, but I definitely would not pursue a conversation with somebody who can’t accept people different from themselves. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my time dealing with religious individuals, who are stubborn in their beliefs, it is to pick your battles, because you definitely cannot win them all.
On coming out: I came out a year ago, so 18 years old. Until I arrived on my college campus, I had believed that no matter where I went, I would not be accepted. It wasn’t even until a few months into my college career that I realized being queer, being myself, was okay, and treated normally, at least on my college campus. My best friend had known about me since high school, I couldn’t keep myself from telling him. However, when I arrived at college, I made some incredible friends. I was in an environment unlike my high school. There was genuine acceptance. It’s quite funny actually. At first, I couldn’t believe it, I was in denial. My good friend kept telling me, “dude no one cares here, seriously.” No matter how many times I heard that from him, I could not accept it. I was stuck in the mentality that everyone was out to get me. Coming out was known to be social suicide at my last school. Why would this one be any different? I came to realize that my friend was right. I needed to be myself, and the more I thought about staying closeted, the more it started to chip away at my well-being. So, I took that incredibly anxiety riddled step of not caring. I say it like this because I did not come out in the way most people do. I didn’t post about it on social media, nor did I tell the world. I just simply let go. I stopped caring, and when/if people asked me about my sexual orientation, I stopped lying. I stopped giving excuses for why I was texting a boy I thought was cute. I stopped killing myself over if I was ‘straight enough’ or not. I just let it all go. To my surprise, it went extremely well. Of course, there were a few instances of push back, but nothing major. I was genuinely surprised at how well my friends and family took it. The most common response I got was “okay that’s cool.” Since then, I have been the happiest I’ve ever been.
“I learned a lot about myself, and part of me thinks that’s because until I came out, I didn’t really know who I was in the first place. My life revolved around making sure my secret didn’t get out. However, after I was out, my life became about me.”
On making his life about him: I learned a lot about myself, and part of me thinks that’s because until I came out, I didn’t really know who I was in the first place. My life revolved around making sure my secret didn’t get out. However, after I was out, my life became about me. Which felt completely unnatural, but because I was finally living in my own skin, and not the façade I had put up, I learned so much about myself. I obtained a newfound passion for the outdoors. I’m currently the Vice President of the outdoors club at my college and attend all kinds of weekly trips. There’s just something about that breath of fresh air that gets me, whether it be down rapids, or on the peak of a valley, I can’t get enough. I also found myself smiling more. I know this sounds so cliché, but finally being able to walk around in your own skin does something miraculous to the soul. I was in a constant state of worry, looking over my shoulder, and all of sudden I wasn’t. It takes courage to be yourself, and that was something I also learned about myself. I was never brave as a kid. I grew up being the cautious one, the one who never wanted to go out on an adventure, but now, I crave adventure. I started to seek out those adventures, those new friends, the unknown. Coming out feels a lot more rewarding then most people think.
On his advice to those struggling to come out: My biggest piece of advice is that your story is for you and you only. It is your information to share and should be on your own grounds and no one else’s. Never let anyone strip you of your identity. Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are, or that your undeserving in any shape or form. No matter what you’re going through, always know that there are other people who have been there, and we are with you every step of the way!
On his unfinished bucket list: I love the water and beaches, I could lay out on one all day. With that being said, I’ve always wanted to go to Catalina Island off the coast of California.
On his biggest inspiration: I honestly don’t have one particular person that I look up to as an inspiration. There are so many strong and brave people that I am inspired by. I am inspired by all the fearless souls who stand up for what is right. Every single day I aspire to be like them.