Coming out into our souls
August 1, 2012 | 3:00 pm
(Updated: January 17, 2013 | 2:36 pm)
By Andie Lyons
Kareen McCollough, 36, has always had a soul that is Jewish and lesbian, even though she didn’t realize it until a few years ago. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for us to understand who we have always been. Though her path to her truest self has been a long and winding one – crossing miles, communities and identities – Kareen is grateful for the trip. “When I realize how far I’ve come,” Kareen said, “I’m extraordinarily thankful to have had the experience I have had – all the pain, all the sorrow, and all the joy. It has made me who I am today.”
Growing up in a conservative Christian family in the south, Kareen fell in love with the heroes she read about in the Bible. This love led her to a pre-seminary major in college, where she first connected those legendary figures to the culture of Judaism through a Hebrew language class. That language spoke to her in a profound way, confirming something she had always known but never been able to name. “I felt like my soul was Jewish, and that I belonged with the Jewish people.”
Kareen came to an understanding of her sexual orientation in a strikingly similar way. She grew up enamored with other girls; convinced she would grow up to marry a woman. Her love for women didn’t seem strange to her, and she assumed other people felt the same way. It wasn’t until she was 19 and in college that she had a word to describe that love. Unfortunately, coming out as gay did not come with the same joy and acceptance that would accompany converting to Judaism some 14 years later. Coming into ourselves is not always met with the love it deserves.
Kareen spent her first years as an out lesbian in a Christian community intent on praying away her sexual orientation through “scriptures, accountability and a lot of shame.” When she realized that God either couldn’t – or wouldn’t – change her attraction to women, she left the church and, so she thought, her spiritual life. “I felt like I had thrown away something that had once been valuable, that was now forever blemished beyond repair and without value. I truly felt I had lost everything, including my future.” Although she believed the homophobic lies told by her Christian community, she determined that “living a life that was considered miserable by most people was better than not living at all.”
Kareen’s first contact with LGBTQ communities proved that there were other battle scarred warriors like herself – people who had been hurt by, and left, their religious communities. She made attempts to find a bridge between the faith of her childhood and her identity as a lesbian, but was unable to breech what felt like an impossible chasm. “For the next 10 years, I stayed away from organized religion. After my experience, I never felt comfortable in a church again.”
But our souls know what we can’t name, and 10 years later Kareen found herself seeking a spiritual outlet again. The love of Hebraic culture, language and ritual that she had found in her Christian seminary classes crept back in, and she found herself contemplating converting to Judaism. The pull became stronger when she found a degree of acceptance in Judaism that she hadn’t experienced in the Christian communities she had been a part of in her past. “Even in Orthodox communities, I have been welcomed regardless of my identity as a lesbian.” For Kareen, being Jewish means being connected to a family that stretches back 4000 years or more. “I found that being Jewish meant being part of a culture that included a foundation on Halacha (law), but also finding a connection to the divine that was ancient and spiritual in a way that I had never experienced.”
Like many of us, Kareen has spent years finding out what she always knew, but there is much to be gained from traveling the path before us – however we walk it and wherever it leads. “Before, I thought God had a plan for my life and that if I just did the right thing and made myself available through prayer, that path would become clear for me. When I view God through Jewish eyes, I see that it is up to me to make my own path and choose who I will become.” Kareen has come out into her Jewish soul, and found there a space for the rest of her to exist as well. “When I look back to see the path that has brought me where I am, and how far I have come,
I say the Shehecheyanu blessing:
Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu
Me-lech ha-o-lam she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu
vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”