This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common thread of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.
Click here for part I in this series. Stay tuned for part III!
Jacob Klein is a queer activist within the Jewish community, originating from San Diego and currently living in the Bay Area. Their activism for queer inclusion and acceptance within the Jewish community, as well as society overall, began at full speed after completing college at UCLA. Jacob remembers, “I moved up to Oakland about three years ago and that’s when I started working in the Jewish world and that’s also when my activism started coming together and flourishing.”
Jacob’s work highlights a fine line that emerges in identity based activism: how does one share themselves in a manner that is productive and creates empathy, while avoiding putting themself in a position where they may be hurt or drained of strength. As Jacob puts it, “I often struggle with how to contextualize my own identity within this work… For me it’s always a balance between the ways that I experience being an outsider and the ways that I have privilege in the world and I am afforded certain modes of power that other people aren’t.”
People are composed of multiple identities that are inextricable, but can indeed act separately to bring you either belonging or exclusion in different circumstances. “It’s always this careful negotiation between ways that I fit in…and can hopefully leverage that for change, and the ways in which I have never really felt like I’m a part of a lot of different aspects of society, and trying to really tap into that within myself when I’m doing work.” As a queer non-binary individual, Jacob has learned to surround themselves with similar-minded people who make them feel safe when they are not doing activist work. “In my personal life I tend to be very insular. My friends and community in the Bay Area particularly are all pretty much queer, and/or, Jewish Progressive. So then I know that I am putting myself into a space where I don’t have to deal with people who fundamentally disagree with me. Because for me that feels like a safety risk. For me when somebody disagrees with me on one of my political beliefs, if we want to be euphemistic, it often is actually an attack on one of my identities.” Although those incognizant of queer politics may come from a stance of genuine curiosity and the drive to feel compassion for queer people, often this means Jacob uses their own life as the site of teaching and explanation. Jacob is willing to do this work in certain environments, as they have prepared themselves for comments that directly criticize or comment on their body and experience, but this takes mental preparation and a lot of internal strength and, as one could imagine, it can be incredibly exhausting and draining to have to explain your own existence to others.
Thus, it is essential for Jacob to set boundaries for themselves, to have “sanctuary” type communities that re-charge them, reinforce them, pick them up and make them feel strong before they do their work with people who do not always make them feel accepted. Not only do friends provide this type of strength for them; Judaism, particularly in the Bay Area, has been a source of power for them. “I have been able to come to my Jewish spirituality as somebody who is able to find and reinterpret things as they work for me… there has already been such a history of predecessors and leaders and shakers and thinkers who have done so much work already to queer Torah and…activise Judaism, and make it a powerful political text…..but that unfortunately is not everywhere, that’s not all of the Jewish society, even in the so-called progressive Bay Area. There are still many spaces where I don’t feel comfortable, and where I don’t get to access the space in ways others do.”
Part of their work with Keshet, a national organization working for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, is to transform such Jewish spaces into ones in which Jewish LGBTQ folks feel safe. Yet, this entails interaction with people who do not always agree with them or understand the basis of their queer identity. Jacob describes a powerful tension within themselves and their work: “Theoretically to…work towards a cohesive, peaceful, democratic future is through … relationships and communication with people who… don’t necessarily have the same ideas and beliefs as you. That to me is both powerful and terrifying…. In my work at Keshet [I run] trainings for Jewish institutions and communities on how to be LGBTQ inclusive. That inherently requires me [to be] in front of a bunch of people talking about things that are dearly held to my heart, to an audience of people that I don’t know, and I don’t know how they are going to react. Usually we have a sense of what the audience’s level of knowledge is, but there are a lot of areas of ignorance, not out of ill will even, but just because there is no familiarity, and that ignorance can lead to questions that, in other situations, would be scary and micro-aggressive.”
Jacob has learned that the most effective means of connecting with people who are actively resistant to or confused by some or much of the queer community is via vulnerability, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and human-to-human connection: “When I’m in those situations I set up a room, hopefully, of confidence, and of a space where we are learning together, where we will treat each other with respect. Things are going to come up that we are not always going to know how to deal with, but we are going to move with them. And so I always enter those situations with as much compassion as I can…Every person has a different set of knowledge and experiences and they are not necessarily going to know that they shouldn’t maybe ask a question in a certain way or that there are just some things that are off the table. I push back in ways that are going to be productive and compassionate and explain things like, ‘Hey, you may have thought this, but actually when the queer community talks about something like this, we think of it in this way.'”
These audiences are most receptive to Jacob’s push back when they share themselves as an example of all the abstract ideas they are trying to get through to their audience. “When I am doing these trainings, often times the most powerful way for me to deliver my message and to do the training and education and connect with people is by sharing myself. By being vulnerable. I think that is one of the most powerful things that there is. And especially when a room is set up appropriately, it’s a huge gesture of trust, and most people really want to reach out to that, and latch on to that, and are deeply appreciative of it, and it resonates with them in a different way.” This type of sharing is crucial when it comes to breaking through walls of prejudice, but Jacob has to continue to walk the line between sharing themselves in a productive manner that opens up their audience while continuing to feel safe. “It’s always finding this bridge of what’s the personal and the private, knowing what I can share with people and what is compassionate for me to share and what is powerful without ultimately damaging myself. Empathy is only good and successful when the kindness that you are showing to others and the pain that you are feeling for others doesn’t damage you at the same time.”
Emily Monforteis a senior at Wesleyan University doing her thesis in Photography, with a double major in Sociology. She is particularly intrigued by the effects of mixing multiple forms of individual representation, both visual and verbal, and how it allows for the multi-faceted truths of an individual to show through. AtTikkunmagazine she has helped to illustrate articles in the magazine with both other people’s as well as her own work, she has designed multiple visual advertisements, and most importantly has created a photographic and written blog series on local Bay Area artists.