Noah Westreich went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., intending to study international affairs and linguistics. But during his freshman year, Westreich “was pulled into the Jewish community on campus. Since we had so little terms in of organizational oversight, I got to really have a role in shaping [the college’s] Jewish community,” said the 23-year-old from Montclair, N.J., who graduated with a sociology degree on his way to becoming a Jewish communal professional.
Next he spent a year with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., then moved to Washington in 2015 to become director of Jewish engagement for Temple Micah, a Reform congregation.
What are your responsibilities as the director of youth engagement?
I’m responsible for all the educational, religious and cultural programming for [students] who have finished their bar and bat mitzvah year. There are classes taught by the rabbi, social activities with the youth group, volunteer [opportunities]. I’m also the role model for the youth when they come into Temple Micah. I see them at services, I see them at synagogue functions, I’m the one who is supposed to know all of the kids in high school and get them connected and engaged at Temple Micah.
What did you do at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life?
My job was to go around to congregations all around the South. I would teach younger kids, host discussions, tutor bar mitzvah students and just get to be a part of different southern Jewish communities. As a Yankee, it was completely foreign to me. It was a great lesson in American Jewish demography.
Outside of Temple Micah, you’re involved with Svara. What is that?
Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva based in Chicago, and I’ve participated in their Talmud retreats. [For me it] is a true Jewish spiritual home in many senses. They brand themselves as the queer yeshiva, and not queer just in terms of LGBT. It’s for anyone who has an outsider experience in the world that feels like they’ve been cast aside by the mainstream Jewish community. Svara is a place where they can get their hands on traditional text and traditional ideas with their queer perspective.
What does “traditionally radical” mean?
Judaism has always been a radical religion. Since the Temple was destroyed and there was no longer a place to bring sacrifices, there was a group of rabbis who said we can take with us the feeling of this tradition but make it applicable to our modern times. We’re going to say a prayer. People thought that was so ridiculous, because how could you invoke God with your words? Now we see prayer as old fashioned. So the original creation of Judaism and all the iterations of it up until now have been radical in that it’s unrecognizable to the generation before.
Svara says it is traditionally radical because [it acknowledges] that the whole tradition is radical. Our whole people survived because of the radical reinvention of our ancestor’s interpretation of Judaism. If we want to keep up and we want to survive, we have to observe the tradition of being radical.
What attracted you to Svara?
I think there’s a need for it all over the country. It’s the most empowered I’ve felt as a Jewish person. As someone who is proud to be Jewish and likes being Jewish, getting my hands on the Talmud and being told: “You’re coming exactly as you are to this tradition and it’s good, it’s the future.” — It’s so amazing to feel that way and to also feel that way with people of all ages and gender identities and experiences. It was really powerful.
As someone who is openly gay, how do you see the Jewish community and the LGBT community interacting now and in the future?
When I meet someone who is not Jewish, not familiar with the Jewish community and I tell them I’m gay, working in a synagogue and practicing to a certain extent, there’s still confusion about how I can be religious and Jewish. What people know about other faith communities is that [being gay is] not OK at all. In the Jewish community that I’ve grown up in and the one I’m in now, it’s obvious to me that LGBT people have a hand in shaping the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.