“If just one kid shows up, you have already made a difference.”
This was all the Bergen Jewish Social Justice Alliance had to hear when it decided to create Dove Lounge, a safe space for LGBTQIA+ teens and allies in grades 7 to 12.
The group began 10 years ago, when Nilene Evans, a retired corporate lawyer from Washington Township who had been deeply involved with state social action groups for many years and had connections throughout New Jersey, decided that it was time to put some of her principles into action. So in 2013, Ms. Evans decided to try to form an alliance with five of the Reform synagogues in Bergen County. As a longtime member of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she saw the need to create a new social action group focused in the county.
“I started to think about two different things,” Ms. Evans said. “One is that there is a need within our county for people to focus on social justice and social action. Two, there’s also a need for the reform congregations to work together. We’re small, but there’s power in numbers. And together, we cover most of the county.”
In July last year, the group, whose members are from Avodat Shalom, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, Temple Emeth in Teaneck, Kol Dorot in Oradell, and Temple Sinai in Tenafly, met to consider what its social action focus should be. The topic of LGBTQIA+ youth came up early in the conversation. (LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual.)
“We all know children and teens who are struggling with their gender and/or sexual identity,” Laurie Rochlin of River Edge said. The group wanted to figure out how to make a difference and provide some comfort and familiarity to Jewish LGBTQIA+ teens. Everyone was on board.
One person on the committee already was involved with the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance, and a representative from that organization was brought in to help advise at early meetings. In December 2022, the representative told the committee, “If just one kid shows up, you have already made a difference.” Starting with that small but important goal made it feel less monumental. Those words also validated their focus, the representative said.
Energized, the committee members began their grassroots mission. Ms. Evans recruited her friend Ms. Rochlin, another Avodat Shalom member, to help get the word out. Ms. Rochlin is an educator and learning consultant on a child study team for middle schoolers. “Nilene knew I had previous experience working in the LGBTQIA+ space, and I was happy to join the committee,” she said.
Inspired by the already existing Rainbow Café, which met in a local Bergen County church on Friday nights, Dove Lounge was opened. It meets on Sunday afternoons. While it is not intended just for Jewish kids – participants from any religious or ethnic background are welcome — it is aimed specifically at Jewish teens. Committee members felt that having the meetings in a synagogue would add some familiarity and comfort for those teens.
The framework came from the teens themselves, as the committee leaders talked to kids from the alliance’s synagogues. “A few teens acted as guides of sort of what it should be like,” Ms. Rochlin and Ms. Evans said. “Yes, we wanted to do this, but it had to be about what the kids wanted — what they wanted it to look like.
“The kids even came up with the name Dove Lounge to represent a place where they could come to hang out, make friends, and just be themselves, and feel that sense of peace the dove represents,” she added.
Dove Lounge needed qualified facilitators. To find them, Ms. Rochlin had to look no further than Temple Avodat Shalom. Sar Starr, a social worker who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, lives in Brooklyn but grew up in Oradell, as a member of Avodat Shalom. The other facilitator, Mark Edelstein, a teacher, grew up in River Edge; like Sar Starr, he belonged to Avodat Shalom as a kid and also is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
With those two facilitators on board, Dove Lounge was nearing reality. “Everything I asked of them was always met with a yes,” Ms. Rochlin said. “I felt like I hit the lottery with their input.”
“We really are blessed to have them,” Ms. Evans added.
Donations of board games, art supplies, and gift cards poured in. Add pizza and dessert, and the first Dove Lounge hangout was held in Temple Avodat Shalom in February 2023. With attendance growing, Ms. Rochlin and Ms. Evans hope that it will really take off. They know that being a teen is hard. And it can be especially hard for LGBTQ+ youth. They hope that the safe space at Avodat Shalom will make a difference.
The Dove Lounge has met five times so far. Each session has had a different theme, each one chosen by the kids. Karaoke, beading, painting, a dance party — the ideas keep coming with enthusiasm. “It’s not so much the activity but it’s about building community,” Ms. Rochlin said. “A safe space for them to be who they are. And not just for the kids but for all of us, really. Connecting with the other synagogues, the people on the committee, their families — it’s about sharing safely.”
The Dove Lounge is an emotionally safe space, where participants can be honest without being judged. The committee also has thought about physical safety; a police officer is stationed outside the synagogue when the Dove Lounge meets. “The donations have been so generous that security is really our biggest expense,” Ms. Evans said. “But it’s necessary for parents to feel comfortable letting the kids come.”
No adults are in Dove Lounge other than the facilitators, Sar Starr and Mark Edelstein. “I just sit in the lobby and say, ‘it’s that way!’ Nobody wants to see old people in the room,” Ms. Evans laughs.
The group is grounded by the traditional Jewish idea that every person is created betzelem Elohim — in God’s image.
“It’s something I didn’t have when I was their age,” Mx. Starr said. (Mx. Starr, who is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns.) Mx. Starr works in a Brooklyn high school as part of a community-based organization so that connection to kids is very much part of their work. “We’ve had just one kid show up all the way up to 12 kids, and it felt equally as meaningful to be there,” Mx. Starr said. “But having many kids is the dream because we want them to hang out with their peers, in addition to having me and Mark there as queer adults.”
At 27, Mx. Starr isn’t much older than the kids who come to Dove Lounge. “I know I would’ve appreciated just getting to talk to people who just got it,” they said. “Being around an adult who has lived it. Dove Lounge is a place where they get to do that. Something like that would’ve at least helped me figure out who I was earlier.
“But we also get teens who know who they are. We have more words and terms than we did when I was their age. But identities change — just as all our identities change as we grow and find out more about ourselves.”
Dove Lounge is not designed to be therapy, but the safety and community it provides certainly can be therapeutic. “Being queer is not the risk factor,” Mx. Starr said. “It’s how people treat you that can be. Having at least one truly supportive adult can make all the difference.”
Cassy Kadesh and her family live in River Edge. Her youngest child, Julian, has attended Dove Lounge. Before the covid lockdown began, Julian, who was assigned female at birth, told Ms. Kadesh that they were gay; during the lockdown, Julian told Ms. Kadesh about being nonbinary. Responding to a request, the parents began to call their youngest child Julian, instead of their birth name. Julian also asked to go back to school once it reopened as Julian, and their parents notified the school about the new name.
The Kadesh family made the changes with support and love, making sure to correct anyone who didn’t respect Julian.
“What I think is important for Dove Lounge and any other program like it is that it offers a place where teens can feel safe and accepted as they are,” Ms. Kadesh said. “It is so hard being a typical teen, and if you don’t fit in your round peg, it can be difficult and lonely. You don’t want to be different.
“My children — we have three children, ages 24, 19, and 15 —are definitely not round pegs. They are more oval. I know it has been hard for them at times to make friends.
“When my middle child was having trouble fitting in, my sister said to me, ‘If you are a weirdo but you know other weirdos you can call friends, you are OK.’ Which I think is true.
“If you don’t have anybody and you don’t know how you fit in the world, it is lonely. But if you have a small group who accept and love you as you are, that’s good. I think it is hard for kids like that to figure out where they belong in teen society, and it is difficult to find their people.
“Dove Lounge gives the LGBTQ+ kids a place to figure out who they are — just like all teens need to. It gives them a group of people they can hang out with, without judgment or hiding who they are.”
Even if a child isn’t ready to hang out at a Dove Lounge event, everyone who is involved with it believes that just knowing it exists makes a real difference. They want to spread the word about Dove Lounge.
Dove Lounge meets at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge monthly. The next meeting is scheduled for October 15, from 4 to 6 p.m. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.