When Sawyer Goldsmith was elected to the international board of United Synagogue Youth (USY), he made history as the first openly transgender person to serve on it. The position proved to be a launchpad for inclusivity and equality in the Conservative Jewish youth group.
Now, he has been selected as one of three national recipients of the Hacham Lev award from the LGBTQ advocacy organization Keshet. (This organization is not affiliated with the local JUF agency named Keshet, which provides programs for children and adults with disabilities.)
"Transgender teens face tremendous barriers, not only to loving and accepting themselves, but to being at ease and participating as equals in their communities, including in the Jewish community," said Keshet executive director Idit Klein, who praised Goldsmith's "extraordinary courage." The award is designed to reward such courage of LGBTQ people, "who embody hacham lev (heart-wisdom), the concept from the Torah that difficult, holy work requires both skill and spirit, head and heart."
Goldsmith has been involved in Keshet for years, starting as a participant at a Shabbaton. "I really enjoyed the programming. It made me feel really welcomed," he said of his first experience. To help others experience the same feeling, he has been increasingly involved with planning these weekend retreats, culminating with co-chairing the Midwest Shabbaton last fall.
"The main goal of these weekends was to make sure that LGBTQ Jews have a space to be themselves, and that was 100 percent fulfilled," he said of the events. These weekends included social-action and advocacy programs; educational sessions about topics like feminism, mental health, and Israel; and fun programs like an "LGB-Tea party."
In addition to his work with Keshet, Goldsmith has been involved with USY for the past several years. One of his current projects is a short documentary about LGBTQ life in USY; while finding teens to be interviewed and learning about their stories, he shares his own story as the Religion/Education VP on the international board.
"A lot of the work I've done is raising awareness that you can be part of USY, and LGBTQ, and supported, and a leader," said Goldsmith, who also works with USY staff to implement inclusivity policies.
As a member of the international board, Goldsmith has implemented his vision of "bringing religion home" by spearheading initiatives like a 10-day tefillin challenge and interfaith programming with local chapters across the country. These activities are designed to foster camaraderie with other teens who can provide vital support.
"For an LGBTQ USYer, knowing that you have a community around you and there are people there to support you, and you are able to be LGBTQ and Jewish and a part of USY," is central to Goldsmith for his own experience, as well as that of other teens in USY who are discovering themselves.
Goldsmith has also been recognized locally. Last spring, he was selected by Springboard--Chicago's Jewish teen engagement initiative supported by JUF and other local and national organizations-- as one of the 18 Under 18 Honorees selected for their work bringing Jewish values like leadership, tzedakah , and inclusion to Chicago.
Within the Chicago community, he encourages local synagogues, agencies, and more to seek partnership with Keshet when working to include LGBTQ Jews in their own spaces. He advocates for these organizations to receive Keshet training to "be the most inclusive space for everyone, including, but not limited to, LGBTQ people."
"Sawyer is not naturally extroverted, but when you're different, you don't always have the luxury of blending in. He has embraced that challenge," Klein enthused about Goldsmith's advocacy. "He's determined to live as an openly transgender person and a proudly Jewish one, and he's gone above and beyond by being such a visible leader and creating a path for other young people like him."
For more information, visit keshetonline.org.