In November 2021, Zak and Elliot Draznin felt spiritually empty. The queer Jewish couple had graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2020 into the mostly-virtual Jewish life of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as Jewish life moved back to in-person programming, something else was missing for the Draznins: a fully queer and Jewish space in Cincinnati. So they decided to create that space themselves – launching Elech: Cincinnati’s Queer Minyan on a Friday evening in December 2021 with just a Facebook event, space at a local LGBTQ center, and roughly 25 attendees.
“We were sort of aimlessly Jewish for a good year and a half,” Elliot said. “When we came up with this idea, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have something to go to every month; we’re going to be able to engage that way.’”
Over the past year, Elech has brought queer Jews together at monthly Shabbat gatherings and LGBTQ-centered services. But now, the Draznins are evolving the initiative, thanks to a Reflect Cincy grant from the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati.
Reflect Cincy funding is meant to increase engagement with underrepresented parts of the Jewish community. (Cincy Jewfolk is a recipient of Reflect Cincy funding.)
Rather than focus on monthly events, Elech will instead host four larger events a year, and partner with existing Jewish organizations for smaller gatherings. Zak is also aiming to be a leading organizer on the community-wide Rainbow Shabbat in 2023, a queer Jewish celebration started this year under the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial.
More specific details are still being worked out as the Draznins figure out the best way to adjust and grow the initiative.
“We’re hoping that through four headline events, we’re able to continue cultivating a deeper and richer Jewish Cincinnati queer community by achieving a critical mass of people in one place,” Zak said. “And for our most loyal and most frequent users, [we’ll] continue to connect them with queer validating experiences.”
Elech grew out of the Draznins’ experience with Cincinnati Hillel, where Zak and Elliot fell in love while heavily involved as students. Both were attracted to Hillel’s pluralistic and non-denominational style of Jewish engagement and leadership. Elliot helped bring Pride Shabbat, Hillel’s celebration of LGBTQ+ Jewish life, to the student center.
Elech is an attempt to take Hillel’s approach and apply it to queer Jews outside of college.
There are “wonderful, queer-accepting synagogues,” Zak said. “Places where yes, we can be our authentic selves, but there was nothing queer-centered [before Elech]. There was no place for anyone else to have Pride Shabbat besides college students.”
So what does centering queerness mean for Elech? One of the biggest examples is the opportunity to make services more personal and impactful.
While many Jews sing the late songwriter Debbie Friedman’s tunes to prayers like Mi Sheberach (the prayer for the sick), participants of Elech actively recall that Friedman was a lesbian and keep in mind issues in the queer community from when the melody was composed.
“We think about [Mi Sheberach] in connection to the AIDS crisis, [and] that prayer takes on so much more meaning,” Zak said. “We’re able to have those conversations and a space that doesn’t begin at ‘what is a queer person,’ but begins at ‘what is my queer Jewish experience.’ When we actually get to have those conversations and connect to God, to the greater community, to each other…in a queer centered and queer-first way, the entire spiritual endeavor transforms.”
But for all the focus on Shabbat and services, Elech isn’t meant to be a synagogue, or in competition with existing synagogues. The Draznins are in the process of joining a synagogue, and don’t see Elech as mutually exclusive.
The couple also aren’t shy about recommending synagogues to Elech participants, they said, though many participants are already congregation members.
Elech is meant as a place “to create the kind of service that we wanted, and to create the kind of spiritual experiences that we wanted,” Elliot said. “We knew we were going to eventually join a synagogue. And that wasn’t what we were trying to recreate.”
Though new, Elech is already making its mark with queer Jews, including beyond Cincinnati. The Draznins have gotten several messages from Jews interested in moving to the Queen City, and new transplants to the area, looking for queer Jewish community.
Elech “is the first point of contact that they have with LGBTQ life and the Jewish life for the rest of the city,” Elliot said. “So that’s been really cool.”
Zak is also seeing local queer Jews come out of the woodwork, people who may be heavily involved in the Cincinnati LGBTQ+ community but haven’t been engaging with their Jewish heritage.
And with other Jewish organizations and leaders, Elech has sparked a deeper conversation about queer Jewish inclusion, Zak said. That wasn’t the Draznins’ intention – Elech was just meant to be a queer Jewish space, not an advocacy vehicle – but it’s still a positive side effect of the initiative.
“What’s coming next is bigger than Elech; continuing conversations about, how do synagogues include LGBTQ people?” Zak said. “How do legacy Jewish institutions in this city install gender neutral restrooms, create membership forms that are gender neutral, create liturgy and ceremonies and lifecycle events that are relevant to the…Jewish young people who identify as LGBTQ in America today? These are real challenges that our institutions are going through. And it’s an opportunity for us to engage in these conversations.”