Australian Jewish youth groups make a home for non-binary young people | +61J

Australian Jewish youth groups make a home for non-binary young people

By Ruby Kraner-Tucci

September 1, 2023

From co-ed camp rooms to degendered Hebrew, non-binary inclusion is becoming a high priority for some Jewish youth movements. RUBY KRANER-TUCCI reports.

Attending a youth movement is a rite of passage for many Jewish Australians. Finding a like-minded tribe, connecting to community and creating memories that last a lifetime – youth movements are often bonding experiences.

For those who identify as non-binary, finding safe and welcoming spaces to explore one’s identity is particularly important. Thankfully for them, Jewish youth movements in Australia are responding in spades, prioritising inclusion in all areas of programming, policy and leadership.

Federal Chairperson of Netzer Australia Avishai Conyer, 21, believes his generation is leading the way. Jewish youth movements “should serve as an example to the rest of the community on inclusivity”, he said.

“Youth movements are such special places for young Jews to build their identity, so it is our role to create safe spaces for kids to be themselves, feel included and grow to become active and passionate values-driven members of our community,” Conyer told Plus61J Media.

For Netzer Australia, this comes in the form of queer programs including LGBTIQ+ sex education; asking participants and leaders to introduce themselves using their preferred pronouns; and co-ed camp bunks for those in year 11 and above.

“As we do not split chanichimot [campers] by gender in any other aspects of our programming, it no longer made sense to do so with rooming arrangements for our older participants,” Conyer said.

“[We] will support kids below that age with different rooming preferences to find an arrangement that everybody is comfortable with.

“We have found that this leads to fewer social splits based on gender, promotes dignity and increases respect between kids of different genders, and supports non-binary participants to feel more included in Netzer spaces.”

“I’ve never felt at odds between my Jewish identity and my non-binary identity at Netzer. If anything, it’s celebrated.”Theo Boltman

Theo Boltman, 17, has been attending Netzer since grade five and identifies as non-binary. They say the offering of co-ed bunks for older participants “makes it easier” – an experience that differs from other circles of their life.

“When I go on school camps, I have to send a list of girls’ [names] I’m comfortable sharing a room with, and then the school has to get approval from those girls’ parents,” Boltman said.

“While at Netzer, it’s never an issue. I never have to worry about being uncomfortable because I know everyone is in the same boat, it’s been amazing.”

Raffy Blay is personally aware of the impact of inclusive leadership in Jewish youth groups. Blay started attending Hashomer Hatzair – affectionately termed Hashy – at 13 years old and “instantly found connection and purpose”.

Almost a decade later, Blay is now its Central Coordinator and identifies as non-binary, helping to represent gender diversity in Hashy’s upper echelons.

“[It is] a huge privilege to be the leader of the movement and non-binary, and to take up space in the community holding this identity,” Blay said.

Like Netzer, Hashy runs a number of initiatives to promote inclusivity, from using gender neutral Hebrew suffixes to permitting co-ed rooms on camps.

While on the whole, the youth group has experienced little pushback about its welcoming agenda from the broader Jewish community, Blay identified some negative engagement on social media when endorsing Hashy’s annual Queer Night event. Thankfully, Blay said “nothing eventuated from it”.

“Letting kids be kids and not emphasising their gender as a point of difference works to build respectful relationships,” they added.

“The years spent in a youth movement are incredibly formative and important, and everyone should have the opportunity to have that experience.”

The visibility of non-binary leaders resonates with Boltman, who says embedding inclusion from the top down has helped to form an “incredibly supportive” environment for participants at Netzer.

“The whole point of Jewish youth groups is that it’s the space where Jewish people can find each other in a sea of, for lack of a better word, goys – a sea of people who aren’t like you,” Boltman said.

“It can be so hard, especially for Jewish kids going to public schools, to find [other] Jewish kids in the first place and for them to be non-binary too. It’s so important that their identities be prioritised.

“I’ve never felt at odds between my Jewish identity and my non-binary identity at Netzer. If anything, it’s celebrated.”

While co-ed bunkrooms have been accepted as a standard offering by some Australian youth groups, the US scene has been slower to embrace them. Only a handful of Jewish camps surveyed in the US have non-gendered bunk rooms as an option, let alone a standard offering.

Hashy campers (supplied)

Of 153 Jewish overnight camps surveyed recently in the US, 90 say they welcome transgender and nonbinary campers. Most allow them to choose the bunk that best fits them but don’t offer a non-gendered option.

Another way inclusion is expressed is through changes is language, an issue that is even more potent in the heavily gendered Hebrew language than in English.

Netzer’s global parent movement, Netzer Olami, recently implemented a gender-inclusive form of Hebrew through an Israeli-led initiative that aims to de-gender language.

Conyer uses the mixed gender term chanichimot, a blend of chanichim (male campers or student) and chanichot (female), where previous generations would have followed the language convention of subsuming females under male language and ignoring those who didn’t fit.

But when it comes to prioritising other forms of inclusion, such as disability, youth groups are still struggling. 

Netzer has policies around choosing physically accessible campsites and spaces for activities, but Conyer says its volunteers lack much-needed practice and understanding.

“While disability inclusion is very important to us, our young volunteers do not have much experience working with kids with disabilities,” he said.

“We try to provide as much training as possible and would like our programming to be accessible to all, [but] our lack of professional experience means there are some people we do not yet know how to fully include, despite our best efforts.”

Blay said many members of Hashy have been active in vocalising their desire to increase disability inclusion by making its building more wheelchair accessible and hiring Auslan interpreters for events, in addition to the camp sensory room and fidget toys already on offer.

“No one should miss out on Hashy if we can help it. We work hard to find ways to include everyone in our activities and accept everyone for who they are.” 

Photo: Hashy campers with a rainbow version of the youth group flag (supplied)

Purim was the one day I wasn’t in disguise | AJN


Purim was the one day I wasn’t in disguise

From Purim to the Pride March.

March 17, 2022, 11:16 am

ON Purim – a day when it is customary to hide your true identity – I found mine. As the fifth child in a family of eight, I struggled with my own identity both within my family and our closed ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel community.

Conforming to the strict dress codes expected by my family and surrounding community did not agree with my core perception of self.

Back then, I was considered what you’d call a “tomboy”. I loved to be active. I loved running. I loved climbing trees. I felt absolute discomfort in skirts, stockings (no matter the weather) and “girlie things”.

Riding a bike for girls was not allowed due to modesty codes, but I still managed to get some time on my brother’s bicycle every now and then and I loved it.

George was my favourite character in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels. With her short black cropped hair, her competency and her sense of adventure. I loved how everyone accepted her. She was “one of the boys”. I wanted to be George.

As a child, I didn’t have the language nor did I understand that my resistance to wearing skirts wasn’t only about the sense of feeling stifled from a religious perspective. It was also taking away my capacity to understand and explore my identity. My visceral rejection to the clothing wasn’t only because I didn’t understand the religious expectations. It wasn’t that I was a rebel. It just didn’t feel like I was a girl like the other girls around me.

After age three, I could no longer wear pants. That’s the age girls begin adhering to dress codes. Compulsory long sleeves and high-necked tops. I felt discomfort and suffocated. My ability to understand my identity was stifled.

Looking back at my childhood, Purim was the only day I could dress to match the way I felt. To be able to wear a pair of my brother’s pants for the day and dress up as a “boy” dresses, was always the highlight of the year for me.

It felt like a sin yet gave me a sense of liberation. Just for the day.

I now understand that my younger self’s sense of freedom in wearing boys’ clothing had a lot to do with my identity as non-binary.

I believe it was actually a positive saving grace that sexuality and the concept of gender non-conformity was non-existent. There was no language around for such expressions or conversations. That kind of subject matter was never discussed.

Nobody in my family or community could accuse me of being “evil” – at least that part hadn’t been tainted for me.

All of us wear masks at times, to hide ourselves away. Masks protect us. We are forced to wear masks to fit in with society.

But my experience was feeling forced to be dishonest. It’s a strange contradiction, not revealing who I was, was the mask I needed to wear – for self-preservation and protection.

Clothing is not just clothing. It tells a story. Clothing can be used as a “mask”. Clothing can be used to enhance. Clothing can be used as a statement of self-expression. Wearing a skirt feels so incongruous with who I am. Then again, there are days when I feel more feminine. And on those days, I feel a lot more comfortable wearing a skirt, wearing a pretty top and sometimes even putting make up on.

But on those days, when it is my choice to wear more typically feminine clothing, I am wearing them because I am being true to the essence of myself. Not because it’s being forced upon me by religious values.

Every Purim, I personally celebrate the recognition of finding my identity. It falls on my birthday and as such is my true “anniversary”. Purim is also a day when I celebrate my younger self’s sense of exhilaration, striding out of my childhood family home, dressed as a boy.

In a similar way, I felt absolutely elated when I marched under the banner of Pathways Melbourne with the Jews of Pride parade for the first time, wearing the clothes I wanted to wear.

Being surrounded by a diverse group of Jewish and non-Jewish people, each with their own senses of identity – all of us accepting of one another as a colourful member of our broad community. Each with our own story and history of how we “arrived” together.

Dassi Herszberg is a member of the Pathways Melbourne advisory panel and a qualified art therapist and counsellor. For further information, visit

Publisher snaps up writer Roz Bellamy’s memoir ‘Mood’ | OUTinPerth

Publisher Wakefield Press has announced the acquisition of world rights to Roz Bellamy’s Mood, a memoir exploring the intersections of mental illness, queerness, gender diversity and Jewish identity.

Wakefield Press associate publisher Jo Case says that when she noticed Bellamy was writing a memoir, she was intrigued, and thought about asking to read it. She’d admired Bellamy’s essay in Growing Up Queer in Australia (Black Inc.), and their essay exploring queer and Jewish identity in Living and Loving in Diversity, an anthology published by Wakefield Press in 2018 (edited by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli).

Roz Bellamy is a first-generation Jewish Australian who grew up in a progressive family, attending an orthodox school. Roz, who identifies as nonbinary, met their wife, Rachel, as a university student, as the pair made their first tentative forays into queer culture – and fell in love – through a Buffy the Vampire Slayer online message board.

Publisher snaps up writer Roz Bellamy’s memoir ‘Mood’

Gender-diverse? Get noticed in the 2016 Census.

With the increasing visibility of gender diverse people in the Australian Jewish community, it’s important to get an accurate understanding of how many identify beyond the gender binary of female and male.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has advised that in the 2016 Census, respondents may identify a non-binary gender if they so choose.  This applies to people who do not always identify just as either one of male or female.

There are two official ways to achieve this:

  1. If you are using a paper census form, leave the Female and Male box boxes blank and write in your preferred gender identity in the space next to them.
  2. If you are using the online census form, call the Census Inquiry Service on 1300‑214‑531 and request a special online form that has an Other option for gender on it.

Source: Australian Census to offer ‘other’ option for gender question | SBS

UPDATE 03/08/16: Official ABS instructions here.