Tuesday, April 8, 2014

When There Is No Derech from Which to Stray

This weekend I had the amazing opportunity to represent (JQY) Jewish Queer Youth at Keshet's Shabbaton for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) teenagers. JQY is a non-profit organization supporting LGBTQ youth and their families in the Orthodox community.  The participants at the Shabbaton represented a wide variety of religious, gender, and sexual identities. What struck me most was the life-saving role Judaism played in the lives of these teens. Many found refuge in religion when homophobic friends, family, and society rejected them. They spoke about Reform and Conservative congregations and youth groups embracing them and mitigating the harsh reality of life beyond the synagogue walls.

As I listened to these courageous teens share their stories, I was overcome by sadness thinking about how Orthodox LGBTQ teens relate to religion. The most progressive of Orthodox Rabbis have published The Statement of Principles (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/), which declares that Orthodox congregations should welcome LGBTQ individuals into the synagogue and refrain from any type of verbal harassment. It further states that LGBTQ Jews should not be forced to undergo reparative therapy and should not be encouraged to marry someone of the opposite gender "under most circumstances." Far from exuding the warmth and unconditional acceptance of progressive movements, The Statement of Principles sounds like a well-meaning, but woefully insufficient anti-bullying policy.

The very fact that the aforementioned principles need to be stated demonstrates how inhospitable Orthodox Judaism is for LGBTQ individuals. Let's not forget that all LGBTQ youth experience homophobia in the broader society. Religion is supposed to elevate a person emotionally and spiritually, not reinforce discrimination and bias. For Orthodox Judaism to be accessible to LGBTQ individuals, it must do more than tolerate their presence.

LGBTQ youth who leave Orthodoxy are not going off the derech. There never was a derech for them in the first place. We must create that derech, we must create that space. And it is much easier than one might think. We can't change the prohibitions in the Torah, but we don't have to. In all my years working with LGBTQ individuals from Orthodox backgrounds, few people have left Orthodoxy or experienced thoughts of suicide due to two verses in Leviticus. People are leaving -- spiritually and emotionally -- because of how they are treated by the Orthodox community.

So here's what we have to do: Orthodox synagogues must unequivocally and loudly welcome all members of the community into the congregation. This means publicly acknowledging the existence and worth of LGBTQ individuals, for a group marginalized for so long must be explicitly and enthusiastically welcomed. 
This means creating spaces in the synagogue for LGBTQ individuals to meet and embrace the many facets of their identity. This means not caving into pressure by board members or outspoken community members to silence and oppress. This means not hiding behind amorphous and inauthentic halachic objections to mask personal discomfort with the topic.  This means having the courage to endorse and partner with LGBTQ organizations like JQY, Eshel, and Keshet. JQY has already developed sensitivity training resources for Orthodox high schools, camps, youth groups and mental health professionals, teaching them how to create a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ youth within an Orthodox framework

As Pesach approaches and as we recall the commandment to help the stranger "because you were strangers in the land of Egypt," I challenge the Orthodox Union, NCSY, Yeshiva University, and the myriad of Orthodox Day Schools across the nation to heed the call and foster an environment in which no Jew feels estranged.

Monday, November 15, 2010

It Gets Better

Last week an It Gets Better video featuring Gay Orthodox Jews was released. The response thus far has been amazing, with close to 30,000 hits in less than a week. In response to some of the critics, this video was not intended to adjudicate contraversial halachic topics, but rather to tell all closeted individuals -- young or old, Jewish or gentile -- that God loves them no matter what and that they can live happy and fulfilling lives. So if you are reading this and match the above description, please stick around. Life is worthwhile and so are you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ad Matai?

A heinous anti-gay attack took place last week just one mile from where I work. The Latin Kings is one of the dominant gangs in the region and has a large following near my school. The attack has been called the worst act of anti-gay violence in NYC history.


As we go into National Coming Out Day, let us realize that coming out is not merely a means of showing one's pride, nor is it solely a statement of identity. It could serve those purposes, but more importantly, coming out is a humanizing force. Would these gang members have reacted so violently to the thought of one of their recruits being gay had known openly gay people in their community? Would Billy Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Asher Brown, and many other recent victims have been bullied so mercilessly if openly homosexual students comprised a small, yet significant portion of their middle schools? And finally, would Tyler Clementi have viewed the thought of being outed as so catastrophic if he had been exposed to more openly gay individuals?

Don't get me wrong. I am not, G-d forbid, excusing or justifying the actions of the perpetrators; they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Yet we - the GLBT community and our straight allies - have been complicit in allowing a culture of hate to exist in our society. How many times have we stayed quiet when someone made an anti-gay remark? How many political and religious messages of hate have we allowed to go unchallenged? Whether we are gay or straight, out or closeted, we cannot stay silent any longer - we cannot afford to stay silent any longer.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches "One who saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world." Please, have one conversation, influence one person's heart and mind. You can never know the impact of your actions. This is the message of National Coming Out Day.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Love Hashem Your G-d

The Talmud in Yoma (86a) expounds the meaning of the verse "Love Hashem Your G-d" to mean "the Name of Heaven should be beloved to you." The Talmud explains that the Name of Heaven becomes beloved to people when they see Torah scholars acting in a proper and pleasant manner, as Torah scholars embody G-d's teachings. Conversely, when Torah scholars act inappropriately, people disparage the Torah as a vehicle for heinous behavior.

I experienced this phenomenon first-hand last week when I came out to my uncle, who is a Torah scholar in one of the most traditional yeshivos in America. My uncle had almost zero familiarity with the concept of homosexuality and had only a few short minutes to compose his thoughts after my shocking announcement. Though he certainly knows the halachic prohibitions associated with homosexuality, this was not the focus of his response. Instead, he said to me, "Wow, it is really big of you to still be frum while dealing with this issue. What a tzaddik!"

How refreshing it is to see a true tzaddik utilizing the Torah as a source of love rather than as a weapon of hate.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Frum and Gay Shabbaton

The following is a press release about a Shabbaton that I attended this weekend entitled "Being Frum and Gay"

April 24th and 25th

Philadelphia, PA
Being Frum and Gay

This weekend, the Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) and JQYouth (JQY), a group that provides support to LGBT Orthodox Jews (www.JQYouth.org) collaborated to develop a shabbaton aimed at addressing issues that gay and lesbian Jews face within the Orthodox community. The shabbaton built upon the format and ideas originally presented at the “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” panel that was held at Yeshiva University this December.

On Friday night, the invited speakers from JQYouth shared their stories in a general panel session. The evening began with a brief statement by Emily Belfer, one of the organizers from the OCP, and a message from Rabbi Mordy Friedman, the Orthodox Rabbi at Penn, framing the shabbaton as a weekend intended to raise awareness of issues that already exist within the Orthodox community, and that it is not intended as a forum to discuss halacha (Jewish law). The panelists then each discussed topics ranging from their experiences coming out to family members and rabbis, to issues faced by Orthodox Jewish lesbians, forming communities for LGBT Orthodox Jews, and forming more inclusive Orthodox communities. There were over 150 people in attendance, and the audience was generally supportive of the speakers, applauding after each panelist spoke. The panelists were then asked questions from the audience ranging from whether they envisioned themselves forming families, whether being gay and Orthodox creates a crisis of faith, and whether there are generational or communal differences in terms of levels of tolerance that the panelists have experienced. The session only came to an end after the Hillel building needed to close for the night.

After morning services, Rabbi Friedman held a brief survey of contemporary literature on homosexuality. Taking a neutral stance on the issue, Rabbi Friedman reviewed responses spanning from Rav Moshe Feinstein’s t’shuvah (response) stating that homosexuality reflects a deliberate act of rebellion against God, to contemporary approaches of Rabbi Chaim Rapoport and Rav Yuval Sherlo, that go so far as to deal with questions such as whether lesbian couples should wear hair coverings and observe laws of ritual purity.

In the afternoon, four sessions on various topics relating to homosexuality in the Orthodox community were held. From 5:00pm to 6:00pm a session on ally training was held by Nicole Riley, Shaina Adams-El Guabli, and Fran De La Tor, three straight female allies of the LGBT community who have had experience leading similar workshops in the past. Nicole, Fran, and Shaina facilitated conversation regarding LGBT-specific language and stereotypes of the LGBT community, as well as group exercises to provide various strategies. These strategies included how to respond when a friend comes out, and when one overhears derogatory comments, such as “That’s Gay,” used in different social circles.

Simultaneously, Josh Teplitsky and Justin Spiro held a discussion on language as boundary. During this session they discussed a statement that Josh has heard several times after speaking at the Yeshiva University panel that “We should provide sympathy to the struggling homosexual.” Josh and Justin engaged the audience in a discussion of what the word struggle means as well as when it is appropriate to provide and withhold sympathy for others. The audience discussed how religious struggles are not unique to LGBT Orthodox Jews and discussed their own struggles with issues of faith and sexuality. During the workshop, one of the audience members expressed her frustration with that statement and discussed how she was upset by the question posed to the panelists the previous night about whether they've experienced a crisis of faith. She stated that the crisis of faith shouldn’t only apply to the gay individuals in the community. Instead, she suggested that the crisis of faith should apply to the entire Orthodox community because there are community members who are suffering because of their sexual orientation. This sentiment was echoed by others present for this discussion as well as other discussions over the course of the evening.

Josh reiterated this point by making a distinction between a psychological struggle characterized by an individual experiencing distress over his or her sexual identity, and a philosophical/intellectual struggle that involves grappling with the halachik implications of a gay identity. Josh concluded by stating that when we view it as a philosophical struggle, then it belongs to the entire community rather than the homosexual individuals themselves.

From 6:00pm to 7:00pm Chasiah Haberman, a member of JQY and the founder of Tirtzah, a community of frum queer women, held a discussion on halachik questions facing Orthodox LGBT people. The thrust of the session was to build awareness of the technical challenges that a gay Torah-observer faces in a religion whose commandments presume heterosexual attraction. With Chasiah’s help, the group managed to pinpoint several areas such as mechitza (separation), nida (purity), shomer negia (touching of the opposite sex), and tzniut (modesty) that pose an interpretive challenge to the gay observant Jew. Chasiah rendered the discussion universal by asking everyone to mention a personal halachik challenge, demonstrating that it is all observant Jews, not only gay observant Jews, who struggle to observe halacha. The session was concluded with a reading from Jewish scholar Eliezer Berkowitz. Berkowitz tells an anecdote from Raba in which the Babylonian sage expresses that halacha is alive and eternal, and is always interpreted and reinterpreted by the Sages of the generation.

At the same time, Erez Harari and Chaim Levin held a panel discussion on reparative therapy. Erez, a student at Fordham working on a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and co-founder of JQY, discussed the history of therapies aimed at treating homosexuality, as well as the theory and research behind modern day reparative therapy. Erez critiqued the theory behind reparative therapy and the research that has been published in support of it. Erez then discussed the potential for harm when engaging in these treatments. Chaim followed with his personal experiences being involved in reparative therapy for several years and reviewed the techniques used to try to alter his sexual orientation. He concluded by mentioning how he was led to blame himself for not trying hard enough when his sexual orientation failed to change, as well as how his community ended up blaming him for “choosing” to be gay once he decided to stop attending treatment.

After the evening meal, Chasiah gave a speech to a standing room only crowd of over a hundred people. Chasiah discussed the notion of “hating your brother in your heart,” which appeared in this week’s Torah portion, and how this verse is interpreted to mean that you are so angered by your fellow Jew that you aren't even willing to engage him or her in dialogue about what it is that’s making you angry. She then thanked the crowd for demonstrating ahavat yisroel (love of your fellow Jew) by being willing to attend the event and engage in a dialogue about these issues.

The shabbaton concluded with a screening of the film V'ahavta (And thou shalt love), an award-winning short film about a gay yeshiva student in Israel, followed by a discussion on how to create a more inclusive Orthodox Community. This discussion, moderated by Matthew Feczko and Isaac Alkolomber, two members of the OCP and JQY, generated a number of different suggestions by the audience, who seemed generally in favor of working towards creating a more welcoming environment for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews at Penn. Suggestions ranged from reaching out to those who seem isolated, to speaking publicly against homophobic statements and creating joint events with J-Bagel, the gay Jewish group at Penn. A distinction was made during the discussion between implicit and explicit methods of inclusion, and the importance of understanding that for an Orthodox gay person, the implicit message is often one of exclusion, and that explicit messages are often necessary to make someone feel fully included. Some of the speakers expressed the hope that this weekend becomes a template for future programs at other campuses, schools, and synagogues. Isaac then closed the discussion by posing a question to the crowd, asking them how each of them plan on conveying this message of inclusiveness once the shabbaton is over.

The events of the weekend were widely considered a success drawing many people from diverse communities on campus. The event, according to one of the organizers, Isaac Setton, was a kiddush hashem as many people from many different backgrounds saw the Orthodox community coming together in support of the LGBT community. The Orthodox Community at Penn was able to organize and facilitate many discussions about the future of Orthodoxy and Orthodox education. One participant remarked, “One day, the people being educated at this event will sit on the board of shuls and schools and it will be up to them to make sure that when this issue comes up it is not a shock and is dealt with properly.” The people who attended the event were all glad they were provided with the opportunity to engage with this issue.

For more information about this event, you can contact the OCP at ocpjqy@gmail.com or JQYouth at admin@jqyouth.org or visit their websites at www.JQYouth.org www.pennocp.org.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kiddush HaGay

At the last JQY meeting (Jewish Queer Youth - jqyouth.org), someone introduced the term Kiddush HaGay. Just as a Kiddush Hashem signifies sanctifying G-d's name by demonstrating to the world the goodness and holiness of the Jewish people, Kiddush HaGay connotes depicting homosexuals in a positive light. I was provided an opportunity to do just that on my ride home from work today.

The South Bronx used to be a vibrant Jewish community. However, the current Jewish population of the neighborhood is roughly comparable to that of Iraq. The frum Jewish community is completely non-existent. Thus, when I saw an elderly man with a white shirt and velvet yarmulke sitting in the 182nd-183rd Street D Train Subway Station, I felt compelled to say "shalom aleichem." He responded in kind, introduced himself as Sholom, and explained that he was a landlord of a building in the area. We hit up a conversation -- in a mix of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish -- as he headed to Boro Park and I to the Upper West Side.

When I mentioned that I learned in yeshiva in Israel, Sholom asked me if I had heard about the scandal in which the Rosh Yeshiva of a prominent Yeshiva was accused of having sexual relations with his students. He remarked that this Rabbi must have a "machalah" -- a sickness. While I agree that a Rabbi must be sick to prey on vulnerable students, I had a feeling that Sholom's comment was a reference to homosexuality in general. So as the train hurdled toward Yankee Stadium, I probed further.

Without revealing my sexual orientation, I explained that homosexuality was no more of a sickness than being right or left handed. True, homosexuals cannot reproduce through traditional means, but they do not have any inherent deficiencies. Sholom nodded in agreement, as we both cited the blessing "m'shaneh habriot" (He who diversifies His creations). Sholom astutely distinguished homosexuality from other prohibitions in the Torah such as idolatry, whereby even the thought is forbidden. He even said that he had heard of some men who engaged in sexual relations but avoided "mishkav mamash," i.e. anal sex.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to my personal life, and I came out to Sholom. By this point, he was not even so surprised. When I told him that I knew I was gay as a teenager, he asked me how I could know so young. I replied, just as a man has attraction for women in his teenage years, hacha nami! (So too in my case.)

Sholom then became perturbed. "Why did the Ribono Shel Olam create you this way? You should raise a complaint against Him!" I replied that it is not for us to question how we were created. Kach notzarti. There are reasons for all of Hashem's creations, even if we can't figure out what they are. When Sholom pressed me for one of these reasons, I replied that perhaps I was created gay in order to be more sensitive to other minority groups. He seemed to like this answer.

Our conversation was abruptly ended when I transferred trains at 125th Street. I could tell that Sholom wanted to discuss more.

A gmarra in Avoda Zara compares our performance of mitzvos to the peckings of a hen, using a play on the Hebrew word for peck. All mitzvos, even ones seemingly as small as the peckings of a hen, are bundled together in Heaven into a great sum. This comparison could not be more relevant here. Engaging the frum community on the issue of homosexuality cannot be done through sermons, responsa, or other large scale forms of communication (at least not yet). The Yeshiva University Panel on Homosexuality in December was groundbreaking and incredible, but the most effective way of engaging people -- of any community -- is through a one-on-one conversation. This is clearly a very slow process, but a necessary and worthwhile one. Perhaps Sholom will meet a homosexual one day in Boro Park -- or the father, teacher, or cousin of one -- and perhaps the resultant conversation will be affected by the conversation he had today. And perhaps that small "peck" will change a life.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Small Change

Wow! I haven't updated this blog for a long time! Not that I haven't had a lot to say, but it has been a very busy few months for me. But now it's time to get back in the swing of things....

I received a message tonight from a family I have grown very close to over the past few years. They belong to the Modern Orthodox shul in my home town, and I have an unspoken invitation for Shabbos meals whenever I am around. While they are certainly a "frum" family, they are very open-minded and have accepted me fully as a gay Jew. I got word tonight that their eldest daughter has chosen to write her college essay about gay marriage. Specifically, she is writing about her experience of getting to know me over the years, and how I have changed her view of homosexuality and Judaism.

The key to change -- within any community -- is exposure. "Gay" should never be a taboo word. Homosexuality should not be treated as a sexual topic from which five-year-olds are shielded.

It is not often we see the fruits of our efforts. I feel very honored to have the privilege of witnessing change within the Orthodox community, albeit small change.