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 ( 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 or JQYouth at or visit their websites at

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kiddush HaGay

At the last JQY meeting (Jewish Queer Youth -, 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.