Posts filed under ‘Coming out’
April 24th and 25th
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 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, 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 hateful towards fellow Jew that you aren’t even willing to engage him or her in dialogue about what it is that’s making you hateful. 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.
Video of segments from “Being Gay in The Orthodox World: A conversation with Members of the YU Community”
YU has not released an official transcript of it’s event this week in order to protect the privacy of participants. Several participants, however, have allowed footage of their comments to be shared on Youtube, and we are including these videos here. If others who were at the event are willing to share their comments, we will be sharing them as well.
View of the Audience:
Rabbi Blau’s Intro (we are waiting for permission to publish this)
1st Panelist: (pending permission)
Closing Remarks: Dr. Pelcovitz:
View of the Crowd at the end:
The following is a guest post by Tirtzah member Aviva Yael:
I spent about 15 years in the ultra frum community out to myself and the man I was married to, but no one else in the frum world. At that point I didn’t see any reason to be out to anyone… I decided that since I had decided to marry a man and live as if I was straight… there was no point to bothering with that level of honesty… even to my closest friends who would have understood. I always felt like this was a little bit wrong. People who loved me and thought they knew everything about who I am, were missing a huge chunk of what makes me… me. There was always this slight buzzing in my head of cognitive dissonance within my own life. I am no longer married and I am now out in every aspect of my life.
For me… (not necessarily for everyone) being out (didn’t say coming out) has been a gigantic breath of fresh air. I no longer feel a constant dissonance buzzing in the background of my life. When I walk down the street, go to work, take my kids to the park, sit at a shabbos table or daven in shule… I know who I am and am who I am… from the inside… all the way to the outside, top of my head to the tips of my toes… and I love that.
I also love the fact that by being out, I’m making the world a better place for others who are yet to come. Today, my wife and I had the women from our shule over for a women’s Rosh Chodesh Shalosh Seudos. We are out in the shule and pretty much everyone knows about us. It is a modern orthodox shule and a particularly warm and accepting community. I’m convinced that two of the women who came for shalosh seudos who come very rarely to our shule or are new to coming to our shule just got introduced to the idea that women can be orthodox and lesbian and choose to build a home together. They were lovely guests and now are more sensitive and aware that this can exist and be ok.
I was very lucky- and when I first came out, I was a member of a wonderful congregation that made welcoming all people a priority. That communal support has made it possible for me, as a lesbian, to feel supported in my choice to live as an Orthodox Jew. But many queer Orthodox Jews are not as lucky as I was, and do not find themselves supported and welcomed in their congregations. Some are even actively excluded, making it extremely difficult to remain observant of the mitzvot and strong in the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism.
Recently the Welcoming Synagogues Project surveyed Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Secular Humanist and Unaffiliated Synagogues about the degree to which they welcomed queer members. They found that among the Synagogues surveyed ” The majority of rabbis in congregations across denominations think their synagogues are already welcoming of lesbians and gays, but could do better. The majority of Orthodox respondents do not perceive their congregations to be welcoming.”
I do not know whether the Orthodox Rabbis surveyed considered this state of affairs to be a positive one. I hope they understand, that it is an area where there is much work to be done- and that as leaders of Congregations it is the job of Rabbis to create spaces that are conducive to the spiritual and religious development of every Jew- regardless of sexual or gender orientation.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg, in an article in the Forward, suggests that the fact that Orthodox Rabbis responded to the survey at all showed a “willingness to engage the question”. I hope that is the case, and that as a result, Orthoodox shul Rabbis will find themselves delving more deeply into the the Jewish tradition, and coming to a greater understanding of the needs of all of their congregants.
Chanukah celebrates small things- a tiny leftover jug of oil, a small army, a slim chance. We celebrate the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people- who have always been vastly outnumbered by the nations of the world. We celebrate a world in which the importance of things is not measured by their size or their power- but by their righteousness.
As an Orthodox Lesbian I am part of a minority within a minority. The majority of people I meet, inevitably, find my experience to be different from theirs. Some of them wonder why I continue to live as I do. Wouldn’t it be easier, they suggest, to closet my identity as a queer person- or to abandon religion and live in a secular world that (they imagine) would better embrace me? Can’t I find a way to be less different- less of a minority?
I’m sure I could. But Judaism has taught me to celebrate the survival of a small minority, despite many difficulties, in a large world. In the time of the Macabees- the Jewish people could have chosen to disappear and become a part of the many. Instead- they resisted, maintained their integrity and identity as a small nation of jews, and persevered.
Sometimes it is hard for me to live as a minority in a world that does not always accept me. In the Orthodox Jewish world, it can be hard for people to understand my choice to live as an out lesbian woman, and sometimes those people make my life difficult. I have had to hear comments from people that I have found hurtful. I’ve had to worry that my family would reject me, and I find it hard to visit the neighborhood I grew up in- because I don’t know whether the community that nurtured my childhood and adolescence would continue to support me now. I know that there are places where I am not welcome to learn Torah, Daven, eat a Shabbat Meal, or set up a household. It is possible that it would be easier if I was in the closet, married to a man I did not love and could not love, and appearing as though I was like everybody else. I would blend in, perhaps- but it would be the wrong thing for me to do.
There are also communities, Jewish and otherwise, who are able to accept me as a lesbian, but who cannot respect my religious convictions or my Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. There are people who would love to “cure” me of my “oppressive” religion, which they imagine is at the root of all my problems- or who hope that one day I will “loosen up” and keep less of the Mitzvot. They find it difficult to believe that I have faith in a g-d who hears my prayers, gave my people the Torah, and sustains the world each and every day. Perhaps I could be more quiet about my frumkiet. I could live in a way that would make it less obvious- or abandon it altogether. I could become more similar to the people around me, stick out less, and find a place where it is always safe to be queer. But that also would be the wrong thing for me to do.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to make either choice. I have found small parts of the jewish world where I can feel fully comfortable and accepted as a queer person, while working to live my life according to the Torah I believe in. I have found a minority of people who would support me in living as my full self, and a few special rabbis and religious teachers who have supported me in seeking to understand how to live my life in a way that would be most consistent with my deeply held beliefs.
Today, as Chanukah is about to end- I look at my life and see that what has allowed me to survive thus far, has been the ability to celebrate these small things. My Jewish tradition, whose bearers have always been a small minority among the world religions, has taught me to celebrate the light that comes from a small jug of oil so small that it seemed, at first glance, inadequate to the task it was given.
Posted by queeryeshivameidel.
The Detroit Free Press recently published an article about a young Jewish Artist named Naomi Zaslow. She grew up Orthodox, and kept her Gay identity secret for a long time before finally coming out, to her friends and family, and recently, through her art, constructing an identity for herself. In the article, she asks: ”Which is more important: being queer, a woman or Jewish? None can be. There are so many facets of identity that come into play. It’s a sum of all those parts.” Zaslow, who has chosen to identify as “Post-denominational” and Queer, has remained involved in her Orthodox Jewish community.
It sounds like she has faced many challenges, and still manages to be hopeful and courageous. As she says: “It feels trite, but you’re not alone. Because people do feel alone. It’s scary. If you reach out, bad things can happen, do happen, But sometimes you do need to take the risk. There are places where you can find support. Things do get better.”
Posted by queeryeshivameidel.
This is our first guest post, written by Rochel, a member of Tirtzah.
When I started coming out at shul, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t naïve enough to hope that everyone would be supportive or understanding but at the same time I did try to be optimistic. After attending this shul for over four years, I had developed many close friendships and in fact considered many of the members more like family than friends. These were the people who had celebrated with me when I finished grad school, cried with me when my father was battling cancer, opened their homes to me week after week so that I could experience what it is like to have shabbos with family… this community taught me about the value of chesed (loving kindness) and I desperately hoped that they would respond to me with kindness when I opened up to them about my sexuality.
I chose different approaches to coming out to the people that I was closest with at shul. Some people I spoke with in person or on the phone, and cases where I was most nervous I wrote an email. While in the end, people have had different responses and offered varying degrees of support, initially there did seem to be one theme.
“Think of the children!”, everyone seemed to be saying…