Out of the Closet, Into the Fire

By | Aug 20, 2013

This March, history was quietly made in a Saturday morning Orthodox minyan (prayer quorum) at Brandeis University. Avi, a 22-year-old then-college junior from the Boston area, was called up to the Torah for an aliyah. While nothing was said outright, and he had been chosen for no particular reason, the unintentional message was clear: complete acceptance.

Two days before his aliyah, Avi (some names, including this one, have been altered for confidentiality) tacitly confirmed his sexuality in front of a weekly Jewish learning group for the Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO) known as Mishmar. For Avi, coming out was “a whole process,” that began with informing “a few close friends” during his sophomore year. Avi then told his family, who, despite being shocked, were “wonderful about it.”

Avi told friends who knew he was gay to let the rumor about his homosexuality spread through the community a few days before his speech in order to ensure a large attendance, and then spoke about the importance of accepting gay members of the Jewish community. After implicitly revealing his true sexual identity, Avi says, “[his speech] was well received, a lot of people came up to me and thanked me, said it was long overdue.” News of his sexuality “spread through the Jewish world in a cool way.” On a trip to Israel, Avi was congratulated by a stranger who had heard of his coming out.

The conversation and attitudes around the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jews are not well-defined in Modern Orthodox Jewish society, though being gay may not carry as much of a stigma as one would think. According to Avi, most of the hesitation in the Jewish community is due to the tone of the conversations surrounding the topic. Avi feels that “growing up through the day school and yeshiva gap year system, I only heard about homosexuality in pejorative contexts. That conversation needs to change, and we must deal with this head-on.”

The conversation largely started in 2001 with the release of Trembling Before G-d, Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s documentary detailing the hardships of being an observant but gay Jew. Other notable contributions to the discussion included Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, the 2004 book by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, and the 2011 Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality, a document written by a group of 25 rabbis, mental health professionals and people who claim to have overcome their sexuality, and which rejects any integration of Torah observance and homosexuality.

In 2010, a group of Orthodox rabbis and educators met to face the rising issue of LGBT Jews directly. They convened and published The Statement of Principles, an official statement as to where these rabbis stand on the LGBT movement and Judaism. The Statement contains the signatures of more than 200 rabbis and Jewish leaders, both male and female. One prominent name featured on the list is Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein of the New York City-based Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) and the Jewish school Ramaz.

Lookstein says that his community is “non-judgmental,” and though he cannot speak for all of KJ, his institution’s stance is that:

“Homosexual sex is a serious sin, but is completely separate from the acceptance of a homosexual person as a Jew and as a human being, who merits respect, love, welcome and encouragement to be part of the community.”

This concurs with The Statement of Principles, which states that:

“All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvoth between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

To Lookstein and his community, someone who is gay is like someone who does not fully uphold the laws of Shabbat or kashrut. Lookstein assures that he would not throw out someone who did not follow those rules from his community, and believes the same should be applied to LGBT Jews. He says that in some ways he has “greater empathy” for those who are gay than for those who break Shabbat, because for the former group, it is not a choice.

The observant Jewish LGBT organization Eshel, founded in 2010 and based in New York City, does not believe that the Statement is a finished product, but, rather, a “great first step,” according to Miryam Kabakov, Eshel’s director and co-founder. Eshel hosts retreats, weekends, speakers, education initiatives and support groups for family members of out Jews who want to learn more about guiding their loved one and themselves through the challenges ahead. Kabakov is inspired by the newest crop of Modern Orthodox leaders, and believes that there is a good chance for them to become even more accepting than the current ones due to the fact that there are “so many positive images of gay people in media now, in TV and in the news—as long as Orthodox communities are there with the world, they will have a better chance of being more accepting.”

For Kabakov, the most difficult part about being an LGBT Jew in the Modern Orthodox world is the feeling of “knowing that you can’t go back to the place you grew up in. There are very few places I feel comfortable in an Orthodox shul. Going back there, you have to hide who you are. [They] look at you like you have a disease or something’s wrong with you.” Despite these feelings of alienation, Kabakov says that she started Eshel to try and reconcile her sexuality and her Jewish background, which she enjoyed and considers it to be the “greatest gift my parents gave me.” For Kabakov, Eshel is the one place she can feel these two separate entities of hers are “in sync,” and uses the organization to reach out to other observant Jews who are gay or are questioning their sexuality.

Although the Brandeis community immediately embraced Avi and his homosexuality, members of his home synagogue were not as quick to accept. According to Avi, “it’s a generational thing,” and he received lots of stares and some cold receptions from various adult and rabbinical figures both in and out of his community.

Recently, a rabbi from Avi’s home shul gave a Saturday morning sermon condemning the Boy Scouts of America for accepting gay members, and giving into public pressure. This speech was given shortly after Avi’s coming-out, and on a Shabbat when Avi was in attendance at the shul. Despite moments like these, many members of Avi’s community have come to support him and his sexual orientation.

Even Jews who consider themselves to be from “the more observant end of the spectrum” are altering their attitudes on frum (observant) LGBT Jews. JL, an Orthodox young adult from the New York area, says he would accept an LGBT Jew as part of the community if he or she “realizes it’s not an ideal situation and takes appropriate steps.” For JL and other members of his community, it’s not about whether they are gay, it’s about how gay Jews display their sexuality. JL is stringent in observing commandments and tradition, taking on more than most Jews, such as wearing a black hat and kippah, and eating only strictly kosher food. JL and his compatriots view being gay as akin to being “an alcoholic” or an “adulterer,” and believe that there should be attempts to “reform” their homosexuality in the same way that an adulterer or alcoholic would seek help and try to make amends for their behavior. Despite the disconnect between chosen and not-chosen behavior, JL’s ideas are niche in that in some ways they are still accepting, but still have far to go to be considered within the secular American mainstream.

Some rabbis and Jewish communities are not as tolerant as Lookstein and Eshel. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, of the popular Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, keeps a prolific blog, infamous for the anti-Obama post “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.” Though he declined to comment for this article, his statements on gay rights are littered throughout the website. On his blog, Pruzansky questions the moral and societal implications of legalizing gay marriage, wondering if it will lead to “polygamy? Polyandry? Polyamory? Poly-want-a-crackery?” Rabbi Pruzansky cites Talmudic and other textual sources for his views.

In another blog post on the topic, from last December, Pruzansky attacked Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld of Portland, Maine, an Orthodox rabbi who came out in support of gay marriage, stating that Rabbi Herzfeld “renounced (your) heritage, abandoned the Torah, and embraced the political correctness of the age – just as the Hellenist Jews did in ancient times.” Essentially, Pruzansky told Herzfeld that he’s no longer a Jew due to his stance on LGBT members in society. From these writings, it appears unlikely that Rabbi Pruzansky would accommodate an LGBT member in his synagogue.

Some Orthodox rabbis have suggested that their gay congregants undergo reparative therapy. Reparative (also known as conversion) therapy is dangerous. According to statistics from the Human Rights Campaign (a gay rights advocacy organization), based on a study conducted by San Francisco State University, those who undergo reparative therapy have increased risks of suicide, depression, sexually transmitted infections and narcotics abuse. The American Medical Association (AMA) “opposes the use of ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.” Other organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA), have also voiced their concerns over conversion therapy and its damaging effects on its victims. The use of the practice on minors was banned in the state of California in 2012.

Although the practice of conversion therapy has come under attack, Arthur Goldberg, co-director and co-founder of the organization Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH), a group specializing in reparative therapy, maintains their position on the process. According to Goldberg, numerous studies have been conducted that “clearly indicate that change [of sexual orientation] is possible” through therapy. Goldberg contends that the therapy methods that JONAH supports see the sexuality as just a “by-product,” and seek to treat what they see as the individual’s issues with “self-esteem and self-worth,” as they believe these are the true underlying issues. Goldberg stated that “the jury is out” on the position of the APA and AMA; furthermore, the JONAH website cites Dr. Robert Spitzer’s study on the effects of reparative therapy for its main defenses of the practice. In 2001, Spitzer conducted a study entitled “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” and concluded that it was possible, despite numerous controversies surrounding the study and the manner in which it was conducted. A little more than a year ago, Spitzer retracted his findings and admitted that he was “wrong” about the conclusions he drew from the data and about the study in general. Goldberg maintains that Spitzer “didn’t retract his claims; he apologized for any harm he may have caused.” Despite Goldberg’s beliefs, there are rabbis who have changed their views on reparative therapy. Rabbi Fred Nebel, from Midwest Torah, a Judaic learning group in Indiana, says that after reading more about conversion therapy, he’s “not going to advise people to do it,” despite initially supporting the practice and signing the Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality.

For Avi, the Brandeis student, his “world shifted for the better” after coming out. He is currently looking to date other men, and is looking at the Jewish community, but not specifically the Orthodox one.

College is a time in which many gay young adults come out to their friends and family. For Orthodox LGBT teens, the decision to come out is even more difficult because of the perceived taboos, and due to the fact that they generally live in their respective Jewish communities, where the attitudes toward gays is still unclear. For frum teens who identify as LGBT, there is a mix of hope and trepidation in their future paths.

Gidon Feen has just graduated from a yeshiva high school in Memphis, Tennessee. At a graduation party, he gets up in front of the kids he’s gone to school with for years. In mere seconds, after Gidon reveals that he is gay, the room erupts into applause.

Two years before he came out, Gidon “accepted” that he was gay. It took time to tell everyone, but Gidon says the reason for his coming out was due to the fact that “over the past two years, I just realized more and more this is who I am, this is me and I got sick of not being myself with my friends and people I interacted with. This is who I am and I want people to know that.”

According to some of the frum LGBT Jews I spoke to, there is worry about being able to attend shul and keep friends, and about how people will look at them when they walk down the hallways. There were also mentions of fears of physical harm against them and/or their friends and family. According to Gidon, however, the reception after his reveal “was unbelievably amazing, and beyond anything I would have imagined would happen.”

Gidon’s next stop is college—in the fall will attend The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, a school known for its political activism, as well as its significant Jewish and gay populations. Gidon is looking forward to college and “living an open gay lifestyle.” He wishes to “stay Jewish” and date. It hasn’t all been easy, however, and for years he experienced crises of faith whilst reconciling his identity. He is still searching for the answers to many more questions, such as how to have sex without committing a sin.

In researching the article, many of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous due to possible repercussions. However, if the anecdotal evidence here is to be believed, though there are differences of opinion, there is a consensus of tolerance and support for LGBT Jews. Ben Schneider, an openly gay Orthodox graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, says that Orthodox Jews now recognize that “they have gay friends.” The conversation could go many ways from here, but it seems to be looking up for those who have lived in fear for a very long time.

There’s a phrase used by many different communities, which does describe the situation accurately: “It gets better.”

9 thoughts on “Out of the Closet, Into the Fire

  1. yael says:

    it was going from bad to worse, but I just gave up here: ” JL is stringent in observing commandments and tradition, taking on more than most Jews, such as wearing a black hat and kippah”

    the what now?

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  3. Reb Yid says:

    1. We are far too tolerant of lawbreakers. While we must treat the non-observant in an appropriate way that does not turn them off to Judaism, things have gone so far to the opposite extreme that we walk on eggs and avoid even the slightest suggestion that Jews are required to obey Jewish law. I’m certain that many non-observant attendees at Orthodox synagogues aren’t even fully aware that the Torah requires all Jews to follow halacha, not through any fault of their own, but because we’ve been afraid to teach them.

    2. Comparing the Avis of the world to the average non-observant attendee at a synagogue is specious. The non-Sabbath-observer parks around the corner and simply comes to synagogue to pray. “Avi” wants the world to accept his violations as legitimate behavior, at least on some level.

    1. “Reb Yid,” Your comments are a reflection of a person passionately committed to the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. You are typical of religious extremists of all faith worship continuity, tradition and dogma and NOT the God who demands that we be use Torah to build bridges to humanity and not insular walls that use fear, ignorance and intolerance as bricks.

  4. Great article, Jason. One of the more balanced and well-thought-out that I’ve read on the subject. If allies are interested in what they can do to make things easier for their gay friends, I offer some suggestions on my blog, andifnotnowwhen.org.

  5. If “Avi”‘s reception was celebratory and so positively received by both friends and family, why hide his name and reinforce that this is something that needs to remain hidden and shameful. Actions speak louder than words.

    There are enough stories of orthodox gay Jewish youth who are out (and even still in Yeshiva) and willing to use their names, that telling a random story of an anonymous person sounds very “1999”. Between the Orthodox “it gets better” video (seen by over 200,000 people), and the famous YU gay panel, where gay Orthodox Yeshiva students came out in front of 900 of their Orthodox fellow yeshiva students, to the multiple recent articles written by Frum gay youth using their real names, this Article strangely reads like it was written ten years ago.

    Furthermore, to mention JONAH without referencing the current lawsuit and the multiple claims of sexual misconduct that former Orthodox Jonah patients claim their unlicensed counselors pressures them into, is just irresponsible and poor journalism. The Orthodox RCA and OU have publicly denounced JONAH.

    Missing also in interviewing Rabbi Lookstein, is the recent incident where his School, Ramaz, rejected the children of openly gay parents. Maimonides school has also rejected Orthodox applicants who’s parents are openly gay. This is the pressing issue of today. This juxtaposed with gay orthodox kids coming out in their Frum High schools is a far more interesting and current dialectic.

    I believe this article is well intentioned but reductive.

  6. jewish without labels says:

    have always attended only Orthodox synagogues. At the one I have attended for nearly 20 years, we have had up to five gay men as members of the shul at a time (currently there are not that many). They have never been treated any differently than anybody else. Jews are Jews.

    Reb Yid, it is very easy to judge someone when you know that you can never ever stand in his place. Let’s hope that on the coming Yomim Noroim the One who judges all of us will grant you a kesiva v’chasima tova un a gut gebentsht yor.

  7. Baruch Gershom says:

    Giving an aliyah to someone who is openly gay should not be interpreted as “acceptance” of that person’s lifestyle by either the congregation, the synagogue leadership, or the rabbi, per se. If the shul gives aliyot to men who drive to shul on Shabat or do not keep kosher, it would be hypocritical to single out gays for exclusion and not exclude the others. The sin of violating the Sabbath is, according to the Torah, more or less equal to that of having gay sex — both are capital crimes under the Torah. If it is understood that giving a Sabbath violator an aliyah is not an endorsement of his forbidden practices, then it should also be understood that giving a gay man an aliyah does not condone his lifestyle. Nor should it be assumed by anyone that the congregation wishes or can change a single letter of the Torah to accomodate modern practices and tastes. While the communal enforcement of the most severe Biblical violations lapsed when the Sanhedrin ceased to assemble in the Temple, nearly 2000 years ago, we do not assume that the Torah is no longer binding or that sins are not ultimately punished in some way by G-d.

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