Paladino's Bias And The Charedim: Time To Speak Out
Thu, 10/14/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Jeremy Burton
Jeremy Burton

Reading about New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino's homophobic turn in front of an ultra-Orthodox audience last Sunday, my thoughts drifted back to painful memories of my middle school years.

The first time I contemplated suicide was at a charedi middle school in Manhattan. I felt out of place there, and though I didn't have a name for my depression, my parents were aware enough of my state that I spent three years seeing a psychologist. With that help, I found some happiness in my solitude. Then I was sent away for high school to a right-wing Orthodox yeshiva boarding school in Westchester.

In ninth grade I developed a crush on a boy in the eleventh grade. He was handsome, funny, and he took a reciprocal interest in me, arranging for me to switch to sharing a room with him. Our first kiss, initiated by him, was when he drove me home from a Purim party at a yeshiva in Flatbush.

But when we returned to boarding school, he pushed me away. The thoughts of doom returned. Without a protective older "brother," I became the victim of a bully at school, an older boy with problems of his own. But I was younger, and I was odd, and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis ignored the situation. Thoughts of suicide returned, and throughout 10th and 11th grade, I sometimes would imagine the varieties of ultimate solutions to the isolation and sense of difference I felt.

In 11th grade I ran away, determined to be done with it all, to put an end once and for all to the isolation. Yet after a night on the run, I was unable to bring myself to do the final deed. Instead, I walked up to a police station in Washington, DC, where I ended up in a halfway home.

After a week, I came home and was allowed to return to New York City and to a new school -- Orthodox, but with opportunities to enjoy the city of the mid-'80s, while having a public, appropriately Modern Orthodox and chaste dating friendship with a girl. In return, I agreed to go to Israel after high school, again to a charedi yeshiva. There, passion for classmates was unacceptable, and isolation from women and options outside the Orthodox world were strictly enforced.

Isolation and a sense of displacement returned. There seemed no way to reconcile the gap between my growing consciousness of who I was and my desire to be part of all that I loved and found satisfying in a traditional Jewish life: the sense of caring and responsibility for others, the powerful experience of relating to God and one another through communal prayer, the urgent message of essential human dignity in our ancient texts.

I left that life and spent my 20s struggling to reconcile my worlds. I knew in my heart that I was gay. Yet in my head I believed that if I could find that one perfect woman, I could have the Jewish family that I was taught was the only choice imaginable. It took a long series of unhealthy relationships with women, finding a mentor who himself only came out at work after leaving a job as a Jewish communal professional, and the release of the film, "Trembling Before God," before, entering my 30s, I finally came out to my family and at the Jewish agency where I worked a decade ago.

Life does get better, and the world has changed for the better. I am happy with life, reconciled with a public, honest existence, including at the Jewish organization where I work, along with a fulfilling Jewish community. I've taken on a leadership role in an independent minyan, Darkhei Noam, where men and women lead in partnership and halachic collaboration, and where gay and lesbian families are welcome. I have a mother and some other family who, once I accepted myself, embraced me as I am.

But much as life gets better eventually for most LGBT teens, as the Trevor Project's current YouTube campaign conveys, the Paladino speech is a reminder of how awful it is right now in a lot of places. Most of the media cut off the tape after his most outrageous comments, but if you keep watching, it's the next moment, when the crowd of chasidic men applauds, that sends the most toxic message, particularly to struggling young men and women in the ultra-Orthodox community.

It's telling that of all places, it was among charedi Jews that Paladino chose to deliver his remarks, expecting and receiving a positive response. Because this community, the community I grew up in, fosters a culture of conformity, one where the message to youth is that "there is only one way to live, and it is our way." The implication drawn, implicitly and explicitly, is that if you will not live "our way" then you might as well not live. And that message was heard loudly and clearly among the charedi youth once again this weekend.

Truth be told, we don't often work on issues of rights and inclusion (at least explicitly) at Jewish Funds for Justice, where I work. And as someone who works to create social change informed by a Jewish perspective, more often than not it is easy for me to ignore the ultra-Orthodox world.

But at times like these, when our attention must be given to the tide of teen suicides by LGBT youth in this country, not to mention violent attacks, I feel ashamed to ignore the charedim. Ashamed not for who they are nor from a desire to go back to that world, but for their (and in a real sense our) children, all the boys and girls who, like myself once upon a time, are struggling to reconcile who they are with the world they know.

At times like this, we desperately need efforts like the "Do Not Stand Idly By" initiative launched this past week by Keshet (whose board I'm on), to encourage all of the Jewish community to end homophobic bullying in our schools and synagogues. It is profoundly heartening that more than 430 organizations signed the pledge in its first week - including JFSJ -- and it will make a real difference for thousands of kids across the Jewish community and beyond. Yet it is also humbling that few of those voices will be heard in the haredi world. We have so much more to do if we are to reach these kids and save them from the impossible and tragic choices they are weighing right now.

For as the rabbis of the ancient Mishnah taught us, "whoever saves a single life … it is as if they have saved the entire world."

Carl Paladino has expressed regret for his remarks, which at least says something about the state of acceptable political discourse in New York. From the decision of Rabbi Levin to then withdraw his endorsement of the candidate, and the silence of many others in the Orthodox community, together with the applause of Carl Paladino's audience this week, we are reminded: those children need saving from those around them who claim to love them, but only for who they "ought" to be, and not for who they are.

This is our task, and it is all of our responsibility.

Jeremy Burton is senior vice president of philanthropic initiatives at the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ.)
 

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Jeremy: Congratulations on having made it through a lot of very difficult, traumatic turns in your life. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the GLBT community will ever win any "big" battles with the black hat world. There can never be serious dialogue between the two groups. That statement/declaration that a lot of rabbis signed a few months ago might as well not exist among the black hatters. Black-hatters' degree of conformity also leads to a united/unified front in their world. By contrast, There are so many conflicting sub-agendas among GLBT people, that there's rarely an opportunity for working in lockstep for the long term. I know of T people who aren't personally vested in gay marriage, but who work toward it for the benefit of the G and L people. That doesn't mean the G and L people will reciprocate on a T-only issue. The bonds of the Jewish community are generally stronger. The Modern Orthodox world will likely never reach consensus on basic acceptance of openly gay members at synagogues, youth groups, whatever. We should expect that acceptance of gay couples is just NOT going to happen. At an Orthodox shul, don't ever expect to hear or see announcements like "This week's kiddush is sponsored by Ann Thus-and-such and Miriam So-and-so in honor of their 10th anniversary.". Mi Sheberach for a woman who underwent sex reassignment surgery? Heh..don't count on it in an Orthodox shul if the person making the Mi SheBerach knows WHY. In fact, chances are the transsexual woman who'd had sex reassignment surgery shouldn't count on a pleasant reception upon her return to shul. Any shades of GLBT acceptance in a Modern Orthodox synagogue will always make that synagogue controversial. I attended one synagogue that didn't disavow its support of the equality of gay people, and it became known as the "anything goes" shul of its area. (Yes, it's a little more open in other areas too..but..the gay thing played pretty big.) No Orthodox shul ever got widely criticized for being "too frum". The Orthodox world has kept and grown its community by exclusion, not by inclusion. The GLBT world is the opposite. By letting more people in, the GLBT folks increased its numbers, but also made for many more agendas and sub-agendas, many of which will never be addressed seriously. The GLBT way allows for greater diversity, and some of that annoys certain members—especially the old-school ones. But in terms of real strength, the Jews got it all over the GLBTs. I don't much like it, but it's not about what I like.
Jeremy, Thank you for bravely sharing your story. You hit on vital issues of displacement and loneliness for individuals who feel they don't belong in a conformist community. No one should have to go through such an experience alone. Footsteps is proud to be amongst the organizations working towards rights and inclusion for all members of our community. I hope that your leadership sends a strong message to others who can identify with the isolation you described: there are others out there. With deep admiration, Lani Santo Executive Director www.footstepsorg.org
Thanks, Jeremy, for speaking out on this critical issue and sharing so much.
Jeremy, Thank you for your thoughtful, courageous and moving statement. By exposing the hurtfulness of Paladino's destructive comments, hopefully you will open up the debate and encourage others to take action to build a welcoming culture and society.
Kol HaKavod, Jeremy! A scholar and a mensch! You'll make a nice Jewish man very happy. What mother wouldn't want you to partner with her son? Ach--what a match!
Thank you for the courage to speak painful memories so that we may better understand what is at stake here. You are helping to create more safety and compassion in a situation where hate is being viciously exploited for political ends, hate that results in deep harm to children and teenagers. You continue to provide leadership that is a wonderful balance of the head and the heart, may it always be so.
Thank you for the courage to speak painful memories so that we may better understand what is at stake here. You are helping to create more safety and compassion in a situation where hate is being viciously exploited for political ends, hate that results in deep harm to children and teenagers. You continue to provide leadership that is a wonderful balance of the head and the heart, may it always be so.
Thanks so much for the very personal reminder of what is at stake when we fall so short of upholding the fundamental Jewish tenet of k'vod habriot (human dignity). May you go from hard-won strength to strength and may we as individuals, a people and a nation follow.
For people who have studied Torah, the idea of "pikuach nefesh" doesn't seem to have caught on very well w/them. There is so much I want to say on this subject, but none of it is exactly appropriate for a limited public forum. But it has to do with the acknowledgment of an ideal as a goal rather than a mandate, the idea that Judaism has never been an "all or nothing religion where you must adhere to everything or you fail, & the fact that homosexuality is no more forbidden in Judaism than any other desire is due to any prohibition on any specific act. These people would consider me an am ha'aretz, or maybe even a tinook shenisba, but, on this issue, I consider them a shanda.
Thank you for your personal words. May we live in more sane world bimhera biyamenu where everyone Gay or Straight knows that it can and will get better to just be who you are.
Jeremy, we've been friends for years but I didn't know about this painful childhood - thank you for writing and for leading our community away from the hate expressed by a few.
Jeremy, What a courageous, thoughtful and caring piece you've written--and life you are living. Thanks for the ways this can help to expand the discussion, expose the impact and (hopefully) lead to others working for an inclusive culture and society.

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