Tickets On Sale Now
view counter
For Orthodox Lesbians, A Home Online
Israeli group Bat Kol to launch English website as ‘life-net’ for those struggling with acceptance.
08/16/10
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

 

Like so many newly religious American immigrants to Israel, 20-year-old Sarah Weil immersed herself in Torah studies and the intricacies of Jewish law, learning intently with the strictest chasidic rebbetzins in various Jerusalem seminaries.

 “I desperately wanted to keep Torah and mitzvot and be in the Orthodox world,” said Weil, who made aliyah in 2005.

There was only one problem — no matter how many times she tried to talk herself out of it, Weil, now 26, knew that she was gay, and that homosexuality is considered an abomination in the eyes of many in the Orthodox community.

“I would pray every single day that God would make me ‘normal’ and would direct my attraction toward men,” she told The Jewish Week. Being gay and being religious seemed to Weil like two lines that would never intersect. Being in a secret relationship with another American olah, Talya Lev, only complicated things.

As the two struggled in the closet, they found, seemingly out of the blue, a lifeline. Through a friend, they discovered a fledgling organization called Bat Kol, the only group in Israel devoted to the needs of religious lesbians.

Weil and Lev dove into volunteer work for Bat Kol (Hebrew for “Daughter of a Voice” or “Small Voice”), doing everything from lobbying for gay rights to partaking in the group’s many social and support structures. Eventually they began to play lead roles at the organization.

Now, with the help of a grant from a major Jewish incubator, Weil and Levy are preparing to launch an English version of the Bat Kol website, which up to now has only been in Hebrew. When it is completed in the next few months, the new site will enable religious lesbians here and around the world to tap into Bat Kol’s rich body of resources — a kind of comforting shoulder to lean on in cyberspace — as they struggle for acceptance and try to negotiate two vastly different worlds.

For religious lesbians, Weil said, the new English site will be what she calls a “life-net,” a cross between a lifeline and a safety net.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader at New York’s LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, said that Bat Kol would’ve been “enormously helpful” when she was growing up as an Orthodox — yet gay — teenager at The Frisch School in Bergen County in the late ’70s.

“The plague for Jewish lesbians is invisibility,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said. “Bat Kol is a wonderful organization. I have known of them for many years. I myself counsel many people who are struggling with issues of Jewish religious identity and being gay. It’s essential that there be a visible presence of organizations like Bat Kol. Visibility is the most important thing to combat the loneliness that so many Jewish lesbians feel.”

The current Hebrew website includes a wide range of information and support, such as lessons of tolerance from the parshas, personal stories and struggles from religious lesbians, and commentary about how homosexuality can fit into Judaism — what’s forbidden and what’s allowed. Recaps of the latest LGBT-related news stories and Knesset sessions touching on issues of interest to the gay community also appear on the page, as well as links to other helpful organizations and sites.

In addition to details of all upcoming Bat Kol events and related projects, visitors can find details and contact information for all of the organization’s subgroups — different clusters for youth, older women and mothers of religious lesbians, for example.

All of this is expected to be in place on the English version of the site in a few months as Lev awaits the $10,000 grant she received from ROI (“Return on Investment”), a social entrepreneurship venture of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

“We were looking for projects that support the same values that the foundation supports — whether it’s about Jerusalem or inclusiveness or diversity,” said No’a Gorlin, grants manager for ROI. “So we were very careful to support projects of interfaith and Jews of color and among them also projects supporting gays and lesbians.” This year, the first year of ROI grants, Bat Kol was the only LGBT organization to receive funding, she confirmed.

The English version of the Bat Kol site appears as the Orthodox community is grappling with a response to those in its ranks who are observant and homosexual. The signals have been torturously mixed.

Just last month, a group of Orthodox scientists seemed to give tacit approval to an organization whose aim is to “cure” homosexuals of their same-sex orientation. The same week, dozens of Modern Orthodox rabbis, educators and mental health professionals signed onto a “statement of principles,” drafted by New York Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, which calls for immediate welcome of homosexuals into synagogues and community schools, despite the fact that the signatories view heterosexual marriage as the “sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.”

All of this follows a panel discussion about issues of Orthodoxy and homosexuality earlier this year at, of all places, Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution; it drew a reported 500 to 700 people.

n

Bat Kol began under the leadership of Avigail Sperber, 36, who first attracted media attention in 2004 when she wrote a screenplay about an Orthodox lesbian and for the first time went public with her identity.

“That was the thing that started what became Bat Kol,” said Sperber, who now has a 2-year-old son with her live-in partner.

What began as a group of 10 cautious women meeting monthly in 2004 has now grown to approximately 400 members, some of them out, some closeted.

“For many women it [exposure to Bat Kol] was the first time they met any lesbian face to face, religious, of course,” Sperber said. “All of the women said, ‘I’m not lesbian; I just love my girlfriend.’ There was a lot of self-homophobia.”

Unlike most of the women in the group, Sperber, whose father, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is a black-hat religious leader at Bar Ilan University, benefited from her family’s gradual support. Her mother started a support group for the mothers of religious lesbians, which eventually merged with a larger group called Tehila, an organization for parents of gay children.

“We have a religious role here and we can make a change,” Sperber said. “It’s not just about accepting lesbians. It’s about changing something in the religious world and teaching the religious world to accept others — all kinds of others, not only gays but all kinds of people that are not Jewish or not religious — all kinds of things that are not exactly by the book.”

While Bat Kol members believe that their sexual preferences are within the bounds of Jewish law — a position that runs counter to the view expressed in most Orthodox circles — they have not yet publicly addressed the halachic details.

“We deal with mystery; there is no halachic response,” Weil said. “We’re dealing with homophobia within the Orthodox society that is not even based in a real halachic reason but is based in hatred and fear. … We haven’t even gotten to the point where our rabbis [the group has a number of rabbinic advisers] have even been able to address the halachic issue.”

The organization, which until the ROI grant had not received any formal funding, has thus far survived solely on the efforts of volunteers who offer social activities, numerous support groups and educational tools, Lev explained. Bat Kol also worked with the Orthodox gay male group Havruta to establish Shoval, a group that educates teachers about Israel’s LGBT community and promotes tolerance.

“You can’t imagine how incredibly reassuring it is to know that Bat Kol is there,” Lev said. “There is an organization operating for my right to live a full life.”

The English site is likely to increase the organization’s reach, specifically to new arrivals to Israel.

“I know that many women outside of Israel need the same thing we have,” Sperber said. “There were many times that, because of the language barrier, we couldn’t give women who came here to learn for a year or women who are olot [female immigrants] the support they needed.”

Weil, who arrived in Israel with little knowledge of Hebrew, said having Bat Kol’s resources available in English would have made her transition to Israel much smoother. In addition to making Bat Kol’s support networks more widely available, she stresses the importance of relaying to the world “the incredible steps that are happening within the Orthodox community.” Weil points to the mere fact that organizations like Bat Kol and Havruta are forcing rabbis to begin confronting the issue of Orthodox LGBTs, as they show up openly for services and Jewish community activities.

“Girls sitting home in the states or Europe or wherever, they have no idea that [a Hebrew newspaper] interview [about Bat Kol initiatives] happened,” Lev said. “They have no access to the information to show them that there is actually a presence in the media, that there’s dialogue happening about it.”

One such girl, 23-year-old Hayley Goldstein, benefited from attending meetings at smaller New York groups, such as Tirtzah, a predominantly online forum with occasional in-person meetings for frum gay women, and Ma’agal: The Nehirim Women’s Circle, which caters to a Renewal audience and meets monthly at the JCC in Manhattan.

“For a long time I felt like I couldn’t reconcile [my gay and religious identities]. I thought, either I’ll marry a guy or not be religious anymore,” said Goldstein, who now lives in Boulder, Colo. “But I think being in New York and going to these different meetings was so nice to see that other people are struggling with this.”

Goldstein said that there are few resources for Orthodox lesbians comparable to those at Bat Kol, and having access to its materials and activities would benefit so many young English-speakers struggling with these issues.

For better or for worse, Weil and Lev’s romantic relationship ended about eight months ago. But in terms of Bat Kol — their association with the group eventually led the couple to go public with their relationship — and the fight for Orthodox lesbians, their partnership remains quite strong.

Reflecting on their relationship, Weil said, “We couldn’t express who we really were. It was like living a double life and at some point the pressure of that and the stress, I think, creates a psychological illness. Being gay is not a psychological illness.

“We separated,” she continued, “but because this project was so important, we realized we had to work together to make it happen.”

Lev added, “[Bat Kol] is bigger than us — it’s about people’s lives.”

 

 

Last Update:

07/13/2015 - 07:27
Bat Kol, homosexuality, Orthodox and homosexual, Sarah Weil, Talya Lev
The Jewish Week App -- Now Available!
view counter

ADD YOUR COMMENT

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Hi Talya,

I can only imagine how difficult a situation you find yourself in. While I do not agree with the perspective that lesbianism is allowed in halacha, I also understand that we are human. I know you grew up orthodox, and I wanted to know why you (and many people like you) would not consider being involved with a jewish synagogue such as the Masorti movement or Conservadox ( some of them practice almost identically to modern orthodox) so that you could have a community that would be more accepting of your beliefs and that interprets the torah in such a way that they allow it. I understand its not the same exactly as orthodoxy, but wouldn't that be better for you? Then at least you could feel congruent with your beliefs and be able to openly be part of the community and accepted. I think this is also better than to try to change orthodoxy and things that have been halacha for a very long time. In this way you would not be offending orthodox people, and you might have a better life. I hope you will not mind answering. Thank you

I think the anonymous post addressing Talya's post is missing a point - she's not saying she "feels" like being with women instead of men, she's saying she's physically repulsed by the idea of being with men. I think though, Talya, that your feeling that you don't have a choice isn't as true as it feels. I have had struggles throughout my life with sexual choices that I never felt I had a choice about, but I think that is an excuse we use. We don't have a choice, so then it's ok. But we do, they just aren't easy changes. We don't want to tell ourselves we can change or look at ways to change because then we have to admit that there's something wrong with the choices we've accepted. But that's what growth is all about. There are organizations out there that really do help people, like http://jonahweb.org/index.php but step one is recognizing that it's ok to want to change. I think there's a reason Bat Kol hasn't yet addressed the halachic issues... One thing that I agree is important, is that a person should never be shunned or hated for who they are, just like a person who is not religious should still be loved though we want them to become religious, it's out of love for them we should desire it.

Talya- I think you're coming from a really good place and there's some very important lessons in what you're saying. However, I also think the mistakes in your approach outweigh those positive gems. The essential fallacy in your stance is that you confuse doing what *feels* right with doing what *is* right. To take your stance and simply reverse the genders, one could argue that men should be free to sleep around with multiple women, since that's what we're biologically programmed to do and it's extremely frustrating to be with just the one permitted woman (esp. when she's niddah). (and yes, I know polygamy was once permitted- but that doesn't address this point as men tend to desire what they don't have, and in any case polygamy is now forbidden for most Jews) Or to take your stance and simply change the situation- should a man not put on teffillin and doven the obligatory prayers (like shema) simply because he doesn't feel like it? Basically, just because we feel inadequate or unmotivated to give Hashem what He desires, it's not really a viable reason to not do it anyway. So it might seem I'm 100% against your position- but that's not really true. I think it's an important stepping stone for many women. It might be okay to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward at a later date. At least most of the Rabbis I know would say so. The problem is knowing whether or not it is in fact leading to better teshuva down the line. It's kindof like taking drugs. For some people it's very destructive since it's a step down, for others it's a step up since it opens their mind to spirituality. But everyone agrees that the goal is to eventually have the spirituality without the drugs. I think you need to have an end-goal in sight of controlling your sexual urges in a kosher way, and then maybe it's okay for you to feel comfortable violating the halacha in the meantime (not meant sarcastically, I mean that). B'hatzlacha
It's very easy to judge someone else without being in their shoes, and very easy to call names rather than looking at one's own self and the root of that name calling. I, for one, am deeply in love with Hashem, Israel, and the Jewish people and consider it to be the core relationship of my life. The fact that I am gay does not affect my capacity to love, nor does it prevent me from having children who will grow up in a Jewish home. It does affect my ability to physically, emotionally, and spiritually connect with a man and become one with him, and the reality is that I cannot give a husband the basics of what a healthy marriage requires. If anything, one of the most important things I realized when it comes to giving is that it must be done in a healthy way, whether it is activism for gush katif or in interpersonal relationships. The mistake is that many people who have preconceived notions about homosexuality assume it is a choice - for myself, and for many, many others, there is no choice. I cannot raise children in a home where every night I would go to bed next to a man and force myself to sleep with him and every morning wake up feeling disgusting - that feeling would only carry over into every aspect of my life, affect my health, be cruel to him, a farce, and create an unhealthy environment for anyone connected to me. This is not how I want to bring children into the world. I am fortunate to know beautiful gay women who have raised and are raising children, and those children are full of light and life, and yes, have a commitment to Jewish values and Israel. I don't believe I can directly change anyone's opinion, and in my experience, even writing this only makes those who are opposed to homosexuality become even more virulent in expressing their views. But for those who are interested and do have the capacity to listen, and not only hear, perhaps this will shed some light.
Anonymous: Your comment is hilariously misinformed taken in light of the fact that most of the Orthodox lesbians I know have 7+ kids from earlier straight marriages, or are having babies (or adopting) with their female partners. The idea of a lesbian as "not having babies" is very out of date
another narcissistic young jew, who only thinks of itself, and not what impact on the jewish society.... how many more young women need to only think of themselves and not having jewish children in a proper setting...... stop thinking its only about me, and think about the greater good for the jewish people who are being systematically downsized by jewish women not having children, while the arabs have multiple children...
invisibility may not be such a bad thing. one's private life and sexuality need not be the focus of every encounter one has.
this article is great and really interesting - an aspect of orthodoxy that many are afraid to touch. fantastic, brave work, sharon.

view counter