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Gay Orthodox Shabbaton Was Like ‘Heaven’

For those on the margins, a new sense of belonging at first-ever event.

02/08/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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Usually, when Adam goes to shul, he feels like part of him is just not there. In the black-hat synagogue he attends with his children, he feels that he’s always guarding the secret that he’s gay.

Although he grew up in the haredi community and attended its institutions, he no longer feels comfortable in that world, even as his children are very much integrated into the community. While he has come out to his ex-wife, his children still don’t know.

Last month, he walked into Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Isabella Friedman Retreat Center and felt exhilarated, as the first-ever Orthodox gay lesbian transgender community Shabbaton was beginning. Gone were his fears of not being accepted.

Adam, who is in his 30s, said the minyan, with its mechitza, was in the Orthodox tradition, a “service that my own black-hat father would feel right at home in. There were literally people with black hats. There’s something so powerful about not having to withhold part of me. I hadn’t connected to a Friday-night tefilla, prayer, like that in many years.”

That high continued through the weekend.

Others among the 140 attendees echoed Adam's words. Participants included 40 women and 100 men of all ages, among them couples with children, people like Adam who grew up Orthodox and were struggling to somehow fit in, ba’alei teshuvah, converts, and those who left the Orthodox world and were now on its margins.

Some were very much in the closet, others were out, and some came out after the weekend. One male couple has a civil marriage and is now planning a religious ceremony, and invited fellow participants to join them. One haredi young man came from England, with the encouragement of a Reform rabbi in whom he confided.

The Shabbaton was organized by Eshel, a collaborative program established by individuals and organizations involved in the Orthodox gay Jewish world, including JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), GLYDSA (Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni), Tirtzah, Orthodykes and Nehirim. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, director of Orthodox programming for Nehirim and a member of the seven-person steering commission of Eshel, describes the Shabbaton as an “unmitigated success of the Orthodox gay community.”

Eshel was formed last summer, just around the same time, coincidentally, as a group of Orthodox rabbis issued the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which affirmed that all human beings are to be treated with respect and urged that those Jews with gay orientation be welcomed as full members of the community.

The Shabbaton, meant to be a safe space for attendees to express themselves, was decidedly closed to the press. But shortly after the Jan. 21-23 event, organizers felt that “this was too important a moment not to share,” and invited a reporter to speak with participants. Like Adam, many of the people quoted here are referred to by pseudonyms to protect their privacy. The details of their lives are true.

Adam, whose marriage broke up years ago, is very protective of his children, and understands that the ramifications for them in the haredi community would be huge, if he were to come out. He’s now in a relationship with another man, who’s from a Conservative background and is accommodating to his religious needs. But he remains Orthodox, feeling “foremost a father. This is their world.”

As much of a high as the Shabbaton was, Adam says it’s just not the reality of his life. But the experience has motivated him to move more quickly toward finding a more integrated life. He’s begun the process of trying to figure out how to tell those closest to him, to change this “bizarre half-life that has eclipsed me.

“I feel strongly based on my personal experiences that the continuing push for non-openness — people say, ‘This is your issue, we’ll accept your struggle, but don’t talk about it’ — is so damaging,” he says. That’s what led me to make a very bad choice. At the end of the day I stood under the chupah.”

Sarah, who is in her late 20s and lives outside of Philadelphia, feels very isolated in her Orthodox community but believes there is room for “compassionate acceptance.” Being at the Shabbaton made her realize for the first time that a relationship with a Jewish woman who shared her religious commitment was actually possible.

For Hayley, 33, who is transgender, the entire weekend was “heaven, like walking through a dream. You didn’t feel like you were being analyzed or judged, no need to look around worrying about what other people were thinking.” She attended along with her wife Lena and 7-year-old son.

Hayley grew up as an Orthodox man in the Sephardic world, where he was taunted, not supported by the rabbis, and never felt like he fit in; he later served in the U.S. Navy and married. After five years of marriage, he told Lena about the cross-gender feelings that were making him feel miserable in his life. Lena supported his efforts to change sexes, and they have remained a couple.

Their son used to go to a yeshiva, but after Haley’s transition, they sent him to a public school out of concerns for his comfort and hope someday to switch him back. The couple prefers Sephardic-type services but rarely go to synagogue in their Brooklyn neighborhood, as Haley knows that some people in the community know about her, including some relatives, and “people in this community can be violent.” She adds, “I feel that rabbis and other should reserve their judgment until they’ve been in my shoes.”

Hayley, who punctuates her conversation with “Baruch Hashem,” thanking God, says that they would like to find a close-knit community where she and Lena could feel at home. She laughs and says that they have many more friends now that she’s a woman, and most are Orthodox.

Some participants cried on the telephone as they recalled experiences with rabbis who told them they were unwelcome to study in their yeshivas or that “suicide wasn’t such a bad outcome if therapy didn’t work,” or relatives who sent condolences as though they had cancer. Several spoke of being sent by family members and rabbis to reparative therapy — with the intention that they would be “fixed” or changed — and how painful and damaging that was.

For Yoshi, who grew up with emotional and physical abuse, the very rabbis who brought him deeper into a committed Orthodox lifestyle were the ones who rejected him once they learned of his sexuality, tore his belief away from him and fractured his relationship with God. He attended with his partner, and both are thinking of becoming rabbis.

Several participants said that they made their own peace with halacha, or were at least at peace with themselves, citing that very few people can strictly follow all of the laws, and that they try to live with integrity, according to Torah values. Some spoke of possibilities of different interpretations. One man admitted he had no good answers, and has both respect for the halacha and a strong feeling that “this is the way that God made me.”

Moshe, 45, who lives in the South and feels triply ostracized as Jewish, Orthodox and gay, says, “Orthodoxy needs to evolve, to embrace gays and lesbians in their midst. They are in their midst. Nobody here is trying to change halacha; we’re not trying to negate the Torah. We’re trying to ask, Will people please make room for us?”

A member of the group that built the gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Barry, 64, found that Orthodox liturgy speaks to him most and now belongs to an Orthodox shul on the Upper West Side. He has come out with his rabbi, and feels that many in the synagogue know about his status, even if they don’t talk about it, and have long been welcoming toward him.

Joe, a graduate student in psychology in his mid-20s from the New York area who identifies as Modern Orthodox down to the core, says that he gained a historical perspective on the issues by attending the Shabbaton. He now has great admiration for those who are generations older who had remarkable courage.

“I have the Internet — I would still be in the closet without it,” he adds.

Yehuda Greenberg, project director for Eshel, said that the Shabbaton exceeded expectations. While they had initially thought of it as an annual event, they will probably hold them more frequently.

“There has been a watershed change in the last 10 years in how this challenge is being addressed in the Orthodox community,” says Naomi S. Mark, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in New York City who sees a lot of Orthodox LGBT clients as well as their families.

“The Shabbaton was a milestone in showing how the Orthodox gay community is getting organized, supporting each other’s efforts to stay connected to their religious roots even as they explore their identity in new ways.”

Mark sees the conventional Orthodox community as much more open than a decade ago, and encourages gay people to keep telling their stories to promote understanding. “It makes one hopeful for what can happen in another 10 years.

Last Update:

07/27/2014 - 17:32

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Very interesting to contrast the compassion of one side with the intolerance of the other.
It seems like a general inability to deal with "difference" and a need for utter submission to conformity will continue to stifle a large portion of orthodoxy

In my experience, this includes not only LGBT but women,non-orthodox jews and the rest of humanity!

"THIS IS A CHILUL HASHEM which is a cardinal sin that one must die for." Whoever said this might as well be a Taliban. Shame on you. Do you read? Do you even try to understand where others are coming from?
He'll be able to change? How? He may be celibate, but he may have been celibate before. Modern Orthodoxy will welcome or should welcome every Jew, whatever their sin. Everyone's financial contributions count at the bank. The question we now must ask, what about gay couples? By formalizing shared living arrangements, the presence of gay couples represents a change in society. They think they are doing the right thing and deserve to be treated like everyone else.
Judaism and homosexualityare obviously in opposition, and every Jewish homosexual, of course, knows it. However the strong desire of a Jewish homosexual to be Orthodox, even though he knows full well that his acts are considered an abomination by the Torah and by normative Orthodox Jews, is positive. In a Reform or Consservative synagogue, his behavior is welcomed -- as would, for that matter, most behavior that is in gross violation of Torah and halachic norms, such as Sabbath or Kashrut observance. Indeed, the Reform or Conservative Rabbi might say "I drive on Shabbat, I eat pork, I am gay. I'm OK, and you're OK. Welcome." The one who violates Halachic norms will therefore be as OK as the Rabbi. So long that he is in the Orthodox shul, the violator of Halacha -- of Shabbos, or Kashrus, or the sexual laws -- knows that he's doing wrong. But he stays there anyway because he wants to do the right thing. He'll therefore be able to change, and eventually do the right thing.
Bottom line: The main reason why homosexuality is so anti Torah is because it uproots the foundation of Judaism. One of the fundamentals of Judaism is to marry and have children. Without future generations there is no way Judaism would exist. Being gay would demolish Yidishkeit. When gay people have a forum and come together it is like adulterers coming together and having a forum. THIS IS A CHILUL HASHEM which is a cardinal sin that one must die for.
Some of these "orthodox" Jews like Steven Greenberg are in fact not Orthodox. Anyone who attempts to change the normative halacha and to reject the teachings of our Sages is, quite simply, not orthodox. The Torah does not say that being gay is a sin. But it does say that acting on that desire is. There is simply no way around that. An active homosexual lifestyle, according to the Torah, is sinful. Its is also a separate sin when certain Jews try to teach others that an active homosexual lifestyle is not a sin and to lead others to live such a lifestyle. This in Hebrew is called "lifne iver," putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.
Wearing pride kipot, will that promote the cause? A gay/straight alliance? Rainbow kipot for Conservative services would be welcoming, no dissonance there. We are all queer.
Modern Orthodoxy is tolerant of diversity. I don't see the hasidic and yeshiva worlds showing much compassion. Will Eshel change their point of view? What you need is to convince a member of the Moetzes to come out on vos iz neias, not the Jewish Week.
To those who want us to be invisible (and both the article and Shabbaton were incredibly discrete) I would simply say this. Twenty years ago, the frum world wanted drug using teens to be invisible. Ten years ago it was domestic violence. Five years ago eating disorders. Last year, molestation. Then it was a shanda to mention it. Now, you'd be hard pressed to find a frum Rabbi of any stripe and status who hasn't issued a statement or sat on a panel dealing with all of the above issues head on. So keep posting. And the world is going to keep changing no matter what.
If Eshel encourages frum gays to "come out," are they doing a mitzvah, a public service? Will the sheer numbers change public opinion? The acceptance of gay marriage is a national trend. Is that Eshel's purpose, to introduce same sex couples to create more same sex couples to shout it on the streets?
To the "righteous" Jews spewing hatred in these comments, and elsewhere, I'm assuming this means you have not experienced any conflicts between what you believe at your core and who you are as a human being, nor had to struggle to reconcile the two. How wonderful for you. So perhaps you can afford to have a little compassion for those who have been less fortunate? I'm not observant, have a relative who is, and was deeply upset when he came out because I assumed he would face rejection by the Orthodox world, which is his life. I was never happier to be wrong, his particular community has embraced him for the wonderful person that he is. I'm glad that at least part of the observant community has evolved to this point, and I'm so happy that Eshel is out there to reach out to those who are still struggling.
To CSR: How is a warm, welcoming shabbaton for people who are struggling a means of pushing an agenda? It was an outlet, a safe-haven, a way to reconnect with one's entire self as well as with a like-minded community and with Hashem. This very much my idea of attempting to heal wounds that seemed as though they would never begin to close. That this event was the very first of its kind has caught the media's attention. Furthermore, the purpose in publicizing these types of events provide a new outlet, a source of hope for those wallowing in the pain of leading a fragmented life; and even some semblance of understanding to those who are willfully ignorant. Eshel envisioned and hosted a wonderful event for a sub-community in need (this includes the strength that this idea of a Gay Orthodox Shabbaton gave--and gives--those who are still not comfortable with who they are). This shabbaton was NOT created for the general, usually closed-minded Orthodox public, and was certainly not to "push an agenda." From the bottom of my heart, I commend Eshel for conceiving of and providing this wonderful opportunity. I wish I had been able to attend.
As Talya said, what the Shabbaton gave her is "strength to seek out finding a partner and making a life for myself in which my yiddishkeit is central." Frum gays are a minority. Does the community want them to disappear? Is it better that they seek relationships with nonJews? Statistically, the majority of Americans aren't marrying. They are living in sin. Everybody seems to tolerate that, so why not frum and gay?
You ask if I want frum gays to disappear? That's a joke if I ever heard one. By definition, frum gays WILL disappear. They cannot reproduce so they will have no offspring and surely disappear.
To CSR. Frum gays are born, in general, to heterosexual couples. As long as frum people reproduce, there will be frum gay Jews. There have always been and always will be gays in every population. No one is disappearing to make your life more comfortable. Get over it.
(not to mention dozens and dozens of kids that were left home by attendees, some of whom might lose everything if their sexuality was discovered)
Hm... That's funny, because there were at least SIX KIDS & TEENS at the shabbaton, all of them being raised in FRUM homes by gay frum parents. Most of them attending mainstream Orthodox schools.
I always find it astounding how the American Jewish media outlets, such as the various Jewish community newspapers, have this need to bad-mouth Sephardic Jews, and do so without even blinking an eye. It's quite offensive, actually. The article just takes it as a given that the Sephardic community is "violent" and less "tolerant." It may be the case that Sephardic Jews are more "salt of the earth" (not latte-drinking snobs like our Ashkenazi brethren). And yes, sometimes this translates into being more traditional on matters of human sexuality. But let's not forget that the man-made distinction between "Ashkenaz" and "Sepharad" happened many years after the Torah was written. And so if you disagree with the Torah on the issues of sexuality (which is your right, of course), take it up with Hashem, don't bad-mouth an entire community.
Do not be angry because an article posted some grain of truth about the Sefardic cultures. You yourself do not deny the reference to violence, but to the contrary, you seem to justify it with the Torah? What next, it is OK for Sefardim to use their cultural traits learned from Arabs to beat their wives as well because the Torah says a wife has to obey her husband? Your reply is shameful and disgusting to any Sefardim or Ashkenazim, if you think violence against Gays is justified because Sefardim are "more traditional" "salt of the earth" types when it comes to interpreting the Torah. There is no room for ANY violence in the name of Jewish religion. Leave your customs you learned from barbaric Muslims in your host country. Welcome to America for now, where it is NOT OK to justify any form of violence in the name of religion against anyone. No one is bad-mouthing your community but yourself, with your ignorant reply.
Mordecai, This weekend was NOT about healing any wounds. This weekend was about pushing an agenda -- just like the gay agenda in the non-Jewish world. The gays are not content doing what they do under the radar. They want to bring this out in the open and push it as an 'alternative' lifestyle. Sexuality (even the heterosexual type) is never publicized in the Orthodox Jewish religion. The public aspect of this type of weekend ipso facto makes this a non-Orthodox event and the attendees should not delude themselves otherwise.
Sex may not publicized in the orthodox jewish religion, but sexuality most definitely is. Have you ever heard an engagement announcement in shul? gone to a 400 person wedding?, invited to a huge singles weekend in the catskills? seen a mother in shul proudly tell her friends that her daughter is home from israel and needs a shidduch? In Orthodoxy, Straight people publicly display their heterosexuality, partners, availability, and even their singles issues, most publicly. Gay Orthodox people have no interest in talking about their private sexual actions in public. In fact, no where in the article does it even hint as to what kind of sexual behavior did or did not take place. Gay Jews just dont want to have to lie to their communities anymore. Why do they have to pretend to be something we are not?, who does that even help? Would you want your daughter to have to go out with a gay guy? Shouldnt this guy just be able to say that he is gay? That is not un-tznius, he told you nothing about his behavior or sexual activity. Discretion doesn't imply that straight people should never tell people they are striaght...it just asks them not to talk about their sexual activity The aggenda here is to stop the bullying, stop the silencing, the lying, stop the hateful rhetoric, and start remembering not to judge others until you've walked in their shoes. Stated many times in this article and at the Shabbaton, this was not about changing hallacha, or ignoring mitzvot. There is such shame that gay orthodox jews grow up feeling. It is so beautiful that finally, using shabbos, yiddishkeit and comoraderie, they are finally starting to heal and develop a sense of pride. This is a real Kiddush Hashem.
On behalf of some beloved family members, I am glad this happened and is happening. I have often wondered whether being gay making it not possible to observe one mitzvah has been a factor in drawing some Jews toward more devout, Torah-centered, orthodox lives and communities. If this impulse started as a sort of compensation, I still celebrate the intense faith and efforts at righteous living practiced by those who accept that there is one mitzvah they will remain unable to fulfill.
This shabbaton re-invigorated my commitment to Orthodoxy and a Torah-centered life... gave me strength to seek out finding a partner and making a life for myself in which my yiddishkeit is central... made me feel like the life I want is possible. Thank G-d for this wonderful shabbaton and all of the people who helped make it happen. Thank you!
An OXIMORON if there ever was one. If anyone denies the validity of even ONE mitzvah, it is as if he denies the entire Torah and CANNOT call himself orthodox. At the very least, if one cannot resist sinning, he should do what he is doing privately and stop trying justify it and to incorporate it into the religion. Could you imagine a group of murderers, idol worshipers, ham eaters, etc. etc. getting together to make a Shabbaton, claiming they are being discriminated against, but claiming they are still Orthodox? No one denies people have inclinations to do things that are wrong, but one does not advertise his shortcomings!
I don't think members of the gay community are necessarily denying the validity of a mitzvah or the Torah; but, all Jews should feel welcome to pray to Gd and be part of the Jewish community. I agree with you that it is not appropriate to advertise private matters but gay Jews are also part of Am Yisrael and there is no Jew who does not have shortcomings.
Once again, some commentators don't read the article and just spew hatred, bad analogies, and abandon reason or logic. 1. where in this article do you see anyone claiming to deny the validity of a mitzvah?, The weekend wasnt about changing hallacha. The hallacha is referring to a sexual act, this weekend was for gay people. Just like people are straight before ever having sex, Gay people are most definitely gay, regardless of engaging in any specific sexual act. No where in the article does it imply that any prohibited act was performed, sanctioned, or even rationalized. 2. in your analogy, you suppose that because someone is gay, they are most definitely like someone who eats ham...but you have no idea if a person who is gay is sinning. The analogy is terrible. 3. The weekend was about healing the wounds of being bullied, rejected and ashamed. Much like there are support groups for Agunahs, We dont look at an agunah and say "oh she is just a woman who wants to have hallachic adultery, but cant...why is she any different than a woman who wants to murder". No, instead, we use rachmanus and humility. I only wish Orthodox people would show some logical consistence.
being gay is one of the worst sins in the torah and it pushes away the salvation.... how could you call it a gay orthodox shul? reformed people that drive to shul on shabat, are violating the shabbat, wich is also one of the worst sins but atleast they call themself reformed.... jus cuz someone dresses orthodox and eats cholent doesnt mean that hes orthodox... we have to beat our desires thats what were here for... not to make a shul out of it...

I am not Jewish, but I am homosexual. It shocks me that orthodox people condemn me over a god that is nothing more than a puff of smoke. That's all Moses saw up the hill.

It is easy for you to judge if you are not facing the same situation.

being gay is not something you can change. Being gay is also not a sin.

Some Orthodox rabbis have signed a Declaration that gays can change their desires through reparative therapy. At best that is wishful thinking. Although some of these rabbis are great poskim they are promoting a lie. People don't ever change their sexual orientation through either therapy or prayer.

http://bit.ly/Jck4ZV

http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_exod1.htm

In the Torah per Orthodox halachah having gay anal sexual relations is a serious sin if you are a man.

For gay people it is too alienating to be around only straight people it does nothing to help them obey any commandments.

Most gay people are not willing to be celibate to obey the Torah. Would you be willing to be celibate?

A very rare individual may choose celibacy for the sake of the commandment. But he still will be gay. Will you then support him? Or
will you still condemn him"?

There is nothing gained in condemning Gay Synagogues or Reform Synagogues although some rabbis have forbidden them.

A truly mind blowing event. As one who was not raised Jewish in any real sense, yet was always deeply intrigued with Orthodoxy for unexplainable reasons, and still yet steered away due to sexual orientation, this event left me utterly stunned. A 48 hour event was truly life altering. I cannot wait for another event just like it!

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