This Sunday, Eshel will be hosting a forum in West Orange to discuss and learn about what it means to be an Orthodox ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Several members of the West Orange community asked for our support and guidance in the wake of a recent controversy within the community – the owner of the local kosher bakery canceled an order for a Pride cake. He was later quoted saying “It’s antithetical to an Orthodox Jew.”

I have heard comments like this too many times to count, and still it stings a little. When a reporter asked what my thoughts were on the baker and his actions, my first thought was how sad it is that he feels that being LGBTQ+ is against his values as an Orthodox Jew, to the point where he cannot decorate a cake with a rainbow. To me, the rainbow flag symbolizes and celebrates LGBTQ+ identity – which is not synonymous with any one act, or its halachic status. Symbols are important. Much like an Israeli flag or a Magen David signals to a Jew that they are represented and recognized, so too does a rainbow represent acceptance and care for those who are LGBTQ+. 

Several community members, institutions, and leaders have publicly stated their plans to boycott the bakery. The controversy over whether or not to boycott the bakery has been the “hot topic” in shul, around the Shabbat table, and on social media for the last few weeks in West Orange. In the news, these events are portrayed as a fight between the LGBTQ+ community and the Orthodox community: “The West Orange Bake Shop controversy highlights a hardening cultural divide between the Orthodox and other Jews, especially over LGBTQ+ issues.”

This framing erases our LGBTQ+ Orthodox identities: this controversy is not a fight between “us” and “them.” We are they, they are us – we are Orthodox Jews, and we are LGBTQ+. 

None of us want to be talked about as though we aren’t in the room. When inclusion of LGBTQ+ people is this week’s “hot topic” in the kiddush line, it reinforces the narrative that there is an “LGBTQ+ Issue” in Orthodoxy. There isn’t. There are LGBTQ+ people, inside and outside of Orthodox communities, many of whom are trying to lead frum lives, many of whom are discouraged or turned away by the negative treatment they experience.

It is our hope to use this forum next Sunday to recenter this conversation around our common humanity. By gathering in the home of a community member, seeing one another face-to-face, we are in the ideal place to recognize the fullness of all our identities, to truly listen and understand each other, and to begin to heal. Many Orthodox people want to be allies, but do not always know how to show up for their LGBTQ+ members. This meeting will help them learn more about LGBTQ+ experiences in the Orthodox community, pain points, and how to be a better advocate on a structural level and an ally on an interpersonal level. It is important for us to lift up the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ Orthodox people. I wonder if here, as in Highland Park, the response of those involved would be different if they had an LGBTQ+ child, or if they had close friends who were Orthodox, LGBTQ+ and active in their communities. This event is a wonderful opportunity for more people to gain this perspective.

Miryam Kabakov