At Orthodox mental health group’s forum, openly gay Jews get their say and some support

HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. (JTA) — The 15th annual conference of Nefesh International, an association of Orthodox mental health professionals, was a study in inclusion.

Dr. Judith Guedelia, the director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s neuropsychology unit, became the first woman to receive the conference’s Esther Solomon Mental Health Award. Several participants noted the increased Chasidic representation. And three openly gay men for the first time were permitted to set up a table. Members of Jewish Queer Youth, a support group for Orthodox and formally Orthodox LGBT Jews, they distributed informational materials and debated — and occasionally berated — conference participants.

The JQY members were allowed to participate in last weekend’s conference at a Long Island hotel only as individual advocates raising awareness, not under the banner of an organization. And only after a special appeal to Nefesh.

“They wanted to talk about their struggles as homosexuals in the Orthodox world,” said Simcha Feuerman, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in New York and the president of Nefesh. “Mental health professionals should be aware of those voices.”

Feuerman noted that as an organization that abides by halachah, or Jewish law, Nefesh cannot support any organization that “normalizes” homosexual behavior.

“On the other hand, we certainly have great compassion and interest in the challenges and struggles that persons with homosexual desires and orientation experience,” he said.

The inclusion of openly gay men at the conference represents yet another shift, however incremental, in the willingness of the Orthodox community to candidly discuss homosexuality. It also comes as Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing, or JONAH — an organization that promotes so-called reparative therapy for Orthodox gays — did not participate in the conference after its controversial appearance last year. JONAH co-founder Arthur Goldberg told JTA that he had a prior engagement in Florida.

“The last few years have seen a seismic shift in attitudes toward LGBT people in Orthodox communities,” said Jay Michaelson, the author of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.” “To an outsider, things may seem barely to have changed. But to those of us who are part of or work with Orthodox communities, the change has been dramatic.”

Last year, a gay Shabbaton in Connecticut attracted more than 150 guests. In the summer of 2010, a group of more than 150 Orthodox rabbis and mental health professionals endorsed a statement that called for greater sympathy from rabbis and counselors, urged families not to cast out gay children and cast doubt on reparative therapy, which most mental health professionals consider a sham. And just last month, a rabbi ordained as Orthodox performed a gay commitment ceremony in Washington.

The developments are not without their opponents, however.

A statement on homosexuality signed by several leading Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox mental health professionals asserts that homosexuality is a curable condition and calls for resistance against “the infiltration” of gay activists in the Orthodox community. The statement, publicized last week on the Huffington Post, forbids a gay individual from being alone with a member of the same sex and cautions Orthodox individuals about “accepting some false notions.”

On Saturday evening, Rabbi Dovid Cohen, one of three rabbinic advisers to Nefesh, spoke on making a distinction between sin and organized sin — comments interpreted by many conference-goers as targeting homosexuality in general and JQY in particular.

In an interview with JTA, Cohen said that anyone who organizes to reject a provision of the Torah should be regarded as a traitor. They should still be treated for their illness, he said, but not with compassion.

“It’s as if someone was asked to treat an enemy soldier who is trying to kill him,” Cohen said. “We shouldn’t have empathy.”

At the conference, JQY members sought to distinguish between having a homosexual orientation and practicing gay sex, with only the latter prohibited by the Torah.

“JQY doesn’t challenge anything in the Torah,” said Mordechai Levovits, the co-executive director of JQY. “We understand that there are some acts that are halachically problematic, but we believe that [gays] can be openly themselves and still be part of the community and their families.”

According to Levovitz, JQY does not “support or encourage sexual or intimate behavior… and adheres to the principal of tzniut [modesty], which demands that intimate behavior stays private and discrete.” The group, he says, only seeks “to combat shame, bullying and ostracizing while making families, yeshivas and communities safe and welcoming to their gay members.”

Despite the debate, many conference participants appeared supportive of the JQY members and were pleased by their presence. A steady stream approached their station at the end of the hall featuring a well-stocked collection of testimonials about harmful therapeutic practices and statements from Orthodox rabbis on homosexuality. One of two television screens played a video of gay men describing the trauma they experienced as youths in the Orthodox community.

“People need to hear that there is a gay population in the Orthodox community that needs to be integrated,” said Malka Engel, a social worker and psychoanalyst who practices in Manhattan and on Long Island.

“Why not?” said a therapist who preferred to remain unnamed. “We’d rather find a way to treat than kick them out. How can we learn anything without talking to them?”

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