By Melanie Weiss

As we’ve explored in earlier posts by and about Orthodox Jews who are also LGBTQ (including a round-up of blogs, a video from hip-hop artist Y-Love, what it;s like to come out at an Orthodox high school, and an interview with the first out gay Orthodox rabbi), being Orthodox and LGBTQ is complicated. Luckily, in recent years there have been a growing number people and organizations providing support, safe space, and resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Esheldedicated to building “understanding, support, and community for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in traditional Jewish communities,” is a prominent example of the work being done by, and on behalf of, LGBT Orthodox Jews.

Creative Common/Paolo Crosetto

In January 2013, the author of this post attended a shabbaton organized by Eshel. These reflections originally ran on his blog, Orthodox, Gay, and Married JewWe’re grateful for the opportunity to share his powerful post.

Like angels in the sky
in a garden full of glory
the galaxies so brilliantly related
ultimately high
on that first page of our story

The shabbaton started with davening on Friday night. I had been to support groups in the past, both for JQY or Jewish Queer Youth (an organization based in NYC whose primary objective is to give support to young men and woman struggling with issues related to being LGBT; please see for more information) and a non-religious (and non-agenda driven) support group for gay married men (if you would like information about this group, please email me). When I went to these groups, which had about 10-20 people, I was scared and overwhelmed.

Fast forward to Eshel. Walking in on 120 or more people made me feel like a deer in headlights. At first I stood in the back of the shul and observed. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down. As davening continued with the singing of kabbalas Shabbos, I suddenly found myself feeling the warmth of the room rush through my body. There were opening remarks that further made me feel like I was finding a new family.

By the time Maariv came along I gathered the courage and decided to find my way to the middle of the shul. As I walked toward one of the few open seats I was greeted with wide and welcoming smiles. People vigorously shook my hand and said good Shabbos. I was part of something rich. A feeling of camaraderie took hold of me that I had never felt before.

So listen brother, listen friend
Just a little smile, a helping hand
And we all will find a loving kind humanity
We must teach our children to
Treat your fellow friends like they were you
And then we all find some peace of mind and unity

I found myself thinking, “How can most of the world and specifically many in the Orthodox Jewish community shun us?” This was more beautiful a davening than I had experienced in many years. Growing up ultra-orthodox I had davened in the frumest [most observant] of yeshivos and shuls in the world. The
 [unity] I felt here far surpassed other davening experiences.

How can the rabbis be judgmental of people? People who kept a secret and burden to themselves in pain and agony for most of their lives? People who come together in a show of love with struggles a heterosexual person can never even imagine or relate to? Where is their heart? They pity the agunah who can’t get married (but potentially has the ability to). They pity the world’s other sorrows. It is more comfortable to look away and be silent when it is something that cannot be related to.

Ages rushing by
Writing chapters full of sorrow
Webs of self destruction, we are weaving
Because if we don’t even try
There’s no hope for our tomorrow
So what’s it all worth if we are not achieving?

There were workshops that educated and inspired. My favorite was the rebuttal of a recent Rosh Yeshiva‘s essay on homosexuality that was both factually wrong and hashkafically incorrect. I humbly suggest “al tadin es chavercha ad shetagiya l’mkomo.” This translates to “Do not judge a friend until you reach his place,” commonly known as, until you walk in his shoes.

There was a beautiful and intimate program led by rabbis, professionals, and community leaders. This allowed small groups of people to talk about feelings that arose over the weekend on a very personal level. I was inspired and heart broken by things that came up in that group.

Lastly I wanted to talk about the closing sessions. Perhaps this was the most moving of the entire experience for me. As the attendees entered the auditorium, everyone was asked to create a circle. Everyone interlocked with the people on both sides of them. Either they put their arm around the next persons shoulder or they held their neighbors hand. This became a circle of love. A circle of intimate connection. A circle of a people, many struggling to fit in on some level having an electric burst of energy pass from soul to soul.

We sang songs as one. I imagined Hashem smiling down at us and accepting our songs up to the depth of his heavens.

One of the leaders then spoke and thanked various individuals who spearheaded the Shabbos event.

He then said something that moved me to tears and I cry as I write this. I paraphrase, but this was the idea. He first talked about the strength of the people who came to the event. He talked about how brave they are because many did it at risk to themselves on various levels. Here is where I choked up. He asked everyone to take a moment to think about the people that could not be there. People who are scared. People who suffer quietly and have no one to turn to. I added in my mind, people who fear their communities, families and friends reaction to their potential disclosure. People who end up conforming to society’s norms. They live out their years in various stages of pain and denial, yearning for an intimacy they will never have. I hear from too many people who reach out to me through this blog. People who are married. People who are single and looking for love and guidance. Lastly, people who are single and dating (women). The married people talk about how their families feel their depression. They don’t understand. Husbands or wives not understanding the lack of intimacy that is being shown them. They feel caged and frightened. Single men and woman that are confused and have many questions. These people are your brothers, sisters, parents, children, and close friends. I do not judge. I can only speak from my experience and what people have shared.

One year ago that was me. I had lived 35+ years, married, frum and with a pain that pierced the depth of my heart. I was terrified to go to the Eshel shabbaton. This year I went. I went with the world knowing my secret. I went with a million pound burden lifted off my shoulder. I left exhilarated, knowing that I am loved for who I am, not for who the world wanted me to be.

When the leader asked people to step into the circle to share, I was scared. I knew what I wanted to share but I couldn’t gather the strength. Finally as they were about done, I stepped in and shared the feelings I shared above. Before I could even finish, there was a beautiful and rousing sound of applause that gave me a final burst of emotion.

Children, teenagers, adults of any age, please know that there are many people who were in your shoes. Know that you are not alone. Reach out to people that can help you and love you. You cannot learn to love others until you love yourself. Learn to love yourself. Release the burden.

I left the event hugging and kissing the new friends I made, feeling inspired, a sense of responsibility and for the first time in a while a surge of hope.

One thing makes me smile
now at last a happy ending
a universal union undivided
just a little while
we will join the angels singing
peace and love across the world united.

Lyrics are from Unity by Mordechai Ben David