Gay Orthodox Shabbaton Was Like ‘Heaven’

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

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.
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