When Ben Katz witnessed the violence that beset the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, which saw an ultra-Orthodox man go on a stabbing rampage that led to the death of a teenage girl, he was shocked but not surprised.
As a religious gay man, Katz was no stranger to homophobia. In fact, he had faced a difficult struggle having come out as gay in his yeshiva. Just a year earlier, Katz experienced frustrating conversations with his rabbi and ultimately decided to step down from his teaching position at the religious school.
What happened at the parade that day changed everything in a way that Katz would have never anticipated.
“I was running away from the mayhem,” Katz recalled. “My phone was only about 5 percent [charged], so I uploaded a status to Facebook just to let people know that there was a stabbing at the parade but I got away. When I logged into Facebook that night, I got a message from my rabbi checking that I was alright. That was huge.”
The tragic event began a series of deep conversations in which Katz and his rabbi talked for hours.
“The conversation wasn’t about all the things that we could disagree over. The conversation was about our shared experiences,” Katz explained, saying that he no longer felt reduced to a halachic (Jewish law) issue, but was listened to as a human being.
Katz’s experience is a microcosm of a shift that is occurring in Israeli Modern Orthodox communities in addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. But much work to create inclusion remains — Orthodox institutions still declare that homosexual acts are forbidden by Jewish law and some Orthodox practitioners continue to perform gay conversion therapy, a practice the Health Ministry calls “potentially dangerous.”
There is also visible, unchecked homophobia from religious community leaders. Just 10 days before this year’s Jerusalem Gay Pride event, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yigal Levenstein said homosexuals were “perverts.” Over 300 rabbis signed onto his statement.
Daniel Jonas, chairperson of Havruta, an organization of religious gays in Israel, sees the homophobia as a desperate backlash from an institution that is slowly changing from within. “This shows how frightened the religious leaders are; they are losing the battle,” he said.
In fact, this past year has seen several key milestones that illustrate that things may indeed be shifting. The most recent example is this year’s Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, which drew 25,000 participants. It was the largest gay pride event ever held in the capital. A significant number of marchers were religious Jews who came in solidarity, ignited by Levinstein’s anti-gay words and by the anti-gay violence at the 2015 gay pride event, when ultra-Orthodox Yishai Schlissel stabbed six marchers, including Shira Banki who later died from her wounds.
“The violence served as a wake-up call to many Orthodox Jews that they needed to take a greater role in reducing homophobia in their communities,” said Sarah Weil, founder of the Women’s Gathering and Project Development Coordinator of the Yerushalmit Movement.
‘No one should live in a closet. The closet is death’
Two days after the Jerusalem Gay Pride in 2015, the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance organized a rally in response to the violence at the parade. At the rally, Orthodox Rabbi Benjamin Lau delivered a rousing speech in the central Zion Square that denounced those who used Judaism as a cover for homophobia.
“If we hear a rabbi or a teacher talking in a harmful way, we need to stop this,” Lau said. “No one should live in a closet. The closet is death.”
Eight months later, in April 2016, there was another step taken toward inclusion from Israel’s Modern Orthodox community. The Beit Hillel association of religious Zionist rabbis released a position paper calling for religious communities to accept gays and lesbians. The paper also stated that gays and lesbians could fulfill congregational functions, just like any other member of the community.
“Gays were being shamed and shunned,” Rabannit Hannah Hashkes of Beit Hillel explained. “They were being treated worse than someone who committed a really morally abhorrent behavior. This is something we wanted to fight.”
Yet the way that gays and lesbians exist in the religious structure is “a complex notion,” according to Hashkes.
“We do not reject people because of their sexual inclination, but that doesn’t mean we legitimize the same sex act,” she said, “It’s is not permitted in the Torah, and there is no way to condone it.”
Jonas acknowledged that Beit Hillel’s statement was far from perfect. He was disappointed that the document didn’t contain practical advice for the religious LGBT community, nor address bisexual and trans issues. Still, even Jonas sees progress.
“What’s important for us is not only the fact that Beit Hillel made these statements publicly, but the fact that they showed us the documents before publishing,” he said, “They asked for our thoughts and comments. They thought it important to negotiate with us.”
Jonas pointed out that this was a huge shift from how the Orthodox community had viewed homosexuality in the past. “The question is no longer if gays exist,” Jonas said. “But rather, yes, they exist, and how do we bring them into our communities.”
The seeds for this shift were planted back in the early 1990s with online forums where religious LGBT individuals could connect. Then, in 1997, the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance opened its doors. The Open House provided a safe space for religious LGBT individuals to meet, receive social services and build a community. It also boosted LGBT visibility through organizing the Jerusalem Gay Pride parades, beginning with the first march in 2001. Marching in the streets and hanging up pride flags sent a message to Israeli society — and to religious communities in particular — that LGBT communities existed outside of the secular Tel Aviv enclaves.
In 2005, through the Open House, the Bat-Kol organization formed as a group for religious lesbians. Two years later in 2007, Havruta, an organization for religious gay men, was launched. Before this, many religious LGBT folks wishing to come out of the closet felt that they had no choice but to join the secular queer community. These organizations offered people an opportunity to fuse their religious and LGBT identities.
“What’s been happening recently is that we have religious people who are coming out as LGBT and there is a critical mass,” said Katz. “Instead of feeling like they have to leave their religious communities, they’re staying religious, returning home and having conversations with people about their experience.”
Katz is now a board member of Shoval, an organization that facilitates dialogue sessions between religious LGBT people and religious, educational, mental health and community institutions. Seven years ago, Shoval members had difficulty reaching the Orthodox community.
“Dati [religious] institutions would hang up the phone on us,” Katz recalled. “They insisted that they didn’t have anybody ‘like that,’ so the question of queer identity felt irrelevant to them.”
Things are rapidly changing, said Katz. “We’ve seen a real shift in the religious communities, from talking about theoretical gays somewhere else to talking about the actual kids who will come out in their community.”
“Teachers are much more careful about the words that they say, because they are more aware that their comments may be about kids sitting in the room,” he said. “I know of one teacher who acknowledges in her religious, all-girl classroom that sometimes there can be a relationship of two girlfriends. This is huge.”
Yiscah Smith, a religious trans woman, agreed that things have improved. “I remember the 70s and 80s in Israel, and things are definitely shifting for the better,” she said.
Smith, who transitioned at age 50, is a renowned Jewish educator, spiritual advisor, and author of “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.” Yet, despite noticing improvements in overall treatment, Smith also feels “very disappointed” with the Orthodox leadership about transgender issues.
“If I were to wait for these rabbis to finally get with the picture, so to speak, I’d be waiting for several centuries,” Smith said. But she noted that she “never expects change to happen from the top down; usually change comes from the bottom up.”
“What’s changing transphobia are people like me, as an educator, bringing these issues very organically into the conversation,” she said. “I can be a change-maker by getting into the ring of life and engaging in dialogue and education, not necessarily to convince, but to discuss. That’s where change begins.”
However, the journey toward acceptance is far from over.
“I think the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis are still homophobic. It is a minority who are the pioneers of this change,” said Reform Rabbi Noa Sattath, current director of the Israel Religious Action Center and former executive director of the Open House.
Additionally, the challenges are even more severe in religious settlement communities.
“Lesbians and gays are unwelcome,” said Leah (not her real name), a Bat-Kol member from a religious settlement who revealed that her community was still noticeably homophobic.
“We are verbally bashed in public and in Besheva [a periodical for the national religious community in Israel], and the national religious weekly pamphlets that are distributed at synagogue. They don’t do this to secular people.”
‘I’m sad they can’t accept me for who I am’
Leah had to disconnect herself from this community. “I’m sad they can’t accept me for who I am. It was either live among them and get put down all the time, or distance myself and be free to be who I am.”
“We have a lot of work to do,” added Weil. “More rabbis need to take the risk to stand up and make a commitment to LGBT people in their communities. We want to be included in Jewish community life. We want more rabbis to say, ‘Yes, you can come here. We welcome you with open arms.’”