Dozens of former yeshiva students publicly came out of the closet Thursday in an open letter to a right-wing Israeli rabbi, in a rare move from members of a community that still places a taboo on homosexuality.
Some 40 graduates of Orthodox yeshivas across Israel and the West Bank say their public declaration came in response to recent remarks made by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon who called homosexuality “a perversion and sin.”
“For us, the rabbis comments were the trigger,” Daniel Yonas, a religious LGBT activist and initiator of the open letter told the NRG website, which first published the news.
“This is not the first time we’ve heard comments like this, but enough is enough.” he said. “The best way to combat homophobia is to show people that you exist.”
Homosexuality is still taboo in many Orthodox circles, and many gay people within the religious community choose to keep their sexual orientation secret rather than risk ostracism.
In Israel, religious Jews who identify as gay or lesbian have traditionally hidden their sexuality orientation from their rabbis and communities because traditional interpretations of the Torah consider same-sex attraction sinful.
However, activists say that in recent years increasing numbers of gay and lesbian Orthodox Israelis have started to come out of the closet as acceptance of the notion that observant Jews can be both openly religious and openly gay is on the rise.
The letter came as Jerusalem celebrated Pride Week, a yearly event that in the past has been marred by protests by religious Jews.
Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox man who recently left jail for attacking three people at a gay pride event in 2005, stabbed six people, injuring two of them seriously, during a parade through central Jerusalem Thursday, police said.
Schlissel said in 2005 that he was sent from God to carry out the attack.
The public letter attacked Orthodox efforts to employ various methods to “convert” religious homosexuals.
Referring to an initiative associated with Elyakim attempting to reform gay and lesbian religious Jews by marrying them to each other, the men argued that experts have widely concluded that homosexuality could not be reversed.
“The claim that sexual orientation entirely depends on a person’s will is a belief held by those who have closed their eyes and hearts,” the men wrote.
In the letter, the ex-yeshiva students said they understood the difficulty of challenging long-held religious traditions, but said Levanon’s remarks amounted to defamation and would only serve to incite hatred of homosexuals among his students.
The letter’s signatories offered to meet with Levanon, and his current yeshiva students to discuss traditional Jewish attitudes towards homosexuality.
Yonas told NRG he and other activists were not on a crusade to change Jewish law, only attitudes of acceptance towards their lifestyle from their communities. “We demand to be treated like everyone else, the whole point is is that they should be treating us like human beings and equals in the community,” he said.
He also said the letter was an effort to hold public religious figures accountable for their statements, and the outcomes they say are a result of their teachings.
“We are trying to convey a message that they must take responsibility for the message they teach and understand that some of their students who listen to them end up committing suicide. Its known that the high percentage of suicides among Orthodox gays and lesbians stems from this reason.”