An Israeli teen wrapped in an LGBT Pride flag near the settlement of Efrat, June 3, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
An Israeli teen wrapped in an LGBT Pride flag near the settlement of Efrat, June 3, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
'At last religious society is opening its eyes'

Gently breaking taboos, a settlement bloc moves gingerly toward LGBT acceptance

In first gathering of its kind in a religious community on either side of Green Line, Efrat event takes unambiguous stance against notion that homosexuality is a matter of choice

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Toward the beginning of the biblical book of Numbers, Moses is approached by a group of Israelites who had been unable to participate in the Passover sacrificial offering with the rest of the nation.

Lamenting their “impure” status after having come in contact with a dead body, they ask their leader, “Why should we be excluded?”

Moses consults with God, who decides that they be allowed to make the offering on a separate day, which has come to be known as Pesach Sheni, or the Second Passover.

While it has gone largely uncelebrated in Jewish tradition, a group of religious LGBT activists over the past decade have transformed Pesach Sheni into their unofficial holiday, using it as a springboard from which to launch discussions on including the “other” in religious spaces.

The activists have organized events in observant communities around the country under the same title, giving those convinced that religion and homosexuality are in conflict with one another an opportunity to meet those defying the supposed paradox.

Recognizing the hostile waters in which they are treading, Pesach Sheni organizers have been careful to frame their events as being about dialogue with, rather than acceptance of, the religious LGBT presenters.

View of the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Given the relatively radical nature of these small gatherings, it may be unsurprising that they have not received institutional backing in the national religious camp; attendees have described their promotion as being on a “need-to-know” basis.

But precisely over the Green Line — where one might assume that an audience for such discussions would be harder to find — some of the most dramatic movement on this issue in the national religious camp is beginning to take place.

Last Sunday, roughly 100 head-covered residents of Efrat poured into the community’s youth center for an event organized by the municipality, titled “LGBT youth in religious society.”

According to organizers, it was the first-ever event in a religious community — on either side of the Green Line — that went beyond the encouragement of dialogue and actually took a position on the matter at hand — that homosexuality is not a matter of choice that can be “treated.”

This was the unambiguous stance asserted by both the rabbi and psychologist who addressed the event, put together for parents and educators in the Gush Etzion bloc settlement.

The pair of lectures from Rabbi Rafi Ostroff and Dr. Tuvia Peri were bookended by personal coming-out stories from a pair of religious educators; but the event kicked off with an address from Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, which set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Revivi spoke about the high suicide rate among teens struggling with their sexuality. According to a 2016 survey by clinical psychologist Dr. Hannah Bar-Yosef, 20% of LGBT Israeli youth have attempted suicide — nearly six times the overall rate — which, experts say, more than doubles in religious communities.

“These are our children and we cannot ignore them,” the Efrat mayor told the crowd. 

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi addresses a community event on LGBT youth, on June 3, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Holding back tears, Revivi read aloud three letters he received from LGBT members of the community expressing their support for the event, which one of the writers said he hoped would “prevent the continued loss of friends.”

Save for the personal stories shared by the pair of religious LGBT activists, this was the angle from which the issue was tackled for the remainder of the evening.

“It was much easier 10-15 years ago when there were no gay people in religious communities,” Ostroff quipped sarcastically to a cautiously laughing crowd.

The rabbi recognized how long the topic has been ignored in places like Efrat, where the overwhelming attitude from rabbinical and educational leadership has been that taming attraction to the same sex is simply a matter of willpower.

For his part, Peri used a PowerPoint presentation stocked with medical research to disprove such assumptions.

The kipa-wearing psychologist showed a graph illustrating the spectrum of sexual attraction among men and women and explained that those convinced they had been able to “cure” a patient of their attraction to the same sex had simply been “dealing with someone who was bisexual.”

This is not to say that either Ostroff or Peri put a positive spin on the reality.

“The life of those [in the LGBT community] is difficult and bitter,” said Ostroff, focusing on the mental health issues that arise as well as the difficulty in being accepted in religious circles

A gay couple has a wedding ceremony under a hupa during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Therefore if someone has any sort of attraction to members of the opposite sex, we must take advantage of that as much as possible,” the rabbi asserted, and he should be encouraged to pursue a heterosexual relationship.

Nonetheless, Ostroff rejected the premise that LGBT individuals don’t have a space in religious communities.

He showed footage of a religious gay wedding, pointing out the “pure joy” that was felt by those in attendance.

At the end of the event, a young man in the audience stood up and identified himself as one of the grooms from the video.

“What you are doing here is saving lives, and that is not just a slogan,” said Efrat native Eran Ashkenazi.

“It’s possible that if there had been an evening like this when I was in high school… the difficult experience I endured could have been prevented.”

His statement was met with applause from everyone in the room.

The 26-year-old was not the only LGBT individual in the crowd. He was joined by a handful of other young Gush residents who have come out of the closet in recent years.

Among them was Noam Haase, a 19-year-old from the neighboring settlement of Alon Shvut, who referred to the event as being of “historic significance.”

“I was really happy to see the head of my yeshiva, as well as another teacher, in the audience… At last religious society is opening its eyes and realizing that the subject cannot be ignored or repressed,” he said.

Alon Shvut resident Noam Haase at the 2017 Jerusalem Gay Pride march (Courtesy)

Asked if he was bothered by the heavy emphasis on mental health and the “difficult lives” of those in the LGBT community, Jonathan Maman, who was one of the religious LGBT educators who addressed the crowd, said that it seemed rather “natural.”

Maman pointed out how at events organized by Havruta, an organization for religious gay men, most attendees in the room have an attempted suicide story to share.

Haase said he understood the topic’s prominence at the event to have been more of a statement about the lives of those who suppress their true sexual identity.

“Life in the closet is what can be very ‘difficult and bitter.’ Coming out is the exact opposite. It’s very liberating… I think that’s what the evening was trying to show.”

‘The Tel Aviv of the Gush’

For many, it was no coincidence that Sunday’s event took place in the Gush Etzion bloc, and in Efrat in particular.

“I think the Gush is fairly open-minded compared to other religious communities, both in, and not in, the settlements,” said Andrew Braverman.

The seven LGBT teens who spoke with The Times of Israel each pointed out how the settlement bloc’s heavy American presence has created an environment that is relatively more accepting of those coming out of the closet

The 19-year-old, who studies at Yeshivat Machanayim in Migdal Oz just south of Efrat, said he is given special permission by his rabbis to leave class early on Thursday evenings to go to LGBT gatherings at the Jerusalem Open House.

“There’s something about the Gush that people are so content with their lives and their religious identities that they allow themselves to be more open to differences,” said one Efrat mother whose son recently came out the closet.

The seven LGBT teens who spoke with The Times of Israel each pointed out how the settlement bloc’s heavy American presence has created an environment that is relatively more accepting of those coming out of the closet.

“As someone who’s not from the Gush, I’ve always looked at this place as being more open. A place where I’d like to live when I grow up, as opposed to the Shomron, which seems much more conservative,” said 18-year-old Yosef, referencing the settlements in the northern West Bank.

The Israeli settlement of Neve Daniel, April 2014 (Public domain Wikimedia Commons)

Jessica (pseudonym), a 22-year-old resident of Efrat, summarized what she saw as a difference between American and Israeli attitudes toward life.

“Americans come from a culture where it’s more ‘You do you, I’ll do me,’ as opposed to Israelis who are more into each other’s business,” she said.

“American immigrants come from a place where there’s more than one way to be religious, and that translates into how they treat gay people,” added Yosef, who will be studying at Yeshivat Machanayim next year.

Citing the proportion of American residents — over 30% — Haase referred to Efrat as the “Tel Aviv of the Gush.” Similar, albeit slightly less drastic numbers can be found in the dozen-plus hilltop communities in the Etzion Bloc.

Oxford lecturer Sara Hirschhorn delved into the unique phenomenon of American immigrants to the settlements in her 2017 book “City on a Hilltop,” in which she calculates they make up roughly 15% of the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank.

Hirschhorn noted that many of the Jewish American immigrants that came from liberal backgrounds in the US had been active in progressive social movements prior to their immigration to Israel.

“While they prioritize Israel among their values, they also more broadly share other beliefs that are associated with a more pluralistic kind of politics,” she said. 

Haase clarified that the high number of Americans does not make the decision to come out in the Gush any easier, “but once you do come out, you’re more likely to be accepted.”

But a different kind of Tel Aviv…

Despite the relative openness, teens struggling with their sexuality in the settlement bloc have no resources available to them nearby.

What they do have is the Jerusalem Open House, which is roughly a 30-minute drive away.

The organization offers support groups for both religious and nonreligious LGBT youth and adults.

Representatives of the Jerusalem Open House march in the city’s 2016 Gay Pride parade, July 21, 2016. (Adi Eddie)

The majority of teens who spoke with The Times of Israel said the Open House was where they found the help they needed accepting their sexual identity and where they were able to meet other people grappling with the same issues.

But for many, that process unfolds in its own bubble, separate from life back on the other side of the Green Line.

Haase and Jessica both described attending weekly Open House activities for months without their parents knowing.

“Each time I’d go, I’d tell them I was meeting up with friends,” said Jessica.

Haase recalled “living two lives… I felt like I was being torn apart, but I guess my focus on preventing anyone from finding out at home kept me functioning.”

Jessica argued that the different picture back home has more to do with the education system and rabbinical leaders in the Gush who “have tried to limit how open-minded the community can be.”

The 22-year-old became aware of her sexuality in middle school, but the issue was not ever addressed by an educator until she reached 11th grade.

The teacher told her class that those struggling with “these issues” should come meet with her for help.

Fearing that her sexuality was jeopardizing her ability to raise a family in the close-knit community she had grown to love, Jessica eventually agreed to meet with the teacher.

During their sessions, she was asked to close her eyes and imagine sexual encounters with men in an attempt by the educator to see if she felt anything.

“To me, it was honestly interesting seeing how she thought she could change me.”

For his part, Maman told more harrowing stories about how the head of his yeshiva in the Gush threatened to kick him out of the seminary when he informed him of his intention to come out of the closet.

Three years later, Maman now lives in Alon Shvut, but says his decision to remain in the community has annoyed many among the rabbinical leadership, who view his every move as “an act of defiance.”

Acceptance in the broader LGBT community

Even after taking that initial, daunting leap out the closet, many teens from the settlements still face an additional hurdle being accepted into the broader LGBT community.

“You’re a minority fighting for rights; on the other hand, you’re occupying another minority that is also fighting for rights,” Shiloh native Moshe Grosman said, recalling the attitude he sometimes encountered when meeting other LGBT individuals from the other side of the Green Line.

“But honestly, I’m more interested in fighting to show why it’s okay to be gay and religious,” he said, explaining that his settler identity is less critical to him.

Lehava chairman Bentzi Gopstein and right-wing activists protest at the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s harder to be accepted when you say you’re from the [settlements],” said Uri Shraga, while noting that the issue had more to do with religion than his city of residence. 

The 21-year-old Neve Daniel resident described his coming-out process as having been “particularly complex” due to his past activism in the far-right Lehava organization.

While he joined the group when its scope was exclusively opposition to Jewish assimilation, Shraga said Lehava has further radicalized over the years and now protests against businesses that are open on Shabbat as well as the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

“It was okay in the beginning after I came out. But then I started to walk around with my rainbow kipa and that was too much for them,” Shraga said, smiling.

“I wouldn’t say that they showed me the door, but I already was on my way out, since I didn’t feel that comfortable there,” he added.

Yet LGBT circles have not been an exact fit for Shraga either.

He recalled “the insane amount of religious phobia” that he witnessed last year at the Jerusalem Open House, where organizers of the Gay Pride parade faced immense backlash for choosing “religion” as the theme for the rally.

Trembling before religion

So has hostility toward religion driven many young teens away from faith after coming out? The Gush Etzion residents who spoke with The Times of Israel were unconvinced.

While recognizing that those who come out of the closet typically leave religion as well, they said the two decisions are not related.

“I don’t think being religious and being gay contradict each other. I just have chosen not to be religious, regardless,” said Haase, as Jessica nodded in agreement. 

Religious participants in the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, September 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But for Braverman, the two identities are more correlated.

The 19-year-old yeshiva student admitted that his sexual identity has made it harder to remain a part of a religious community.

He recalled asking his rabbis why there was nothing for him to study regarding the religious laws guiding homosexual relationships like there was for heterosexual ones.

“Basically the answer I got was, ‘Well, they never really discussed it back in the time of the Talmud.’”

Braverman acknowledged that without any direction on how to remain both gay and religious, he was not sure how he would be able to avoid dropping the latter identity as time went on.

For Ashkenazi, however, faith in God was what remained constant throughout his long struggle with self-acceptance.

“In all those years of feeling alone, God was the only one that was there for me. The idea of leaving religion has therefore never really been something I’ve considered,” said the Efrat native.

Grinding it out in the Gush

What became increasingly clear, from each conversation with LGBT teens in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, was that for every individual who had come out, there were quite a few more who have remained in the closet.

The Times of Israel spoke to 12 young closeted residents from the Gush using Grindr, a popular geography-based app frequently used by gay men to meet for casual sexual encounters.

While many were hesitant to talk — upon learning that they were speaking with a reporter — the anonymous nature of the conversations allowed most to open up.

One 18-year-old from Efrat with the “Looking for now!” username said he was one of few residents who used the app.

“People are very scared of finding someone they know on here, and the Gush is small enough that such a scenario is really likely,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter that the other guy is just as deep in the closet as you are. The realization that someone else you know knows about you means your night life and day life are one step closer to clashing,” said the 18-year-old.

He said he usually travels south to Kiryat Arba, where “there are more options and more secular people willing to meet for a casual hookup.”

Grindr logo (via JTA)

The high school senior said there was one other student in his grade who had come out and about 10 others who were in the closet.

Asked how he knew with such certainty, the anonymous user said, “You can just tell.”

As for why he, himself, has not come out, he gave the answer most frequently heard during the two nights this reporter spent perusing the app in the settlement bloc this week: “I’m bisexual.”

In Alon Shvut, one 22-year-old yeshiva student said he found out that his learning partner was gay through the app.

“I had asked him to send a mug shot first. When he did that, I saw who it was and I blocked him. I don’t think he realizes I know,” he said.

The 22-year-old added that the majority of people he sees on the app are Israel Defense Forces troops serving nearby, other yeshiva students not originally from the Gush, and Palestinians.

“I’ve been messaged by a couple of Arabs from Bethlehem asking to hook up. Beyond the fact that I’d never do it, where would we be able to meet? On the side of the road?”

To Haase, the low use of Grindr in the settlement bloc has little to do with the amount of closeted guys. “Whether or not they’re in the closet, people from the Gush are not open to a lot of things that Grindr represents,” he explained.

Lowering the price of coming out

What has become clear, however, is just how far LGBT residents in the Gush have had to travel in order to find the assistance they need.

Noticing the void, Maman has organized a support group for LGBT youth in the Gush, which the municipality has agreed to take under its wing following the success of the event last Sunday night.

So far, the cohort has 10 members between the ages of 18 and 22, but Maman says younger teens will be allowed to join pending approval from the municipality.

The 28-year-old Maman will serve as one of the guidance counselors for the group, in cooperation with a social worker and psychologist from the municipality.

Jonathan Maman (Courtesy)

“As invaluable as the Open House has been, why should a young teen who was born and raised over the Green Line, and who is struggling with his sexual identity, have to leave his community and go to a place run by secular liberals in order to receive the support he needs?” Maman asked.

While she is soon leaving Efrat for college, Jessica said she is doing what she can to support the initiative, which “definitely would have been helpful for me when I was in high school.

“I went to the Open House a bit, but it wasn’t my type of people and it felt a little too out-there for me. This is really what I would have wanted,” the 22-year-old added.

Similar to Sunday’s event, the support group is another Efrat initiative, which Maman says will be essential in “lowering the price” that youth in the Gush Etzion bloc have been required to pay when they come out of the closet.

“I hope this can also be looked at as a kind of alternative for those who think their only option is in Tel Aviv,” said the religious educator.

Admitting that a long fight against rabbinic opposition and parental apathy remains, he pointed out that the 100 parents at Sunday’s event had “voted with their feet” regarding the direction in which they’d like their community to head.

“It’s not a straight path, but we’re getting there,” he concluded.

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