NEW YORK — When the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale included in its newsletter last November a mazel tov to the families of Ari Shane Weitz and his boyfriend on their engagement, it was sending a message of warmth and welcome. It was a message of inclusiveness not unusual inside HIR, an Open Orthodox synagogue.
Outside, though, it was a different story. The congratulations for the same-sex celebration were met with fury. The ultra-Orthodox website Matzav.com posted an article targeting the couple and their families. Word reached the Orthodox Union, which issued a statement reiterating its policy that “showing support for, or celebration of, halachically proscribed conduct is fundamentally inappropriate.”
Not wanting to risk expulsion from the OU, the synagogue said it would no longer include announcements of same-sex couples on their weddings.
Nearly two months later, the incident still alarms Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), a nonprofit that works to support and empower LGBTQ at-risk teens and young adults from Orthodox, Hasidic and Sephardic communities.
While Levovitz said he understands HIR’s predicament, he said the OU’s position compounds the isolation and rejection facing those in the LGBTQ community.
“We can have an intellectual talk about sexual ethics in the Bible, about the technical aspects of halachic law,” Levovitz said. “Congratulating the parents and grandparents on the happiness of their children should be outside of that. Being happy for someone else’s happiness? That’s just as essential for Jewish ethics.”
It’s also essential for survival, said Rachael Fried, assistant director of JQY.
More than 70 percent of youth participating in JQY’s weekly Midtown Manhattan drop-in report suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide in the past, she said.
“We’re talking about people who don’t want to live and you’re talking about whether to congratulate the parents? Some perspective is needed,” Fried said.
The two recounted the incident to illustrate the challenges facing LGBTQ people from these communities. All too often there is an intense pressure to choose between remaining in the closet or leaving their faith and families, they said.
Levovitz and Fried spoke with The Times of Israel from inside their office, a glass-walled office in a WeWork building. The snug enclosure seemed to embody the organization’s mission — that everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or degree of religiosity should be able to live openly in a safe and secure environment.
“Our outlook is to validate the idea that people can hold opposing truths. These are kids and young adults who love their families, who also love their identities, who might also be trying to love their faith. It’s all about holding these truths together. It’s about affirming our contradictions,” Levovitz said.
From The Village to A Village
It was 2001 when a small group of New York LGBTQ Orthodox yeshiva students, most of whom were still in the closet, found each other online. Yearning for a sense of community, they took a chance and decided to come out from behind their computer screens and meet face-to-face. Ever so slowly, over coffee and drinks in Greenwich Village coffee shops and restaurants, JQY was born.
The nonprofit has since grown in size and scale. Today it counts 1,000 members who range from traditional Conservative to “black hat,” Modern Orthodox to Hasidic. JQY members also vary with regard to current levels of religious observance. Some members want to remain religious; others want to shed all aspects of religious life.
Because of that JQY, which takes no religious or political stand, partners with several different outreach groups. It works with Eshel, a New York-based organization providing support for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews and families who wish to remain in their communities. And it works with Footsteps, a New York-based nonprofit helping those in Orthodox and Hasidic communities who may be considering leaving.
Aside from the weekly drop-in and crisis hotline, JQY offers information sessions on sexual health, STD testing and HIV testing. It also hosts holiday and Pride events, lectures by rabbis and community leaders and institution trainings for rabbinical students.
In 2016 JQY created Yeshiva High School LGBTQ Sensitivity Training. To date JQY has held over 50 LGBTQ panels in the Orthodox community, including the recent Yeshiva University Gay Panel.
Born to a “black-hat” rabbinic family, Levovitz attended Yeshiva Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway, Israeli yeshivas Har Etzion and Shaalvim, YU’s Yeshiva College, and Stony Brook University School of Medicine.
He has lectured at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He has also led sessions at the National Union of Jewish LGBTQ Students and Limmud.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
While Levovitz and Fried, who also has a background in social work, stressed the need for their members to have a haven, their goal is to prevent rejection and isolation in the first place.
To do that, they work with Orthodox community leaders and rabbis to raise awareness and connect on a basic level. Everything is done with an eye to mental health.
Getting word out that the organization exists can be tricky. JQY advertises on Facebook, as well as in Jewish newspapers and online media. However, many of the at-risk youth the group wants to reach don’t have access to the internet or newspapers.
“We work with Reform and Conservative institutions, but the kids who need it most are the most challenging to reach. It’s difficult to walk into an LGBTQ community if you are religious. So we do a bit of guerrilla marketing,” Fried said.
That entails slapping stickers on bus stops that don’t directly refer to JQY, but do provide a number for the organization’s crisis hotline.
Ensuring the voices of female-identified LGBTQ individuals in the Orthodox Jewish community are heard is a priority for Fried, who first came to JQY as a participant.
She recalled being one of two women in a roomful of men.
“It was hard to feel like I was the only one and then to come to the meeting and still feel like I was the only one,” she said, adding that so many years later the drop-in sessions continue to inspire her.
The winding way to change
While there has been tangible progress for those in the LGBTQ community, it has occurred mostly outside the Orthodox world.
Last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution affirming transgender equality. LGBTQ can serve as clergy and clergy will perform same-sex marriages.
In the Conservative movement LGBTQ couples can be married; like heterosexual couples, the marriages can only be performed if both people are Jewish. Additionally, ordination has been available to openly LGBTQ rabbis since 2006.
Within the Orthodox community, how congregations and clergy respond to LGBTQ Jews is the issue, rather than matters of religious law.
Last September Nishma Research, a Jewish polling organization, released a study of American Modern Orthodox Jews, which showed most support admitting LGBTQ synagogue members. Fifty-eight percent of respondents supported synagogues accepting LGBTQ people as members, with 12% opposed and the rest unsure.
However, the survey stopped short of asking about attitudes regarding same-sex marriage or other LGBTQ issues. That’s in part because the consensus view in the Orthodox and Hasidic communities is that homosexual sex and same-sex marriage are inconsistent with Jewish tradition.
Ultimately, Levovitz said, JQY wants young people to know there are many pathways to finding understanding and security.
“One thing we know is what it means to feel safe. We know what it means to show love,” Levovitz said. “We can do what we thought was impossible.”
“When you have a teen in the closet who thinks ‘I’m never coming out. Not me,’ I would like to say to them, it could be that you are stronger than you think. It could be that your parents are stronger than you think. It could be that the community is stronger than you think. We have to leverage love instead of fear and take a chance on people being good,” he said.