Category Archives: opinion

Out In Lubavitch— Growing up and coming out in the Chabad Lubavitch community of Crown Heights

Out In Lubavitch

Growing up and coming out in the Chabad Lubavitch community of Crown Heights

by Chaim Levin

The atmosphere buzzed with energy and talk about who we are as Chassidim and disciples of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe at a farbrengen (gathering) for a former classmate’s birthday a few months ago. While familiar with these affairs, I hadn’t been to one in quite awhile. As at any good farbrengen and after a few shots, I started talking about growing up Chabad and gay. Some did not deign to acknowledge the topic at all; others approached it with anxiety and trepidation. It is simply not normal to discuss such things at these get togethers — but, hey, I didn’t become an activist by remaining silent. After we started peacefully discussing different aspects of homosexuality in the Jewish community, I tried to make an important point. I observed to an individual, who had expressed homophobic leanings and tried to minimize the issues that LGBTQ people face within more orthodox communities, that, while I may very well be the only out gay person sitting at this table of 20, it is very unlikely that I am the only gay person there. He tried to refute me claiming that he knew for a fact that I was the only http://reviewsbyamoslassen.com/wp-admin/admin.php?page=statsgay person there — the all too common, blanket, unfounded denial that feeds alienation and isolation of queer people within the Chassidic community.

But, my statement was assured; we are here, many still struggling in silence and fear, and we are not alone.

Many people from frum/Orthodox communities have contacted me seeking guidance and advice. Like me at one time, they’ve felt alone and had never spoke to an out gay person. They’ve thought it might just be a phase that would hopefully go away if only they met the “right girl”. Trying my best to be objective and honest, I answer their questions about what it is like living as I do with the “whole world” knowing and how people have reacted towards my being openly gay.

It hasn’t always been a picnic. Coming out especially in Chassidic communities can be detrimental to one’s self, family and overall sanity if not prepared. Sometimes I feel as if I were pushed out. I had confided in a friend while at yeshiva in Brunoy, France, at the age of 16 (yes, I really was a Brunoy boy). Soon the entire school of more than 400 found out about me. Publicly humiliated by some and ignored by most an ocean away from home, I was seen as a diseased person who did not belong. During those 8 trying months at yeshiva, some denial about the gossip and hatred helped me to survive, not to mention the support of the very few who I would dare say were real Chassidim — those who, despite the fact that they had never heard of such a thing in their lives, remained my friends and were supportive of me, genuine, accepting and inviting unconditionally.

Still I felt isolated and was unaccepting of myself until, paradoxically, I sought out reparative ‘therapy’, hoping to become straight in order to be accepted by the only community I had ever known. I had never interacted with anyone who wasn’t a fellow Lubavitcher until I was 18. Trying everything I could to assure my place in my family and community, I inadvertently ventured into the outside world, met others who were struggling and developed a somewhat different perspective. I learned there were other kinds of Chassidim and Jewish people out there — ones like me. I found myself exploring a new world. Yet, I did not fully accept who I am until I was 20. Some skeptics and critics try to convince me that by living my life honestly, I’m hurting my family and my soul. Until I was 20, I had wrenched, wrung and racked my soul, praying, pleading, begging for some miracle to turn me straight during weekly trips to the Ohel (the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place). The best thing that ever happened to my soul was finding peace when I stopped fighting against, not a “desire” or “inclination” as some would describe it, but an inalienable part of me.

Even though I was able to accept myself, experience made me pessimistic about my community. Fortunately though, living in Crown Heights has gotten easier and easier by the day. Today 6 years after I was outed, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by people on the street, patting on the back and letting me know that they’re supportive of me and my journey. And, once dismissive, long time family friends have told me on many occasions, “Chaim, I love you and accept you as you are.” A very Lubavitch attitude indeed. This is the message Chabad tries to spread and instill around the world — that every single Jewish soul is worthy, a ray of light with something to offer. Still, I never thought I would experience this attitude usually reserved for those who drive to shul on Shabbos and but nonetheless try to return to Orthodoxy at Chabad houses around the world — certainly, not among our very own friends, family and community in Crown Heights, in “the Rebbe’s schunah” (neighborhood).

In Crown Heights, I have occasionally had the great displeasure of bumping into people like Molly Resnick, whom many consider one of the greatest, most public examples of intolerance and bigotry within the Lubavitch movement today. Nonetheless, the voices of the Molly Resnicks are being drowned out by the people, including my own family, who have grown, not just to tolerate me, but to embrace me fully for who I am.

 

“Once a Chassid, always a Chassid” is often heard at the Chabad schools, camps and farbrengens. Still, I do not consider myself as religious as I once was. However, when I started dating someone a year and a half ago, I did take some pride in having grown up Orthodox and being able to tell him about it. He had grown up in a rural area with no Jewish upbringing or identity, but, the more I told him, the more interested he became in Judaism. A year later, he bought his first pair of tefillin in a Crown Heights Judaica store as I stood with him eagerly, despite the negative experiences I had had.

Some people have facetiously identified me as the Rebbe’s shliach (emissary) to the LGBTQ community — no doubt others would argue.

Six years ago, I could have never imagined being gay Jewish voice nonetheless welcome at farbrengens. I didn’t think I’d be proud to walk the streets of Crown Heights even despite some intolerance. The negative voices are slowly dying out, and more positive and accepting voices are being heard louder and louder. Everyone should be able to live openly and honestly without pretense nor fear of losing family, friends and community. I truly hope and believe that there will come a day when anyone who is LGBTQ can be accepted as they are and know that they are not alone.

Afterword
I was delighted to be invited to write about growing up Chabad and gay for a blog devoted to issues relating to the Chassidic community, sometimes discussing more controversial issues, such as “why do some people attack Chabad?” The blogger informed me that, while this piece “brought him to tears” and despite his sympathy for gay people, he cannot publish it because he doesn’t want to get too “political.” He explained “they believe it’s against halacha (religious law) and that’s what I mean by political,” elaborating “because gay sex is against halacha, it becomes a difficult issue to deal with.”

 

Of course, I did not mention any personal, private behavior considered a violation of halacha. I discussed having found after much difficulty some acceptance within the Chabad community. I discussed not hating, but loving our fellows, not oppressing the weak, and not standing idly by as another’s life is in danger. As have many others, I had struggled with suicidal ideation because I felt hated and unwanted and was oppressed; the danger is real. These are important issues that must be dealt with. I hoped to shed some light on the experience of growing up gay within Chabad and give a voice to those suffering in and because of silence. Many community leaders have ignored us and pretended that we don’t exist, and others equate our mere existence with unspeakable violation of halacha.


Ironically, the blogger had questioned whether the ending was too positive and “preachy” prior to deciding not to run it. Now, I cannot help but have some doubt myself. Still, I am proud, and I am hopeful. I am impressed with the blogger’s sympathy and consideration despite his religious convictions, but I fail to see how a story of finding some acceptance could controvert those convictions. His refusal does not actively affirm halacha, but passively disaffirms thousands of gay Jews who are still living in fear.

Testing My Faith—- I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort. By Matt Goodman

Testing My Faith

I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.

By Matt Goodman|November 30, 2012 7:00 AM|
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The clinic looked like many clinics I’d visited before as part of my work around HIV and AIDS: rainbow flags, earth-tone décor, and stacks of literature urging people to “Know Your Status!” and “Get Tested!” This time, though, I was in the clinic as a patient, getting tested for HIV, and that made my heart race.

My finger was pricked to draw blood for the test, and I was sent to the empty waiting room for 20 minutes to await the results. I’d come in feeling guilty, but now that guilt was replaced with a sharp sense of anxiety. Vulnerable before a power I could not change, I felt like it was neilah and the rabbi was urging me to make my final appeal. What does one do during those moments while your fate is being sealed?

I turned to God. At that moment in the waiting room, he was the only one who could help and comfort me.

***

Every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day gets a lot of people thinking about HIV, but I didn’t need a special day to think about it. It’s been on my mind for years, wrapped up in a whole complex of guilt and anxiety. Like any other Jew, I trace those feelings, which led to that moment in the waiting room, to my mother—specifically how she handled my coming out six years earlier. In fact, she had been the one who prompted me to come out in 2006 at age 17. My parents had been divorced for four years, and I was living in Atlanta with her.

One afternoon during my senior year of high school, she asked, “Are you gay?”

I had known since I was 12. I had always felt different from the other guys I grew up with—I never fit into the football-playing crowd that talked about girls more and more as they got older. Instead, as I reached middle school, I realized I was attracted to those guys. I spent a year struggling with it and pleading with myself to change, but by 14 I accepted it and a year later came out to my friends. The rest of the students in our southern, conservative prep school made assumptions, because of my natural flamboyance, and I didn’t correct them. By 17, I had a boyfriend, my first amorous dalliance. I wasn’t exactly in the closet. Still, I hadn’t planned to tell my mother yet, because I didn’t want to share my dating life with her; but then she asked. And so I answered her honestly: “Yes.”

She broke down, sobbing that I was “going to die of AIDS.” That was her first reaction.

Later that afternoon, she came back into my room and hurled a Costco-sized box of condoms at my head. “You’re not dying of AIDS on my watch!” she screamed.

My mother’s words would resound in my head for years to come. I didn’t want her to be right. From that moment on, my guilt and anxiety around getting tested and knowing my HIV status became fully operational.

The ironic part is that my mother-instilled guilt about sex and anxiety about my HIV status rarely led me to get tested myself. I was too scared. It wasn’t like I used intravenous drugs or had a sex life filled with anonymous one-night stands. I didn’t have many sexual partners and always used protection; my guilt and anxiety had conditioned me to be extremely cautious. I knew the risk of infection from what I was doing and knew it was pretty slim. Yet, I couldn’t let the anxiety go. I’d imagine finding out that I was HIV-positive, my dating life imploding, my desire for the perfect Jewish family shattered. My own dream of a husband, two kids, and a well-decorated house in Brookline, Mass., would go up in smoke. Then I’d think of my previous partners. What if I infected them? How would I tell them?

Maybe my mother, in that annoying way, was once again right. Maybe I was going to die of AIDS. I was worried that I was positive, yet too scared to find out for sure.

The first time I got tested was unexpected. I was a freshman at Boston University and went for a regular check-up at the student health clinic. The experience was uncomfortable due to the doctor’s awkward bedside manner. His questions about my sex life went beyond what I considered to be professional, inquiring about my coming out, whether I’d told my parents, and, most awkwardly, what sexual position I preferred. (I don’t think I even responded to that final question.) He concluded the exam by suggesting I get a full battery of STD tests. I couldn’t say no, even though what I most wanted to do was just leave. The results came back negative, but I didn’t share them with anyone and attempted to bury the memory of the whole experience in the back of my mind.

Around the same time, I started to engage more deeply with religion. I’d grown up in a secular family, but while I was in college, I got involved with Conservative Judaism, and later Orthodox Judaism. Ultimately, I was drawn to Orthodoxy for its theology, practice, and community. I spent the summer of 2009 in Israel, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. The summer of 2010, I returned to study more. As I got more involved in Orthodoxy, my worldview started to change. While I never questioned my sexuality or sexual activity, I did start to view life through whether other things, from friendships to career choices, were kosher or Jewish or in line with mitzvot. While I didn’t view this negatively at the time, my life got more restricted and insular.

In early 2011, when I was a senior in college, I experienced a near-lethal allergic reaction to antibiotics that depleted my white blood cell count to Bubble Boy levels. The doctors feared the worst: leukemia. But the minute the doctors mentioned that I might have a “compromised immune system,” my mind instantly shot instead to HIV. My fear of HIV far outweighed my fear of leukemia. My mother’s dire warning, playing on repeat in my head, matched the tempo of my pounding heart. The doctors decided to perform a full battery of tests for seemingly every hematological illness imaginable, which I assumed would include HIV/AIDS. I hadn’t been tested since that first bad experience in college.

While I waited for the results in the hospital, I called my father, himself a doctor, to ask him my most pressing question: “Could this be an immunodeficiency disease … like HIV?”

My father and I never had the relationship that facilitated the “I’m gay” conversation. In fact, I was still officially in the closet to him, so I felt the need to code my language in a poor attempt to disguise my urgent request. He still got the picture and responded with what sounded like a disinterested “No.” I felt the guilt and anxiety subside slightly. Four days later, when my white-blood-cell count returned to normal, the feelings resumed their dormancy. This second test pacified my raging guilt and anxiety for a while. Yet it also reinforced the fact that I didn’t actually know my status because I didn’t know if the “battery of tests” included an HIV/AIDS test specifically. I assumed it did but never wanted to check to make sure.

The day after that test, I moved abroad to Switzerland for my last semester. It was not easy living and traveling abroad and being Orthodox—between the food, Shabbat, and the chagim. Often times I found myself without a community and alone. It started to seem like Orthodoxy was keeping me from realizing what I wanted in terms of my career goals and personal interests. So, I stopped keeping Shabbat, watching what I ate so closely, and believing that mitzvot are check marks on a list that is required to consider myself a Jew. I realized that I didn’t need to be shomer mitzvot to reaffirm my commitment to God and the Jewish people. I chose my secular life over being Orthodox.

But I never lost my faith. I still believe in God, pray, and celebrate the chagim in my own way. I still believe that there is a lot of truth and resilience to be found in Jewish tradition.

This summer, I was working for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, and LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS were two of my portfolios. I met with numerous advocacy groups dedicated to both issues and talked endlessly about testing campaigns, treatment options, and HIV/AIDS patient discrimination, even visiting clinics and centers where I met HIV-positive patients. Each meeting and visit brought a new wave of guilt and anxiety over my own unknown status, leaving me feeling hypocritical discussing these issues and programs when I myself was willfully ignorant. I was given a tour of one facility where they proudly showed off their waiting room for people who were waiting to hear their results. I looked at it with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and desire to be in there. I saw it as a preview of the end of a tunnel that I wasn’t willing to go through yet.

A few months later, back in Washington, D.C., I got an email from my graduate school, with the subject line: “Free HIV tests!” Like clockwork, the guilt began and the horror score that chimed the ignorance of my status played.

But I’d had enough. It was time to confront my guilt, fear, and my mother’s prediction. I frantically Googled rapid HIV testing centers and went the next day.

***

With the 20 minutes ticking away in the waiting room, I remembered all those seminary girls I used to jostle over Egged buses in Israel—oblivious to the world around them while they furiously recited Tehilim—and I decided that I needed to do something. Like on Yom Kippur, I needed to show a commitment to the Power so as to warrant inscription in the Book of Life. I couldn’t find Tehilim for my iPhone, so I settled instead on daf yomi—something I never even did when I was studying in Israel.

So, there I was, in an LGBT HIV/AIDS clinic, surrounded by condoms, rainbow flags, and reassuring pamphlets about life with HIV/AIDS, reading a section of the Talmud about candlewicks in Aramaic. Within minutes, the anxiety was banished and the horror score that chimed a death sentence slowed. I felt like I was again performing my end of the bargain with God. I was making a sacrifice. It was by no means a religious reawakening, but it was definitely a salve. And then, just like that, the candlewick discussion was over and the gates were closed. The results were in.

Negative.

Baruch Hashem,” I said to myself. Scientific reasoning for my negative results aside, my status reaffirmed my belief in a higher power when your life stands a chance of being significantly altered. I might go to Starbucks on Shabbat, and I might ignore the lard in my tortillas. I might lie with men like other men do with women. But when it all comes to the end and I can’t change anything: He is still all that I’ve got.

***

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Instead of Chinese food this Christmas–let’s dance


New York’s hottest party for gay jews!  This year… at XL!


December 24, 2012
XL NIGHTCLUB
512 West 42 Street
New York City
9pm-3am
DJ Steve Sidewalk
info & bottle service: jayson@myhebro.com
produced by Jayson Littman for
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Building True Acceptance— By helping gay kids, synagogues and Jewish schools can make the community better for all of us

Building True Acceptance

By helping gay kids, synagogues and Jewish schools can make the community better for all of us

By Marjorie Ingall|November 14, 2012 7:00 AM|

 

Jeanne Schwartz called her husband John at work one afternoon in June 2009. “Joe has taken a lot of pills,” she said. Their 13-year-old son Joe, who’d just come out as gay at his middle school, had tried to commit suicide.

In Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality, John Schwartz tells Joe’s story, as well as his own and his wife’s. This is a family memoir, not a self-help book. But like Schwartz’s earlier book Short (which I raved about in Tablet a couple of years ago), Oddly Normal mixes personal anecdotes and science reporting in a way that adds resonance to both. A national correspondent for the New York Times, Schwartz tells us about his son’s difficulties as a gay teenager while also examining research into gayness, homophobia, and teen suicide.

Jeanne and John had suspected Joe was gay since he was 3. He’d loved pink and rhinestones and Barbies and fabulousness; for Halloween he asked to be “a disco yady.” Joe later said that he’d known he was gay since he was 8. But knowing who you are isn’t the same as being comfortable with who you are. He called the burden he struggled with “the secret,” and for a long time he refused to name it, even to his parents.

Even though they tried to help their son in his secret struggle, John and Jeanne may inadvertently have made it harder for Joe to accept who he was. When Joe started kindergarten, for instance, Jeanne quietly put away all his Barbies and their spectacular outfits. She worried that if Joe talked to kids at school about his love of all things glittery (his favorite word was “prettiful”), he’d be teased. Joe wondered where his treasures had gone, but his parents told themselves that at least they’d let their son’s plastic castle draped with beads, his trove of costume jewelry, and his prettiful crystal globes remain in his room, so he could enjoy them in private. They meant well, but as Schwartz ruefully writes in retrospect, “We had built his first closet.”

There’s a lesson here for all parents—even well-intentioned, open-minded ones. And it’s a lesson that Jewish institutions, leaders, and teachers should heed as well, as they wrestle with notions of inclusion, acceptance, and tradition. Being tolerant doesn’t necessarily mean being helpful. We may tell ourselves that the Orthodox are the ones who need to pay more attention to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids, but guess what: A lot of us—even those of us who consider ourselves accepting—are doing a mediocre job.

***

Joe, who’s now 16, survived the suicide attempt. In the book, John tells the story of how he and Jeanne grappled with how best to help their son afterward. Joe had trouble with impulsiveness, anger, and certain teachers, in addition to his “secret.” His parents got advice (sometimes conflicting) from psychologists, researchers, and all kinds of therapists, as well as an ad hoc group of friends and colleagues John refers to as The League of Gay Uncles.

One of those “uncles” is Mark Kaiserman, then the Schwartzes’ rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J. “Mark is much younger than me, but he brought a sense of calm and wisdom to our discussions about Joe,” John Schwartz told me in an interview. “After the suicide attempt we went to him, and he had a lot of good advice for us, with a sweetness we would always treasure.” For years, Schwartz attended a weekly Torah class led by Kaiserman. “One of the enduring intellectual pleasures of my life is this study group,” Schwartz said. “And we spent a lot of time on Leviticus, discussing and debating the text. I didn’t just pick up the Cliffs Notes. I am a proud member of the Reform tradition that says that Judaism is a living faith. It doesn’t mean you go all loose and floppy—‘Oh, I’ll do the rules my way’—but it does mean there is a grand tradition of adaptation; it’s thoughtful and reflective.” He paused. “I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with combining wool and linen in a single garment.” He paused again. “And I eat chicken parmigiana.”

Kaiserman, now the interim rabbi at a congregation in California, told me, “You can argue with someone that they’re misreading the text or that times have changed. But no argument will be compelling to someone who insists that being gay is an abomination.” He went on to explain: “With my community I have the same conversations I would about any social issue I’m on the left about. The Torah is not an obstacle to believing what I believe. Subjecting someone to a life of misery and shame and humiliation and lying is not the way we intend for people to live.”

But even in left-leaning communities, acceptance can be more theoretical than actual. Joanna Ware, lead organizer and training coordinator for Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, said, “It’s great to have our hearts in the right place, but we need the skills and tools to figure out how to make acceptance real. It’s great for a rabbi to think, ‘If I were asked to officiate at a same-sex union, I’d be open to it,’ but if he doesn’t communicate that, he won’t be asked. It’s one thing for Hebrew school principals to respond to bullying, but something else entirely to be proactive. Our leaders need to think, ‘What is the community I want to create, and how do I foster norms that facilitate this kind of environment?’ ”

For example, congregations and religious schools could consider ways to engage cool sixth-graders to model the way to behave for younger students. Synagogues should think about language, communication materials, how often leaders speak specifically to LGBTQ inclusion. Ware said, “A lot of times we hear, ‘We welcome all people!’ but then it turns out, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean people like you.’ That can be true of Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews with disabilities, interfaith families.”

Ware says that religious schools can support a climate of acceptance by sending a clear message that they value all students. “We need visibility in a visual sense. For instance, LGBTQ safe-zone stickers are physical indicators that say this is a safe space for all kids.” And we need to accept that words can seriously wound. Schwartz points to a 2010 study that found that more than 72 percent of gay students said they frequently heard slurs like “faggot” at school, and almost 90 percent had heard the word “gay” used in a negative way. Nearly 87 percent reported they were distressed by the language (as Joe was). So, teachers, support staff, custodians, and parents all need to play a role in nipping such language in the bud.

“Judaism should be associated with support,” Ware said. “One way is for religious schools to be clear, in words and actions, that this is where you can be protected to be yourself.” Ware tells the story of a gay man who recalled being teased by Hebrew school classmates for being, in his words, “not the most masculine kid.” When he was around 10, another student muttered, “I don’t want to sit next to that fag.” The teacher literally dropped her books and made it unequivocally clear that that such language and behavior were not acceptable in the community or in the sanctuary. “What was striking to me,” Ware said, “was what the student said: ‘I was terribly embarrassed at the time, but when I look back now it was the first time anyone stood up for me, and it was in my synagogue, in a Jewish community … and because of that the Jewish community has always felt like a safe space for me.’ ”

Little gestures like that can have huge impacts. “In the shul where I’m currently working, they’ve always had women light the candles,” Kaiserman said by way of illustration. “That’s the tradition. I said, ‘But what if it’s a single father whose child is having a bar mitzvah?’ They said, ‘Oh, then Grandma lights them.’ I said, ‘What if it’s a gay couple?’ They’d never thought of it, because they’d never had it. But they are positively inclined toward acceptance, so they were open to the reminder that some of the models we have about how to do things don’t work in the light of gay and lesbian families and kids.”

Creating an atmosphere of true acceptance helps everyone. Keshet offers a poster for Jewish schools presenting seven Jewish values on which to build inclusive Jewish community. They are:

Kavod: Respect
Shalom bayit: Peace in the home
B’tzelem Elohim: In God’s image
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: Communal responsibility
Sh’mirat halashon: Guarding one’s use of language
Vahavta l’reicaha kamocha: Love your neighbor as yourself
Al tifrosh min hantisbur: Solidarity

These values support all kids, not just gay kids. But sadly, some conservatives view all efforts to encourage mutual respect through a homophobic lens. This October, the American Family Association led a boycott of Mix It Up at Lunch, an annual event begun by the Southern Poverty Law Center 11 years ago, designed to encourage kids in school cafeterias to sit next to other kids with whom they don’t usually sit. Mixing up the usual cliques, the theory goes, will help bullies and passive bystanders start to see potential victims as people, and thereby lessen the prevalence of bullying. But the AFA declared that the program was designed specifically “to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools” and convinced around 200 of the 2,500 participating schools to drop it. As faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert pointed out on his nightly TV show, “It’s a devious plot: Get kids to learn that despite our outward differences, in our hearts we’re all pretty much the same. That leads to open-mindedness, which leads to open-pantsedness.” (This year’s event took place Nov. 13.)

Despite the homophobia of groups like the AFA, the casual brutality kids are capable of and the benign cluelessness of many well-intentioned Jewish liberals, it’s important to note that not every LGBT kid is destined for trauma. As Schwartz told me, “Some kids come out and it’s no big deal. For others, it can be a fraught and difficult process. My best advice for parents is to go back to Dr. Spock and say, ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’ I’m not saying I know more as a parent than someone else. But I can say it’s up to everyone to be good parents in the way they know best.” Indeed, how we parents respond to our children’s sexuality can have a major impact on how happy they are. A study by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that LGBT kids who experienced rejection from their parents were six times more likely to suffer from high levels of depression and were eight times likelier to have attempted suicide than peers from families who didn’t reject them.

Acceptance of LGBT people is growing. A 2001 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans said that gay or lesbian relations are “morally wrong,” and 40 percent found them “morally acceptable.” Only a decade later, those numbers had flipped: In 2011, 56 percent said LGBT relationships were morally acceptable and 39 percent said they were morally wrong. Schwartz cites statistics showing that the number of Americans supporting gay marriage went from 27 percent in 1996 to 53 percent in 2011. The world only spins forward, as last week’s victories for same-sex marriage and gay elected officials demonstrated.

As for Joe, he’s doing well. He read and gave notes on his father’s manuscript. He’s out and proud, doing theater, playing Dungeons and Dragons on weekends with friends, doing fine in school. He can still be fragile, but so can a lot of us. And we all deserve support. As Ware put it, “We need to say to all kids, ‘Who you are is fabulous; you are made in the image of God.’ That’s part of what the sacred work of our Jewish community is about.”

“A Strange and Separate People” by Jon Marans— “Betrayal and New Beginnings”

Marans, Jon, “A Strange and Separate People”, Chelsea Station Editions, 2012.

“Betrayal and New Beginnings”

Amos Lassen

I was very lucky to have been able to see Jon Marans’s “The Temperamentals” when I first moved to Boston last spring after having read the script. Quite naturally I was anxious to read his new play “A Strange and Separate People” especially because it contains two of the topics I am especially interested in—religion and homosexuality.

A Manhattan couple suddenly finds itself teetering on destruction when a gay doctor takes up his religious beliefs with a strong passion and begins to question what love really means. The play is an intimate drama with just three characters and looks at the issues that exist between Orthodox Judaism and gay men, a subject I am very familiar with. However the main question is not unique to Judaism alone but to every gay person who is spiritual and wants to live a life that encompasses both sexuality and religious belief. This is about an Orthodox gay Jew but it could be about any person who embraces his religion and his sexuality and tries to find a place where the two can co-exist.

The world of the Orthodox Jew is strange to those who have not lived it (which I have done and still do, to a degree although I have been a reform Jew for about seven years now). It is a world centered on the 613 commandments that are presented to us in our holy texts. It is also a world of tradition, obedience and liturgy. More than that, however, it is a world of respect and herein is the problem for many—is it truly possible to be in both worlds at the same time?

The three characters here—Stuart Weinstein (in his early 30s, handsome, Jewish although not so observant when we first meet him, a doctor with a sharp mind and wit), Phyllis Berman (mid 30’s, a tad prudish, private but has the ability to rage) and Jay Berman (Phyllis’s husband, tough and self-centered) all discover that their world is about to be challenged by love. Each of the characters reaches a point at which he must introspect and then decide upon choices to be made. Additionally each character is what we have called in literature, the “other” meaning that they are not totally absorbed into one group or another. Because Phyllis has an autistic son, she does not fit into the typical Jewish world, Stuart, because he is gay also does not fit that world or the New York gay community because he is Jewish and Jay also has a disconnect from both worlds because he has been living a life of deceit.

The play is very, very timely because with the discussion of gay marriage that has taken this country by storm, religions have begun to issue statements that contain their points of views and while some are beginning to accept homosexuals, Orthodox Judaism is still in the midst of a very heavy debate about the issue. This is a story of struggle that involves love and faith and sexuality and we watch as three individuals embark upon personal journeys with the hopes of finding their places in this world.

What we read here is very personal for me as I have experienced so much of it in my own life and I suppose that I am still dealing with some of it. I have been able to find my own place in Judaism (I think) yet the question will always remain as to whether Judaism has found a place for me. Here in Massachusetts I am able to live a full Jewish life as an openly gay man but was certainly not able to do the same when I lived in Arkansas. Those who are dealing with the issues know exactly what I mean and I really think that it is necessary for a person to prioritize which facets of himself are the most important to him.

I do not want to give away anything in the plot of the drama because I want everyone to have the opportunity to deal with the issues here as they come to them. I am quite sure, however, that reading the text is not nearly as powerful as actually seeing it performed but there is a advantage to reading the lines. It gives the reader time to think about so much. Watching the play is a slap across the face; reading it is a slap across the mind.

 

“Penn State: A Modern-Day Akeda: Did Society Pass or Fail Moral Test on Joe Paterno Scandal?” by Samuel G. Freedman—an amazing analysis (from “The Forward”)

“Penn State: A Modern-Day Akeda”*

“Did Society Pass or Fail Moral Test on Joe Paterno Scandal?’

* Akeda is the Hebrew word for binding and the Abraham/Issac story is traditionally referred to as the “Akeda”. For me this is the most dfficult story to fully understand in the Five Books of Moses.

Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?

Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?

 

By Samuel G. Freedman

Published November 18, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.

This essay is closely adapted from a *d’var Torah that the author delivered on the Sabbath of November 12 at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan.*

The text of parsha Vayera is as familiar as any in the Torah. It includes the Akeda, the passage we read not only in the annual cycle, but also during the High Holy Days. And the story it tells has become, more broadly, part of Western culture, invoked by everyone from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan.

We already know the outlines of the Akeda. Abraham and Sarah, now elderly, have been unable to conceive a child. In recognition of their goodness, God grants them a son, Isaac. Yet as the boy gets older, God commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Only at the last minute does an angel instruct Abraham to stay his hand, and only then does the Almighty provide a ram to be slain instead.

The Rambam teaches us to consider the Akeda as a metaphor for faith, and declares that Abraham passed the test. If we want to understand the Akeda in a historical context, then we can consider it Judaism’s answer to the pagan Canaanite religion that sacrificed children to the god Moloch.

Like the Akeda, Moloch is part of a wider intellectual heritage. Milton wrote of Moloch in “Paradise Lost,” and Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” Muslims, like Jews, associate the Valley of Hinnom, where the child sacrifices were made, with hell, because no act seemed more unconscionable.

We know Abraham is not a bad person, and we know this even before he is hallowed in our tradition as Avraham Avinu. In this parsha, we see Abraham go to great effort to feed three strangers. We see him plead with God to spare the people of Sodom. Though he accedes to Sarah’s order to expel Ishmael and Hagar, Abraham gives them bread and water to help them survive in the desert.

Yet this same Abraham is ready to kill his own child, even though God’s command contradicts His promise that Abraham will become the father of a great nation. Abraham, who was willing to intercede for the sinners of Sodom, says nothing to God on behalf of his son. The text specifies that Abraham waited until the next morning to go to Moriah, and yet there is no indication that Abraham had a second thought. Rashi tells us that even after the angel spoke, and the ram appeared, and Isaac was saved, Abraham asked God if he shouldn’t at least wound Isaac, draw blood.

What kind of deviance is this?

If you have children, as I do, then you remember those moments when you bathed them, or when you zipped them into those fleecy pajamas with feet, or when they fell asleep on the couch after Sabbath dinner and you carried them into their beds. When you think of their helpless innocence, like Isaac’s, how can you conceive of lifting your arm, knife in hand, against your child?

Not so with Abraham. When Isaac asks his father where is the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham lies. He says, “God will see to the sheep.” The truth is, “Isaac, you are the sacrifice.”

What kind of deviance is this?

We might think of the entire book of Genesis as the narrative of humans learning to be human and God learning to be God. The God of the Akeda is, then, if not a false God, an insecure and immature God. He is competing with Satan, trying to prove just how obedient Abraham can be. And maybe God is thinking that if a charlatan like Moloch can get people to sacrifice their children to him, then shouldn’t I, the one true God, be able to demand just as much?

There’s a midrash we need about the Akeda. It’s about who was watching all this happen. Who saw Abraham heading up the mountain with Isaac? Who saw Abraham tying up his own son? Who saw him preparing the fire? Who saw him lifting his knife? And why did no one say or do anything? That’s the midrash I want to hear.

We flatter ourselves in assuming that nothing like the Akeda could happen in our civilized time. We are, of course, totally wrong.

Some of us are old enough to remember the Kitty Genovese case from the mid-1960s. Genovese was a young woman attacked as she returned home one night to her apartment in the Forest Hills section of Queens. And the scandal of her murder was that, as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times memorably wrote, 38 witnesses watched the attack unfold and essentially did nothing. Nobody called the police until it was too late.

Then we learned recently about another Akeda, this one at Penn State University: a football coach who allegedly abused young children under the guise of his charitable foundation, to the point of a boy of 9 or 10 being raped by that coach in a locker room shower. We learned again of decent people worshipping a false god, or misunderstanding what the real God requires of us. The head football coach, the athletic director, the university president — none of them appears to have acted as quickly and boldly as necessary to halt the abuse. Hundreds of students rioted in the street in defense of the very people who failed a moral test.

The reputations of the legendary coach, Joe Paterno, and of Penn State mattered more than the safety of all those little boys. We’ve seen this scenario before, with the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts and in parts of the Jewish communal and rabbinic worlds where sexual predators have been tolerated or protected.

I know some of you may wonder why a d’var Torah is devoted to current events. Shouldn’t it be about etymology or historicity or gematria? About theology? But what’s important in Judaism isn’t just what we have to say about the Torah, it’s what the Torah has to say about us.

If we comfort ourselves with the interpretation that Abraham, in preparing to kill Isaac, was simply fulfilling his faithful duty, passing the true believer’s test, then the text leaves us with some reasons not to be so sure. Sarah goes away from Abraham, never to rejoin him before her death. And as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has pointed out in a commentary on the Akeda, God never again speaks to his chosen one.

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of such books as “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Leveling Leviticus

Leveling Leviticus

Amos Lassen

Those of us who choose to be identified with religion are forced to deal with the question of how to live our lives while facing the issue that we are created in the image of God but that our acts of love are punishable by death by that same God. This punishment rests in the book of Leviticus and some of us have chosen to ignore the writings therein.

Leviticus is the third book of the Five Books of Moses which contain the history and the beginnings of the legal system as we know it today. Traditionally these books are understood as revelations–God’s words written down by Moses and are considered a record of the past as well as an explanation of God’s will for the world. The laws which appear in these five books are the ultimate source of authority and a starting point for what later becomes legal. Bur there is also symbolic power here as well.

What is written in Leviticus cannot be dismissed lightly–the concepts presented are vital to our daily lives–to love our neighbors, dealings with strangers and seeing ourselves created in God’s image. But how do we live when the same text that tells us we were created in God’s image also berates us by saying that our acts of love are punishable by death?

It is here that we must establish a way to come to terms with the holy texts. We can, as so many others have done, interpret the writings to enable us to function with it on its own terms. We can treat the text as historical record and draw conclusions based on the way it functions in a given context. Or we can encounter the writings directly with our emotions and our self-knowledge, allowing it to move us to anger and ultimately to action.

In modern times gay men and women have made themselves a presence in community. If we understand the text historically we have a strong prohibition against homosexuality. The fact that we are told in the book of Genesis that we are created in the image of God, we must assume our identity cannot be an abomination. Others interpret the text as referring to certain sexual acts but not to same sex relationships. By this the text is not relevant to a style of life and love and family of which it was ignorant.

Biblical scholars maintain that in the time of the Bible homosexual acts were forbidden but this does not encompass the reality of the modern world. One of the major problems is the meaning attributed to the Hebrew word “to’evah” or abomination. For some reason this word which was originally meant to connote a forbidden act of idolatry has been used to denote certain sexual practices. In Leviticus the references to homosexuality dealt with cultic practices of same sex relations and not to society at large.

In our encounter with Leviticus, we experience pain, terror and rage. We can imagine the unnecessary damage done to generations of people who were forced to feel shame and guilt and had to hide their feelings while wallowing in shame, guilt and fear all of their lives. But if we can get past the rage we can see the admonitions of Leviticus as tools to educate people about the deep rooted history of oppression and in turn we can use this to break down the wall of silence that surrounds us. By doing this we can transform the Bible from a stumbling block to a path of entry. We become more honest with ourselves and with our community about barriers to our involvement, about our need for separate places of worship and our demand to be accepted as an intregal part of life. To be whole we must acknowledge with what great difficulty how those pieces of our lives fit together. But it is also necessary to demand–of ourselves and of the people around us–that those pieces be made to fit.

It is indeed amazing that words written thousands of years ago still have enough power to affect us today. Words are powerful but it is up to us to make the words that will transform our lives and give new meaning to our existence as gays and Lesbians.

In future blogs I want to look more specifically and in more detail at Leviticus as well as the chapters in Genesis on Sodom and Gommorah and see what can be learned from them.

“Abraham’s Attributes: A Source of Strength”—Thinking about Abraham— an excellent article

Abraham’s Attributes: ‘A Source of Strength

Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

 

There was a time when I could not read the story of the binding of Isaac without wishing for a different ending — that Abraham would stand up to God, refusing to harm his son. Some of my rabbinic colleagues redefine the story, ignoring God’s words, “because you did this thing and did not hold back your precious son from me, I will bless you.” They claim that Abraham failed God’s test because he mounted his son on the slaughtering block.

Past generations were unabashedly proud of this story; it was the pinnacle of Abraham’s life. When the ancient rabbis played with the ending, their inclinations were opposite to those of my rabbinical colleagues. One midrash imagines Abraham actually slaughtering Isaac, and an angel bringing him back to life. In the traditional view, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac earned their descendants a special claim on God’s affections.

Let’s be humble for a moment. Let’s not assume that our ancestors loved their children less than we do, loved violence more than we do, or were more prone to fanaticism. Instead, let’s assume that our ancestors knew something we have forgotten concerning how to read sacred text.

Many of us today read the Bible in much the same way we read history. We criticize Abraham the way we might criticize Winston Churchill. We analyze the implications of Abraham’s actions outside the story line, or we ask what someone else would have done in Abraham’s place. We’re asking the wrong questions.

Ironically, our sages — who believed that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob existed in the flesh — understood that their stories were not to be read as history. They understood the patriarchs as larger than life, archetypal symbols. No one ever was nor ever will be like Abraham. But every one of us carries something of Abraham within ourselves.

Abraham represents a soul that accepts death. That acceptance is elusive in our world of penicillin, seat belts, and smoke detectors (May their effectiveness only increase!). Most of us have come to believe that every child born has the right to a long life, and we demand that right from God. And many of us are stunned when death appears. Abraham was never surprised by death. He understood that life is but a passing shadow, death its inevitable end.

Abraham is also ready to make sacrifices. Many people are generous, but, for better or for worse, true sacrifice is rare. Most of us donate to charity, but few of us give enough so that we feel pinched. If we give of our time, usually we do so when it is most convenient, not necessarily when it is most needed. Abraham believed so deeply in God, he was ready to give up the one thing he loved most in this world.

Finally, and above all, Abraham is ready to obey God. A crucial premise of the story is that Abraham knew whom he was obeying. Today, nobody is privileged to receive personal instruction from the Almighty. Instead, we face a hard, ongoing process to find the ways of righteousness. But in those moments when we see the right thing to do, then we have a choice: to indulge in endless analysis, self-doubts, or cynicisms, or to hush and obey.

Abraham represents each of these traits in their rawest form, offering an intensity that we should not imitate. Normal people who live in utter obedience of God or another cause, willing to sacrifice everything for that belief, with no fear of death, are not what we usually call righteous. They are dangerous fanatics.

Yet when the sages read the story of the binding of Isaac, they recognized Abraham’s attributes within themselves and saw them as a source of strength. They knew that every person can work toward acceptance of death. We can open ourselves to making true sacrifices for our ideals. And, if we engage in self-reflection in order to recognize the voice of righteousness, then we can resolve to obey that voice at those moments when we know we’ve heard it. By channeling our Abrahamic attributes, we might live our lives to the fullest and direct our actions with confidence toward godliness.

Ten Interesting Facts about LGBT History (from David Mixner.com)

Ten Interesting Facts about LGBT History

(thanks to David Mixner.com)

Aug 24 2011

Oesarria 
Jose Sarria

The more we know about our history is the more we know about ourselves. If you feel you have no past and come out of ‘nothing’ then you will feel like ‘nothing’. Our history is extremely important to record for future generations. Some of these facts are interesting historical tippets and some our more profound. Nevertheless, it is all about us!

1. In 1903, New York Police raided the Ariston Hotel and was the first raid ever on a bath house in the United States. Seven men received sentences up to 20 years in prison.

2. The first homosexual rights organization Society for Human Rights was founded in 1924 but lasted only a couple of months before the police forced them to close.

3. In 1926, ‘The New York Times” mentions the word homosexuality for the first time.

4. The words to “America The Beautiful” was written by a lesbian named Katharine Lee Bates who died in 1929.

5. In 1937, the Nazi’s used the “Pink Triangle” for the first time in the concentration camps.

6. The United States Supreme Court in 1958 ruled in favor of a LGBT publication on First Amendment grounds. It is the first time the Court has ever ruled on an issue dealing with homosexuality.

7. Jose Sarria becomes the first openly LGBT candidate for office when he runs for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961!

8. The Mattachine Society had a ‘sip-in’ to protest a New York StateLiquor Authority regulation that banned serving alcohol to homosexuals! This was in 1966!

9. In 1972, Sweden became the first country in the world to allow transexuals to change their sex and receive free hormone treatment.

10. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Society officially removes homosexuality as a mental disorder By the way, they recently, without dissent, passed a resolution endorsing marriage equality!

Some Interesting Thoughts from my friend, Rabbi Andrea Myers

 

Rabbi Andrea Myers

Author, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days’

A Match Worth Making? A Response to Orthodox Jewish ‘Straight’ Marriages


“Move to Denver!” It was all I could do to keep myself from shouting at the screen while watching Brokeback Mountain a few years ago. In a New York City movie theater, this behavior would not stand out. Jack and Ennis, the central characters, secret lovers for decades, were fighting. Jack was insisting that they could have had a good life together, and Ennis was trying to push him away. I was rooting for Jack, for the possibility that the two of them could have been a couple instead of entering into heterosexual marriages. I, and a number of fellow movie-goers, wanted to tell them: “Please go somewhere that you can live your lives together already.”

I had similar thoughts when I read that Rabbi Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living in the West Bank, is acting as a matchmaker between gay men and lesbians. Rabbi Harel’s idea is that marrying gay men and lesbians to each other allows them to have families, while keeping their secret and staying within their religious world. Presumably, having them marry someone who is gay instead of someone straight is meant to lessen the collateral damage that Jack and Ennis’ families suffered.

Still, collateral damage is easy to imagine in this situation. The people who enter into these arrangements, no matter how pure their intentions, are deceiving their families and their communities. Every affirmation they receive for their wedding is based on a fiction. They are modeling a marriage that is not based on romantic or sexual intimacy and love. They are setting themselves up for infidelity and a life lived under constant threat of exposure.

I also wonder where God is in the legal fiction of these marriages. Harel abdicates responsibility for the consequences of these marriages, saying that if adultery takes place it is “not [his] business.” There is a Jewish teaching that if you make three successful matches, you earn a place in the world-to-come. Where do you go if you have set up a situation that could cause tremendous pain and suffering to entire communities?

I also wonder why, if these marriages are meant to conceal the identities of the couples, Rabbi Harel’s work is being featured so prominently in national and international media. Lavender marriages have been going on for centuries, and have been discussed in other traditional communities for years. Why has the Harel story gone viral, and why now? It may be that the trend towards the legalization of same-sex marriage has upped the ante, and made those who oppose it want to show alternatives. Why risk disapproval by marrying your same-sex partner, if you could find an opposite-sex gay or lesbian person to marry and gain heterosexual privilege instead?

I have to believe that the people who are entering into these marriages are sincere. They are trying to find a way to live lives that are normative in their communities. What disturbs me is that this is being presented as their only choice, the only way that they can continue to live as observant Jews. In this situation, “Move to Denver!” need not mean: “Leave your religious practice!” Rather, it means: “Find another way.” Lech lecha, go forth like Abraham did. The territory may feel unknown, but with faith you can make it there. Live the life that is yours to live.

The key problem with these matches is coercion, people feeling forced into marriage because they see no viable alternative. Notably, this is a problem in same-sex and heterosexual marriages as well. Recently, there has been talk about the pressure on same-sex couples to get married in New York. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows two men in bed, one turning to the other and saying: “Please stop looking at me like now I’m gonna propose.” And in July, the New York Times ran an article titled: “Ready to Wed? No, Mom … Some Parents of Gay Children Push for Marriage.” This phenomenon, in which partners and parents pressure people to wed, is old news for straight couples, and almost everyone who is single.

The situation in the Orthodox community that Harel and his clients inhabit is one in which it is virtually impossible to have a social life without being married with children. In this world, being known to be gay would be cause for condemnation, exclusion, or worse. No wonder then, if these individuals feel like they have to live a lie, they would rather have companionship, social standing, and safety. But how many people, in the secular or liberal religious world, also feel immense pressure to be married, as if their only options are to be married or to be miserable? How many single people in our communities feel like their social and even professional options are limited by their single status? How many of them settle for mediocre marriages, preferring that to being alone?

Marriage should be an option for everyone — but it needs to be a choice, not a foregone conclusion. I fought to support marriage equality in New York State, as a lesbian and as a rabbi. My partner and I had our religious wedding back in 2001, when no one was pressuring us to get married; it happened entirely by the force of our own wills. What gives marriage its value is that it is chosen. “Choose life,” the Torah teaches, “that you and your children may live.” (Deut 30:19) As a liberal rabbi, I believe in informed choice: it is our privilege — and our obligation — to educate ourselves about our options and choose wisely, informed by our tradition and by our values, by our hearts and by our minds. It may be that for the gay men and lesbians who are calling Harel, they feel that this is their best choice. I wish that they could see more choices in their lives.

Some would argue that marriage has always been a business arrangement, a societal tool to create stable families. But in Judaism, marriage has always promised something more. Even in Biblical times, Rebecca needs to agree to her match with the patriarch Isaac, and her agreement is seen to set legal precedent: you cannot have a Jewish marriage without the consent of both parties. Indeed, Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage is the first one which the Torah describes as involving love. In another venerable Jewish source, “Fiddler on the Roof,” a daughter sings for the matchmaker to make her a match. But then she realizes that a bad match is worse than no match at all, and so she concludes:

Matchmaker, matchmaker, plan me no plan,
I’m in no rush, maybe I’ve learned
Playing with matches a girl can get burned …
So bring me no ring,
Groom me no groom,
Find me no find,
Catch me no catch,
Unless he’s a matchless match!

The Jewish wedding ceremony culminates in the sheva brachot, seven blessings. In them, the couple is described as re’im ahuvim, loving companions. Their voices on their wedding day are meant to be kol sasson v’kol simcha, the voice of rejoicing and the voice of happiness. I want to suggest another blessing, and it is this: may everyone be blessed with the ability to truly choose whether, and to whom, they will be wed. Then, as the wedding blessings promise, we will truly be celebrating with loving companions, their voices ringing out with happiness. Now that is a match worth making.