Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Dozens of Orthodox Rabbis Call for Accepting Gay Congregants" Times of Israel

Beit Hillel organization publishes edict declaring homosexuals can fulfill community duties, should not be excluded!
BY STUART WINER April 11, 2016, 1:05 pm

Dozens of Israeli Orthodox rabbis have signed a religious edict urging religious communities to accept gay members without prejudice and ruling that homosexuals can fulfill the same community duties as their heterosexual peers. 

The Beit Hillel organization, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic group comprising 200 men and women that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox Judaism, published the letter on Sunday night during a seminar in Ra’anana.

In the document the rabbis stressed that there is no reason in halacha — the Jewish code of regulations for daily life — to exclude homosexuals.“Even though the forbidden relations cannot be permitted, there’s room to be lenient in the approach to social inclusion and to accept them into the community,” the letter said, where they can “serve as prayer leaders in the synagogue and carry out all public functions.”

“The matter of single sex [relationships] has resulted in confusion among many members of our community,” began the letter, which declared that its aim was to “dispel doubts” and lay down “an integrated path between religious law and loving-kindness and peace.”
During the six months it took to compose the edict, the authors were in consultation with representatives of the gay community. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

"Coming Out as a Gay Orthodox Talmud Teacher"- by Pesia Soloveichik

Click here for the full article in the Forward: "Coming Out as a Gay Orthodox Talmud Teacher"- by Pesia Soloveichik 2/28/16 The Forward
The following are excerpts from the article:  
“What is it like to be a Soloveichik?” This question about my well-known rabbinic family name has accompanied me for much of my life. My grandfather was Ahron Soloveichik and my great-uncle was Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The questions about my identity became even more complex when, three years ago, I came out as gay in the Orthodox community — while I was a Talmud teacher at an Orthodox high school."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class" by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold posted on Morthodoxy.org - 2/18/16

My thoughts: What a breath of fresh air... So often too many in the Orthodox Jewish world don't express their authentic opinions for fear of being unpopular, creating waves, or being labeled as the "other".  
Moreover, some shy away in the hopes that someone else will not (bystander effect). Some stay silent, because they feel they have no skin in the game. And some stay silent because it's simply not important to them.  
Too often we lack the courage to speak up about difficult topics. Ignoring reality keeps us stuck in this "Don't Ask Don't Tell" construct. This has been proven to be hazardous to ones health. I may not be 6 years old, but I understand what denying a persons reality can do to a person. I understand what might seem as harmless words of a teacher at 6 years old can have an effect on that persons self esteem for years to come.  
We may not remember everything about our childhoods, but we do remember the statements that become more relevant to our lives as time goes on.  
One of my earliest and most salient memories I can recall is when my 1st grade teacher told us a story about the firing gates of hell. He spoke of the torture we will endure in the next world if we are not "good". That story never left me.  
I hope more of us can and will find the courage to be as brave as the author Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold.  
-Rich Dweck 

Article begins: It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”
I paused, chewing.
“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.
“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

Friday, February 12, 2016

"How Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, Became Israel’s Leading Ultra-Orthodox Iconoclast" (Tablet Magazine 2/11/16- by Elhanan Miller)

Shas spirtual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (L)
and his daughter Adina Bar Shalom April 06, 2011.
  Photo by Oren Nahshon/FLASH90

This article is absolutely astonishing. What an amazing and brave woman. She discusses her relationship with her father, her aspirations, Women's issues, LGBT issues, Rabbinic responsibility, and education in Israel. I've heard courage is contagious, but has to start with one. She is truly a role model and I hope and pray that her words are heard throughout the entire Jewish world and beyond. 

The Israel Prize-winning educator, activist, and former seamstress seeks to integrate secular and religious lives for a new generation of Haredi men and women. By Elhanan Miller

Quotes from the article: "“The culture shock I experienced was meeting the unusual segments of Israeli society,” she said. “I had never before met the LGBT community up close. You usually associate with people from your own circles, and here I was meeting a diverse, special population. It raised lots of questions and internal debates. These are things you can’t share with your surroundings.”
"Bar Shalom is circumspect in sharing the details of her epiphany but indicates that a first-hand encounter with a homosexual colleague had a profound effect on her. 'For a woman coming from such a different world, to meet a man like that was a big ‘wow.’ I met a person whom I even loved to some degree. A nice, kind person whom I could befriend. Should his [sexual] orientation drive me away because it’s so different? That was a question I asked myself.' ”
"She continued: “They are fearful and, unfortunately, not learned enough. I believe that anyone who is deeply learned can find solutions to every problem. I don’t want to denigrate anyone, but we don’t have enough brave giants. Unlike that high-school student I was speaking to earlier, a great scholar cannot try to please his friends. He must take responsibility as a leader and solve the problems of his people. If he wants to safeguard the Torah, that’s the only way. The moment he tries to please the mediocre scholars, mediocrity wins, and that’s our downfall.”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"The Orthodox Community Must Embrace Its Gay Children"- The Jewish Week

08/25/2015- Rabbi Chaim Marder 

The horrifying stabbings and murder of Shira Banki at the recent Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem are in no way representative of the Orthodox Judaism I live and breathe.  Yet, that horrifying incident should give all of us in the Modern Orthodox community pause, and cause, to rethink the stance we take, and the message we send about homosexuality and LGBT Jews. It calls for a fundamental change in the way we interact with these men and women of our community— our children, our siblings, our congregants.  We must do it because it is right. And we must do it because the alternative to such a change has become too great to bear.

The Torah provides a blessed path for two Jews with heterosexual attraction who realize that they love each other and want to build a life together. It supports this special bond by setting forth rules about our sexual and relational conduct.  

But what path is there for people who aren’t wired for heterosexual relationships?  We've come to know that homosexuality is, most often, not a choice.  Why would God create some people who can only find sexual fulfillment and companionship in a way that God's Torah prohibits? There are no easy answers.  For many, especially our young people, the Torah's prohibition of male same-sex intercourse and its labeling it a toeva (generally translated as "abomination") is exceptionally challenging because it pits the Torah’s values against their modern sensibilities.

But my focus here is not on theological or religious questions, though these are certainly important.  Rather, it is on the life issues that directly impact LGBT Jews.  Many are in pain; feeling rejected by the Torah they would want to uphold, feeling excluded from the Orthodox community which has, in many ways, conveyed the message that there is no place for them within it.

But it is God, in the Torah, Who recognizes that to be alone in life is unbearable.  God says of the human he has created: "Lo tov heyot haadam levado- it is not good for the human to be alone."  And he responds by creating Eve.  For LGBT Jews, loneliness persists.  We need to acknowledge that and do our best to respond to the reality of their pain.

Yet, the Orthodox community, by and large, is not engaging compassionately with these Jews. It is more focused on prohibited acts, the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, and the dangerous impact homosexuality is said to have on society. I believe this focus is misguided and imbalanced. We dwell on same-sex prohibitions more than issues of a sexually active single heterosexual population, or immorality in business -- also called a toeva in the Torah. (Point of information: though the Torah calls male same-sex intercourse a toeva, Bar Kapparah in Tractate Nedarim tells us the correct translation here is "toeh atah bah- you are going astray with it", greatly neutralizing the implications of "abomination"). 

Instead of playing the role here as protectors of the Torah (which we must surely do at times), we should be engaging LGBT Jews as the good people they are; we should be working to keep them connected to the Torah instead of taking positions that are driving them away from it.

How can Orthodox institutions (synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups) do better?

Firstly, we must be vigilant about the derogatory, often flippant way we sometimes speak about LGBT Jews.  It is insidious and damaging. If we allow it, we become complicit in the harm it causes.

Beyond that, we should commit to getting to know LGBT Jews, to hearing their stories and struggles, to engaging with them as we would with any other Jews in our community. 

Orthodox Rabbis must make clear to LGBT Jews, especially to those from traditional backgrounds, that there is no sin in being who they are.  Though a rabbi cannot permit what the Torah has forbidden, he can affirm just how difficult this is.  We must convey a belief that God, who made us all as we are, can only expect us to do what we are capable of doing.  (If asked, we should offer halachic guidance in limiting behaviors. Other than that, what they do in their bedrooms is not for us to know.).  And we must help them love themselves, and their families to support them.

At the same time, we should encourage LGBT Jews to live a vibrant religious life.  We should make clear that they (and their spouse/partner if they should have one) have a place in our congregations, that their Jewish children are welcome as any other children are.

Some believe that shunning LGBT Jews might change their behavior (or somehow prevent others from joining their ranks) but the opposite is more likely to be true. Distancing ourselves from our LGBT friends and children drives them, and, ultimately, those who love them, away from God.  Is that really what we want?

Five years ago, many of us signed onto a "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community" (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com). That document is just a starting point. There is the “tachlis” work still to be done. For example, the Modern Orthodox community should work closely with organizations that are developing support networks for LGBT Jews and their families. We should rethink institutional policies, from who may receive honors in Shul to school admission for the Jewish children of same-sex parents. We should host opportunities for LGBT Jews to share their stories with us.

Some who argue for compassionate understanding and embrace of LGBT Jews have been accused of condoning that which the Torah condemns.  That is not what is being advocated here. We are not encouraging or giving our blessings to people's actions. What we are doing is offering our fellow Jews—our friends, our siblings, our children-- blessings towards a good life, as an integral part of our community.

Only then are we living up to what we as Jews and a Jewish community are meant to be.

Chaim Marder is the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, in White Plains, NY.

Click here to write a letter to the editor of The Jewish Week. Read http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/orthodox-community-must-embrace-its-gay-children#wMdKs3LUOamrefWb.99

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"At LGBT Memorial Service, Orthodox Add To The Rainbow" by Hannah Dreyfus- The Jewish Week

A diverse crowd of 300 attended a memorial service last week for Shira Banki, the 16-year-old stabbed and killed at Jerusalem
RCA’s Rabbi Mark Dratch points to communal responsibility, says not the time to ‘retreat’ into defensive mode.

When Sean Herzfeld, an openly gay Orthodox teenager from Westchester County, heard about Shira Banki, the 16-year-old who was stabbed and killed by a charedi protestor at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, he felt scared.

“I was sad, I was disappointed, but mostly I was really frightened,” said the rising junior at a local yeshiva high school. “It could have been me, or any one of my ally friends.”

Herzfeld spoke last Thursday night to a crowd of 300 at a memorial and solidarity rally for Banki at the LGBT Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Though there were only 150 seats, people flowed into the auditorium and stood pressed closely together, many wiping away tears as Herzfeld spoke. The crowd was diverse, with kippot, traditional women’s head coverings and rainbow flags sprinkling the crowd.

Herzfeld, an active member of JQY, a nonprofit organization that supports Orthodox LGBT Jews, recalled marching with his peers in the Salute to Israel Parade just two months earlier, waving a rainbow flag.

“Three days after the Israeli Day parade, I’d already resumed my usual teenage schedule including participating in school activities, extracurriculars and hanging out with friends,” he said. “Three days after participating in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, Shira Banki succumbed to her wounds on her hospital bed.”

The emotional memorial service brought together representatives from organizations representing a wide swath of the Jewish community, including Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBT synagogue, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, co-director of Eshel, an organization working towards the integration of LGBT Jews, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), America’s largest body of Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Dratch’s appearance, which marked the first time an RCA member spoke at a LGBT Center event, was considered a “historic” moment by many, especially in lieu of the RCA’s public statement of concern following the Supreme Court verdict on gay marriage in June. In the statement, the RCA rejected the court’s “redefinition of marriage” and cited it as a threat to Orthodox religious freedom.

Rabbi Dratch said he was “embarrassed” that his appearance at the ceremony was considered something special. Standing behind a podium draped with a rainbow flag, he spoke for five minutes denouncing the cultural influences that produce violent extremists and pointing to elements of communal responsibility for the tragedy.

“There are sins of commission and sins of omission,” he said, citing failure to “speak up” against pejorative or mocking comments as part of the problem. “Our community has been much too silent for much too long.”

He added that while the act of extreme violence might have been an aberration, it “festered in a community whose culture is too often pervaded by insensitivity, disrespect, vulgarity and intolerance.”

One attendant, who preferred to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said it “blew her mind” that Rabbi Dratch was standing behind a rainbow flag.

Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of JQY and one of the event’s organizers, said that Rabbi Dratch’s remarks “more than rose to the occasion.” While he had spoken alongside Rabbi Dratch at a mental health conference in April, this was the first time he was officially representing the RCA, according to Levovitz.

“In the past, he was careful to say he was coming as an individual, and not necessarily to represent the organizations,” said Levovitz. “This time, we didn’t give organizations that option.”

A representative from the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University president Richard Joel both said they would have liked to attend, but were traveling, according to Levovitz.

“There can be positive repercussions from this tragedy — the Orthodox world is beginning to understand the impact of negative messaging coming from the rabbinate,” he said. “It’s just not so simple to keep pushing away an already ostracized minority.”

Dr. Jack Dresher, a psychiatrist who has written extensively on gender and LGBT issues, said that those with severe mental illnesses do make use of the belief systems around them. “Racism, sexism and homophobia are all themes they could pick up on,” he said. Repeated moral condemnations can lead to anti-homosexual biases, heterosexism, and even anti-gay violence. “It becomes increasingly difficult for members of these groups to distinguish between the ‘sinner’ and the ‘sin’,” he said.

The attack at the Jerusalem parade has alerted people to the “unintended consequences” of hateful words and actions. He referred to the memorial service as an “amazing moment of dialogue.”

“What we saw on Thursday did not spring up overnight — it is the culmination of brave efforts to engage in dialogue for the past 10 years,” he said.
In Israel, several prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern and Rabbi Benny Lau, strongly condemned the violence and pointed to the communal factors that may have contributed.

“It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” said Rabbi Lau, standing in Zion Square before hundreds of rainbow flags at a memorial rally for Banki and the Palestinian toddler killed in the West Bank. “Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

Miriam Wopenoff, a middle-aged chasidic woman from Crown Heights, stood in the crowd on Thursday night, a wad of tissues in her hand. She wore a long black skirt and a traditional black head covering. “I’m here to support friends from my community,” she said. “Many of them couldn’t be here.”

Zach B., who asked that we not use his full name for privacy reasons, just graduated high school and will be studying at a prominent Orthodox yeshiva in Israel in the fall. He attended the memorial service on Thursday night not knowing what to expect. Still, the weight of communal responsibility propelled him to go.

“It would be easier if we could just say ‘this guy was a nut job’ and be done with it,” he said, wearing a kipa, dark pants and button down shirt. “But we can’t wash our hands of what happened, until we try and make it better.”

Editorial intern Talia Lakritz contributed to this report.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Breaking the silence on Jewish suicide" By William Kremer BBC

My thoughts and feelings after reading this article:
This article brought be to tears. It speaks for the many who cannot speak for themselves. All too often, the people suffering the most are the ones you would never expect. 
Years ago, I felt like one of those people. The feelings of self hatred for not fitting the mold, for being different, and for believing that if you knew what I knew about me, then you would hate me to. Every time someone told me I love me or how special I was, I would get physically ill. Especially, so and so wants you for their daughter. As if they knew who I was.
After all, they loved who they thought I was and not the terrible human being I really was. If they knew that I was gay, they would  not only reject me, but they would feel like I violated their love and respect. I would be bringing shame onto the family and community. 
This was my worst fear and something I tried not to do. After all, I was the person who always tried to be the peacemaker and simply wanted to make those around me proud. 
Today, some people look at me as the enemy. They look at me as the person that threatens the very fiber in which we come. The person that is destroying the community and destroying religion, simply because I was gay. 
Yes, I don't hide that I'm gay and for good reason. I speak up for the younger me and I speak up for the many younger me's walking around with the same feelings and painful thoughts. Why should anyone think they are alone? 
I lost a few friends to suicide, which I know was a result of the deafening silence around them. Gay children are keenly sensitive. A parent can say I accept and love you, and the child hears I lovED you but now you are a sense of shame and heartache. They come home to visit and sense the underlying shame. It leads them to think they are not worthy of love. 
A Jewish gravestone

Among Orthodox Jews, a self-inflicted death is seen as a serious sin which brings shame on the family. But a couple who have lost two sons to suicide believe more needs to be done to prevent such deaths, and help families grieve after they occur.
In 1995, a young man from one of the kibbutz communities of the Beit She'an Valley in eastern Israel died by his own hand. It was the first recorded suicide in these kibbutzim since they were founded in the 1930s.

Friday, July 31, 2015

My thoughts on: "Off the path of Orthodoxy"- NewYorker.com

"Footsteps" is an organization that helps ex-religious or ex-frum people navigate the outside world. Provides training, therapy, support and all.

I'm not promoting this organization, simply sharing my thoughts on these issues. I write and share some of my personal story, because we cannot continue to stay silent. People need to know they are not alone. 

I honestly wish this organization "Footsteps" was around when I was 22 and lost. I had no idea how to navigate the world around me. I had many struggles, but never the struggle of coming back to Orthodoxy. That wasn't even an option. There was no room for me. 

I felt like I was thrown out to sea, not knowing how to swim and without a life preserver. No one was there to guide me or help me navigate. 

I know many who have abandoned it all, because they too felt abandoned. It was just too painful to be a part of. It breeds contempt for religion as a whole. The harsh judgement, the fear, the shame, along with the emotional damage it can cause is immeasurable. 

Everyone needs to feel like belong somewhere. If you don't provide it, they will find it. It can come in the form of addiction, the wrong crowd, and worse. We must do our best to provide a more inclusive, understanding, and tolerant community. We need to work together to stop the bleeding. Being silent is no longer an option. 

Imagine the Hasidim who only teach Yiddish to their children, in hopes to keep them in the ghetto. How could they ever leave if they have no skills, education, or even a common language with the world outside their village? 

Moreover, they wouldn't have the ability or choice to shift from one version of Orthodox Judaism to another. I can't speak for them, but I can understand the pain and frustration many experience.

It took me close to 15 years to find somewhat of a gradually increasing Jewish religious connection. I had to leave literally everything to rediscover it on my own terms. 

As much as one might say, why would one create an organization for those who left Orthodoxy or Judaism, it could have made my life much easier. Maybe I wouldn't have come so close to the edge of the cliff. 

I understand why an Orthodox Jew would think of such an organization as a detriment to their world. I would have thought the same if I hadn't  experienced what I had years prior. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Thoughts on Children of Jewish Same Sex Couples: A blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

This essay is not about same-sex marriage. It seems amply clear from Torah and halakha that marriage entails a union between a man and a woman.

This essay is not about whether the United States Supreme Court should have legalized same-sex marriage, or whether such marriages should or should not be performed by civil magistrates.

We are confronted with a reality, whether we approve or do not approve. 

The reality is that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States; that “Gay rights” activists have convinced much of the public that their cause is a “human rights” issue and that those who oppose same-sex marriage are “on the wrong side of history.”

We are also confronted with a reality, whether we approve or do not approve, that among the vocal advocates on behalf of same-sex marriages were major American Jewish organizations that foster civil rights. 

Indeed, it has been reported that some Christian religious leaders are faulting the Jews (what else is new?) for destroying the Christian values of American society by forcing society to adopt same-sex marriages.

As Orthodox Jews, committed to Torah values and law, we will continue to live according to Torah and halakha. But it surely will be impossible to ignore the prevailing laws and attitudes of American society.

I want to focus on one aspect of the current reality: children of same-sex couples.

Until fairly recently, same-sex couples generally did not have children. Technology had not been developed for in vitro fertilization. Surrogate motherhood wasn’t available. Adoption agencies were loath to give children to same-sex couples. So gay couples lived their lives on a more or less private level, without having a significant impact on society at large.

But today, the situation has changed radically. It is far more common for same sex couples to have their own children. Through in vitro fertilization and through use of surrogate mothers, many gay couples are now also parents. Gay couples are also considered valid candidates for adopting children.

Whether we approve or don’t approve, we have an increasing number of children growing up with Jewish same-sex parents. 

Should these children be converted to Judaism if their surrogate mother and/or egg donor were not Jewish? Will an Orthodox beth din undertake such conversions? Will children of same-sex parents be accepted in our day schools? Will we want our children and grandchildren to have play dates with them in their homes? Will these children be able to grow up “normally,” without being stigmatized?

While these kinds of questions have increased during the past several decades, they are going to become even more prevalent in the years ahead. It is easy to close our eyes and simply say: we do not condone same-sex marriages and we want nothing to do with children of such marriages. 

It is a spontaneous reflex to tell such families to go elsewhere for their Jewish lives, and not expect to find a home in Orthodox communities, synagogues, and schools.

And yet, I think we all need to think more carefully about what is at stake here. Should children of same-sex couples be excluded from our Orthodox Jewish communities? Do we have some moral responsibility to help them grow as good and faithful Jews? 

Do we have a religious responsibility to ensure that such children—as well as all other children—are not discriminated against or stigmatized? Should sincere, religiously observant same-sex couples, be prevented from having their children converted to Judaism?

As we are in the midst of a serious transition in the social/religious life of our society, quick yes or no answers are seldom helpful. While we do not yet have all the answers, we at least need to recognize what the questions are.

Over the years, I have found that my own views on these issues have been impacted by direct contact with same-sex couples who have come to me with their children. It is easy enough to dismiss stereotypes: it is altogether different to look into someone’s eyes, feel their pain and anxiety; see their genuine love of their children and their desire to raise their children within an Orthodox Jewish community.

I, along with so many other Orthodox Jews, strive to maintain Torah values while facing the realities of the society in which we live. It is not always easy to balance conflicting imperatives. 

We need to think very carefully and very calmly before we can reach absolute clarity in a confusing world. But if we are to err, we should err on the side of love and compassion.


"The Rise and Fall of JONAH"- How a "gay conversion" program using nudity, cuddling, became Orthodox Rabbis' go-to answer for LGBTQ Jews

On a warm day in June, a Jersey City jury heard Jonathan Hoffman, an Orthodox Jew, describe an exhilarating weekend he spent sponsored by JONAH, an organization that claims to “heal” same sex attraction.

He described a “wild party” where a group of men danced in the woods, threw cake at each other and rolled in the mud before washing off in a group shower. Hoffman told the court that JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) had helped him in his effort to change his sexual orientation.

Hoffman was deemed as “success story” by JONAH — someone with a history of sexual relations with other men who has married a woman and started a family. In a videotaped deposition played for the court, Hoffman credited JONAH’s program as “the stuff that has helped me and the stuff that I hold dear to my heart.”

But others claim they were harmed by the organization. Last week, in a landmark verdict, a jury agreed. The five plaintiffs alleged that JONAH defrauded them by saying the program’s methods were scientific. The jury found JONAH liable for $72,400 in damages for consumer fraud and “unconscionable business practices.”

The verdict, however, leaves the Orthodox community with more questions than answers. Like how a young Orthodox Jewish man struggling with homosexual desires was guided by well-known rabbis to spend weekends in the woods like the one Hoffman described. All under the watchful eye of a self-styled “life coach” who is also a Mormon high priest. 

Much of the answer lies in the brilliant salesmanship of JONAH’s director, convicted fraudster Arthur Goldberg, and his less colorful co-director Elaine Berk. But it also includes the fact that recommendations of JONAH came from a number of respected Orthodox rabbis and mental health professionals.

The Beginning

In the late 1990s, Berk’s son came out to her as gay, she testified. She was troubled by this and “wrote letters to rabbis and different Jewish organizations and didn’t receive answers.” Frustrated, she did her own research and found psychologists positing there were ways to “heal” homosexuality.

She met Goldberg, whose son had come out to him as gay, at a conference about homosexuality and healing in 1997. The next year they founded JONAH.

Described by Goldberg and Berk as a referral service, JONAH espouses treatment that includes one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and weekends in the woods. JONAH asserts that “wounds” incurred in childhood cause homosexuality, and once those wounds are “healed,” men will have healthy, non-sexual relationships with other men and become straight.

In 2000, JONAH received an endorsement from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages. The endorsement remains on JONAH’s website today.

Around the same time, the award-winning documentary “Trembling Before God,” depicting the struggle of Orthodox gays and lesbians for acceptance in their religious communities, was released. Suddenly, gay Orthodox Jews became visible — and vocal — in a way they never had before.

Jonathan Hoffman noted that he found JONAH in 2006 through an online comment critiquing the film.

“There weren’t any other resources in the Jewish community that [were] providing Jewish men with the help that I was looking for,” Hoffman said.

Moishie Rabinowitz, now treasurer of Jewish Queer Youth, was referred to JONAH by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, known as the Novominsker Rebbe. Raised in a charedi home, Rabinowitz, 22, was well into the process of shidduch dating. The only problem: he knew he was gay. At the time, “there was no gay Jewish world,” he told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Perlow referred Rabinowitz to JONAH. But knowing that the organization used unscientific methods of conversion therapy, he decided not to go. 

In 2004, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinic association, issued an endorsement of JONAH, suggesting “rabbis might refer congregants to them for reparative therapy.”

But the biggest endorsement for JONAH came with “The Torah Declaration” in 2011, signed by over 200 rabbis. The document, apparently drafted by about two dozen men, attributed homosexuality to “childhood emotional wounds” and declared that attempting change was the only Torah-consistent way to deal with the problem. And JONAH was the only Jewish organization offering the possibility of such change. 

The Unraveling

Just when JONAH had reached the height of rabbinic backing, it came under attack. In November 2012, four former clients and two mothers filed a fraud suit.

In court papers and later at trial, witnesses said that Alan Downing, JONAH’s Mormon “life coach” who claimed to have subdued his own homosexual attractions, routinely “invited” young men he was counseling to strip in his office and then “physically feel” their masculinity. Downing also led others to believe the behaviors of their parents had turned them gay.

Immediately after the complaint became public, the RCA rescinded its support and asked JONAH to remove the endorsement from its website, where it remains today.

Last week’s verdict against JONAH did not come as a surprise to Rabbi Samuel Rosenberg, the Orthodox rabbi and licensed clinical social worker who was co-director of JONAH from 1999 until around 2002, when he left due to “theological and professional differences,” particularly regarding the weekend retreats’ nudity and cuddling.  “I would not approve the methods,” Rosenberg told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Rosenberg and Goldberg clashed over the boldness of Goldberg’s claims.

“Mr. Goldberg insisted that he wanted to publicize the claim that he can assure anyone who comes through his doors that he can ‘cure’ them, quote unquote,” Rosenberg said. “My position was that it’s totally unethical to guarantee it, as with any psychotherapy. And also, that the term ‘cure’ is totally inappropriate in this context, because I would not call it an illness.”

Goldberg and his attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Rabbi Rosenberg said he was also troubled by Goldberg’s efforts to marshal Orthodox rabbinic support for JONAH through adopting calculated, Torah-friendly language while concealing the fact that he is not personally Orthodox. 

Despite Goldberg’s lack of formal Jewish education — he left yeshiva after grammar school — and his personal non-observance, he was instrumental in the formation of right-wing Orthodoxy’s approach toward gay Jews. It was Goldberg’s name that was on the 2011 article in the Orthodox journal “Hakirah,” featuring a discussion between Rabbi Kamenetsky and him about the necessity of “setting forth Torah values” and touting JONAH’s services.

Within months, language from that article appeared in the Torah Declaration.

Some rabbis have successfully had their signatures removed from the document, like Rabbi Dr. Martin Schloss, director of the Jewish Education Project’s day school division. Others have hit a brick wall.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, a licensed clinical social worker and president of Nefesh, the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, said he initially signed the declaration because he thought it “was merely a stance on the idea that sexual orientation is not absolute” and that some motivated clients could “find a healthy way to manage heterosexual relationships.” However, he later took issue with the document’s “unequivocal language that all homosexuals can be treated with today’s available clinical expertise.” Despite asking to be removed several times, he said, his name remains on the website.

According to plaintiff Chaim Levin, however, even Rabbi Kamenetsky has privately expressed doubts about the Torah Declaration.

Levin said he met the rabbi two years ago and “saw the pain in his eyes as I recounted my experiences in conversion therapy and JONAH. He asked me for forgiveness and said that the document ‘needs to be changed.’ To date, nothing has, and Rabbi Kamenetsky has remained silent.”

Rabbi Kamenetsky declined to comment.

Although JONAH’s bizarre methods were exposed over the course of the trial, some Orthodox rabbis stand by it.

Asked about the recent verdict, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, a signatory to the Torah Declaration, said he wasn’t aware of it but was content to have his name on the document.

But the details that emerged shocked others.

“Although there are reputable therapists who use and have had successes with conventional counseling methods to help people wishing to control their same-sex attraction,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, “the sort of ‘therapy’ that Mr. Downing says he employed is utterly outrageous and would never be sanctioned by any reputable Orthodox rabbi.” 


Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Jewish Leaders Speak Out on Anti-Gay Murder in Greenwich Village"- The Forward

5/21/13 by Michael Kaminer- Jewish LGBT leaders are joining the chorus of condemnation around the West Village murder of a gay man over the weekend by a convicted felon who spouted homophobic slurs before pulling the trigger on his 32-year-old victim.

Just steps from the historic Stonewall Inn, widely considered the birthplace of the modern gay-rights movement, Elliott Morales shot Mark Carson in the face after harassing Carson and a friend on Sixth Avenue near West Eighth Street.

“We’re located in the Village, so it’s not just a gay issue for us,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, longtime spiritual leader of LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, told the Forward in an interview. “It’s our backyard.” Kleinbaum drew a connection between Carson’s murder and violence against Jews. “I have tried through the years of being rabbi at CBST to strengthen people to not be destroyed in the face of the kind of hate that exists in the world toward us, both as Jews and as gay people,” she said. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Video: "Dear Homophobic Rabbi"

So, after multiple people recounted to me how a particular well known common acquaintence has been speaking negatively about me after learning that I'm gay -- not having once talked to me about the issue, so I've decided to make a little response to him, because I don't think I could stand to look at him now, unless he truly and sincerely apologizes and asks for forgiveness.

"LGBTQ Orthodox Teens, Forging a Derech" by Justin Spiro 03/16/2015- NY Jewish Week

“Do you have any resources for a 15-year-old gay yeshiva high school student?”
It was 2011, and I could hardly believe my ears. I apologized to this desperate mother and offered the small consolation that her son can attend the JQY adult meetings when he graduates high school. (JQY is the largest national non-profit supporting LGBTQ youth and their families in the Orthodox community.) 

As I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel very good, so I could only imagine how she and her son felt. This was just months after a string of high-profile LGBTQ teen suicides, and the It Gets Better Project had been launched to give LGBTQ youth a message of hope for the future. JQY even created its own "It Gets Better" video for Orthodox gay youth. While the project was well-intentioned, the It Gets Better message tells a drowning child that a raft is coming. Some teens simply cannot stay afloat. It was time to build more rafts.

continue readingLGBTQ Orthodox Teens, Forging a Derech- NY Jewish Week

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Creating a Community of Support" by Daniel Atwood - Yeshiva University Commentator 1/28/15

The author discusses the words of R' Willig (a Rosh Yeshiva) of Yeshiva University
on treatment of LGBT Jews. This article seems to be very pertinent and one
which holds our leaders accountable. Moreover, he discusses how being in
an environment that is NOT respectful or supportive can have strong negative
consequences on an LGBT individual. In addition, he discusses the danger of
leaders using "they" as if they are not present or a part of the community.
Please take a read and share.

"As 2014 ended, so did the life of Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year
old transgender girl from Ohio who committed suicide after
a short life of suffering. Her suicide made waves, trending
all over national news and social media. In her final words,
Leelah describes herself as feeling rejected by her parents,
aloof from her friends, and as having no choice but to end her
own life. 

With Leelah’s story in mind, I want to address the YU
community regarding a sensitive and important issue: creating
a community of respect and support on our campus, especially
for LGBT students. I do so with the utmost humility and
respect for the YU community, which is usually wonderful, but
sometimes treacherous.

I presume that my readers understand the difference between
condoning a specific political or Halakhic position and
providing support for a person struggling through a difficult
period in their life. I do not intend to propose anything radical
on a policy level, but rather to make a statement that all of
our community’s members have the right to feel respected,
dignified, and, most of all, safe. 

If creating a supportive community for all is not a value you 
share, then I realize that nothing I say will convince you otherwise. 
However, in the spirit of “love your neighbor as yourself” 
and “loving the widow, orphan, and stranger,” two major Torah 
concepts (the former being the most important according to some),
I believe we must discuss how we can create more support on campus
for those who feel marginalized.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach- "The story behind an ad condemning the treatment by Hamas and Iran of the LGBT community" JPost

12/22/2014- I expect to be attacked from two camps this week. The first, as usual, is the Israel haters who follow my trail on the Internet like dogs in heat. The second is people who love Israel but who think homosexuality is Judaism’s greatest sin. Both might find common cause to condemn a full-page ad that my organization, This World: The Values Network, and Stand With US have taken out in The New York Times this week.

The ad features a close friend of mine named Rennick proclaiming in a bold headline: “My name is Rennick Remley. I’m a gay American. And I support Israel.”

I first began conceiving the ad during the Gaza war this summer. I was astonished that the LGBT lobby in the US did not come out forcefully to defend Israel and condemn Hamas. I was even more appalled that so many liberally-minded students and academics, who fight for gay rights every day, could be on the side of Hamas.

 In the ad Rennick, a very special young man who courageously agreed to speak out, is candid and plainspoken: “If I lived in Gaza or Israel’s neighboring states, I would be thrown in jail, mutilated or killed. Though I am not Jewish, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where I can live without fear. I am free to adopt children, serve openly in the military, advocate for my community’s rights and be accepted as a human being.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Quotes To Live By- We are all responsible!

"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me."

-Martin Niemöller

Tags: apathycompassion,cowardicediversityhuman-rights

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