Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Acceptance and Inclusion Can Only Bring Gay Jews Closer" by Rich Dweck

                         1/8/13- After many years of being an Orthodox Jew, around 12 years ago I left Judaism for the most part. I left because I felt there was no place for me as a gay Jew. Judaism had always been at the core of who I was. I plan to share my past experiences along with my current experience as a Jew. 

         I was involved in many community organizations, spent a year in Israel learning in yeshiva at B.M.T. I am not sure why the nickname was “Best Meal in Town”, because it certainly was not. I then went to Yeshiva University for a semester and was in therapy dealing with some personal issues. I had a chance to work through some with Joseph Beyda may he rest in peace. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away before we could talk about dealing with being gay.

         I dated a wonderful young woman from my community and felt like my life was on the right track. I felt like she was the one. But, I was having issues with the fact that I was constantly being bombarded by thoughts of homosexuality. I knew she was attractive, but wasn’t really sure if I was attracted to her. If I wasn’t attracted to her, then I wouldn’t be attracted to anyone else of the female population. So I decided to break it off with her and decided to find a therapist that would help me get rid of my attraction to men. The process went on for two years and gave me hope. Prior to that I was very depressed and somewhat suicidal.

         At the end of this process I realized that I wasn’t going to change and $24,000 later I was in the same position. I am sure he meant well, but it gave me false hope. This false hope didn’t pan out the way he said and only made me more depressed and more suicidal. I had to figure something out.
         I decided to seek the guidance of rabbis that I looked up to. I went to Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was the president and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University. I figured he might have an answer that would give me hope. His answer was “just pray.” I told him, “Rabbi, I have prayed deeply, got involved in many acts of kindness, helped organize classes and minyans (10 men+ pray together 3x a day) and did the best I could to be the best Jew I could be.” His answer was “just pray and it will all work out.” One can only imagine how disappointed, angry and sad I was. I felt like I had been let down and didn’t know what to do.

         I went to a few other rabbis, in hopes of finding an answer. Some might ask what answer was I looking for? Honestly, I can tell you that I have no idea. I just wanted to know that God still loved me and that I was not just damaged goods. I had deep “internalized homophobia” and hated who I was.

         After that, I decided to find a therapist that would help me accept who I was. I was down to the bare bones and felt this was the only way I could stay alive. Some people cannot relate to my experience. Some people simply feel that it is like any sin and that we have to control ourselves dealing with these demons. To me, this was not about sex but rather survival. I was able to start a long and painful process of self-acceptance.

         I moved to New York City and started to live my life. I still felt very damaged and truly believed that God gave up on me. God didn’t answer my prayers and I felt God hated me. I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt this way. God had always been my ally and source of comfort and now he became the enemy. If God hated me, then I hated him. I became extremely anti-religious.

         I started drinking and doing drugs over the next 3-4 years. I felt that if I was such a damaged soul, that I didn’t deserve to live. So these years were not suicidal in the traditional sense, rather were “years of slow suicide.” I was in a place in my life that I figured I was gay, so I am not going to get married, not going to have children and had no reason not to party till I die. I thought I would be dead by 30 and this is what I deserved.

         These years were a very dark period for me. I wish I could say that I was capable of better, but the way I felt about who I was just made this self-fulfilling prophecy come to fruition. I was going down hill faster than I could have ever imagined. It eventually got so bad that it caught the attention of some people that were in contact with me. An intervention was done and I found myself in rehab. I was lost and confused. I didn’t really understand how I got to that point.

         I will skip the in between, because they were not the most impactful. They were however survival years that helped me build up my self-esteem and allowed me to reconnect with a higher power. I was able to truly fully embrace who I was. It was a struggle, but eventually I recovered from a state of hopelessness and began to believe I was put on this earth for a reason and that God loved and cared about me. This wasn’t the God I was brought up with, but rather just God that wasn’t there to judge me or hurt me. Judaism was still not in the picture. I still felt that Judaism only made me feel worse about whom I was. Why would I want to be a part of a system that rejects who I am?

         It is important to mention an experience I had after “coming out” 14 years ago. I was visiting for one of the holidays and went to synagogue. According to tradition I went up with the rest of the cohanim (priests) to bless the congregation as was customary during one of the prayers. In the audience were a few people that yelled out in rejection of my going up for this honor. They were extremely rude, hurtful and made me feel like I was the scum of the earth. This was the synagogue that I grew up and where my religious life began. People need to think of the consequences of their words. The rabbi certainly didn’t feel like they did, but they were the loud voices and that's what my takeaway was.

         This experience filled me with such resentment and hurt. I never went back to this or any other community synagogues again. This was the straw that broke the camels back. All of my thoughts were becoming reality. I was convinced that people were talking about me in disparaging ways and now I knew it. The rabbi didn’t really see what was going on, but just asked for quiet. I was embarrassed and shamed publicly. Why would I ever want to walk into a synagogue again?

         Fast forward to a year and a half ago. I had come to a prestigious university in Washington, D.C. to attain my bachelors’ degree in Psychology. It wasn’t easy to come to back to school in my mid 30’s and attend classes with 18-21 year olds.

         A friend I had made at school invited me to the George Washington University Hillel building for Shabbat dinner (Jewish ritual dinner on a Friday night). I apprehensively went and was surprised. They had three different minyans (prayer groups) for the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox sects of Judaism. I never saw this before. Usually a synagogue is one denomination. I met Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Bleuth, who studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary for his smicha (rabbinical ordination). He was traditional Conservative and such a welcoming rabbi.

         I shared with him my sexual orientation and it didn’t faze him at all. He cared about me as an individual and accepted me for who I was. This rabbi showed me love, compassion and acceptance. He saw something there and knew how to bring it out. We had many conversations about life; Judaism, homosexuality and he understood where I was coming from. I felt at home is the best way to put it, although the food definitely wasn’t my moms.

         This year I moved off campus and have been trying different places within the Jewish community to see where I felt most comfortable. I tried a Modern Orthodox synagogue, though not the most modern I have seen. I tried an independent minyan group and went to the Moishe house in DC. I just wasn’t getting the experience I craved. 

         Each experience builds on the next. Because of my Hillel experience, I decided to take classes on campus in Judaism with **Dr. Robert Eisen. Because these classes deepened my appreciation for Judaism, that opened me up to exploring Judaism even further. Because of my exploring Judaism, I was able to find a synagogue that I really like. I have found the quote "Life is a journey, not a destination" is a living truth
         A few months ago, ***Rabbi Steve Greenberg (the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi) had come to D.C. I have known him for years, but haven’t seen him in about 12 +years. He went to a congregation at the edge of D.C./Silver Spring, MD. The congregation is called “Ohev Shalom- The National Synagogue.” It is a modern orthodox synagogue with a very progressive, yet orthodox rabbi. I didn’t think much of it, except that it was nice to know that there was a congregation that was inclusive and hosted him.

         A few weeks later,*Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (http://rabbishmuel.com) delivered a sermon on a Shabbat morning after prayers to his congregation about Same Sex Marriage in America: What Does Orthodox Judaism Say?” (http://www.ostns.org/Recent_Dvar_Torah.php). I heard that he had spoken at the pulpit about it and decided to read the transcript of his sermon. I was shocked that an orthodox rabbi spoke about the topic and even more shocked about what he said. The link is posted above and I highly encourage you to read it in its entirety. It is an amazing outlook on the topic and he explains why Jews need to accept our gay brothers and sisters.

        After feeling overwhelmed with emotion and happiness, I decided to go to his shul on a Shabbat morning. To my surprise they serve a free delicious meal every Shabbat at the synagogue to help encourage and build community. I had a chance to meet the rabbi and enjoyed my experience. So, I decided to come back the next week and the next. The rabbi addresses me by name and has a smile and greeting every time I come. He knows I am gay and he has some of the Rabbi Yoni love, compassion and acceptance that I felt when I first walked back into Judaism at Hillel. It’s interesting that this is also the synagogue that Rabbi Yoni attends. They also have a few congregants that are openly gay and accepted as part of the Jewish tribe. The way people in a congregation treat someone is very important. It is not only the rabbi that keeps someone coming back, but the community. 

         This value of inclusion and acceptance is what keeps me coming back. If the rabbi kept quiet and didn’t take the opportunity to speak about this, I would not be attending his synagogue. I have come to some of shiurim (torah classes),daily minyans and weekly Shabbat services and lunch. I can’t predict what I will feel in the future, but for now I have been able to return to my roots. Today, I feel a part of and not discarded. Today, I feel I have a place in Judaism. 

*Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is also the author of:  Fifty-Four Pick Up: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons
**Dr. Robert Eisen is the author of: The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism
***Rabbi Steve Greenberg is the author of: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition


  1. This is truly inspiring. It seems we all have a place in spirituality and religion, that is wonderful!

  2. A community will pay a high price, measured in human suffering, when it forces people to repress their innate sexality and stifle their desires and passions.

    A healthy community is one that encourages people to be honest with themselves and celebrates, includes and accepts the full diversity of every single person, unconditionally.

    There can be no compromise.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and most importantly of all, stay true to yourself.




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