Sunday, March 3, 2013

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

 updated 3/3/13 At 22 years of age, I left Judaism. I left because I felt there was no place for me within the Orthodox Jewish structure, as a gay Jew. Prior to leaving, I spent a year in Israel learning in Yeshivat Beit Medrash L’Torah and went to Yeshiva University for a semester. Due to personal issues, I had to drop out. At 20 years old, I found an ex-gay therapist that I worked with for over 2 years. Prior to that I was very depressed and somewhat suicidal. I am sure he meant well, but it gave me false hope. This false hope didn’t pan out the say 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 of Yeshiva University. I figured he might have an answer that could help. His answer was “just pray.” I told him, “Rabbi, I have prayed deeply, been involved in acts of kindness, helped organize classes and minyans 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.” I felt like I had been let down and at a loss of any hope. I went to many other rabbis in the United States, along with Israel in hopes of finding an answer. Just what answer was I looking for? Honestly, I can tell you that I had 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 was spiritually bankrupt.

         At 22, 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 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 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?

         This led to the start of an intense addiction to alcohol and drugs from ages 22-26. I felt I was a damaged soul and didn’t deserve to live. So these years were not suicidal in the traditional sense, rather “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 deserved this destiny. At 26 years old, an intervention saved my life and I went to rehab. I am now sober over 9 years.

         Fast forward to a year and a half ago. I had come to George Washington University to pursue a bachelors’ degree in Psychology. It wasn’t easy to come back to school at 33. A friend I had made at school invited me to Hillel for Shabbat dinner, where I met the Hillel Rabbi, Yoni Kaiser-Bleuth. He was from the traditional conservative camp of Judaism and showed me a different side of Judaism. He was a rabbi that did not judge me, but rather showed me love and full acceptance with no hidden agenda.

         I have found that each one of my experiences have built 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, this 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. 

         Finally, this year I moved off campus and was searching for my unknown comfort zone. I tried a Modern Orthodox synagogue, though not the most modern I have seen. I tried almost all the flavors of Judaism. I just wasn’t getting the experience I craved. 

         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 more than 12 years. He went to Ohev Shalom- The National Synagogue, a modern orthodox synagogue with a very progressive, yet orthodox rabbi for Shabbat. 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. This was also the synagogue that Rabbi Yoni Kaiser Bleuth was a member of.

         A few weeks later, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld ( delivered a sermon on a Shabbat morning after prayers to his congregation about “Same Sex Marriage in America: What Does Orthodox Judaism Say?” 
( I decided to go to his shul on a Shabbat morning and ended up becoming a member. The way people in a congregation treat someone is very important. It is not only the rabbi that keeps someone coming back, but also the community. This value of inclusion and acceptance is what keeps me coming back. 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. 

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