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.

Issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity relate
to a theological struggle of mine. I cannot understand why
the Torah, which Orthodox Judaism believes to be divine,
forbade homosexual activity.While the laws in the Torah
are often very cryptic, the law proscribing male homosexual
behavior is explicit. I wish there were a compelling alternative
interpretation of that verse in Leviticus, unfortunately I have
yet to find one. 

However, the verse is not the end of the story,
because the fact of the matter is that in both our community
here at YU and in the broader Modern Orthodox community
there are LGBT Jews. We must take steps to support LGBT
people in our community, despite the fact that Leviticus will
always be an elephant in the room.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), lesbian,
gay, and bisexual youth are at least twice as likely to attempt
suicide as their heterosexual peers. At least 25% of transgender
youth have attempted suicide. 

LGBT youth in non-supportive atmospheres are also at a 
heightened risk of depression, substance abuse, and risky 
sexual behaviors. At the risk of sounding hyperbolical, these 
numbers highlight the gravity of this issue. Ensuring that this 
subset of our population feels safe is of utmost importance. 
In Halakhic terms, it is a matter of Pikuah Nefesh, saving lives.

Because of the religious nature of our community, LGBT
issues are obviously more complicated than in secular
communities. An LGBT student at YU presumably has
significantly more struggles than an LGBT student at some
other colleges. 

Therefore we invest an extra effort to make sure that all
of our friends and community members know that
we support them, no matter which issues they face. Whether, I​
a student is openly gay, in “the closet,” the family member of
someone who is LGBT, or questioning their sexuality, they
should know that our community supports and respects them
and recognizes their struggles.

Unfortunately this is not always the case in the YU community.
Certain rabbis at YU have a history of making comments
about LGBT students that display neither support for them nor
sensitivity for their struggles. 

When religious leaders make statements that are damning 
of our LGBT members or their struggles, they are targeting 
those who are most vulnerable, modern day orphans and widows, 
underprivileged groups the Torah requires us to protect. Even 
worse is when LGBT community members become a distant “they,” 
presumed not to be sitting in present company, which totally 
delegitimizes their struggles and identity.

I wish I did not have to mention any specific instances, but
I feel that I must speak out. I mean no disrespect whatsoever
towards the rabbi to whom I will refer. My intention is to raise
awareness about a very serious issue, not to engage in 
debate with a prominent rabbi.

In a recorded question-answer session that took place in an 
American post-high school yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, 
a Rosh Yeshiva and community rabbi, discussed issues related
to LGBT people in our community. I was no surprised that 
the views he expressed were hard-line. 

I will not argue with his opinions, as the differences between 
us are too fundamental. However, I must take issue with the 
tone employed and with the context in which these comments 
were made.

In the talk there seemed to be a lack of sensitivity towards
the struggles that LGBT community members face. Answers
were brash and black-and-white. Rabbi Willig dismissively
calls gay couples an “oxymoron.”

He states very emphatically that a transgender male is a “she,” 
and is shocked that he even received such a question, emphasizing 
with bewilderment “I kid you not, this is a real 
(emphasis in original) Shaylah!” (Halakhic inquiry). 

With these words he delegitimizes not only the struggles of 
LGBT people, but their very existence as such.
By acting as if transgender issues are unbelieveable or even
humorous (the audience laughs when Rabbi Willig calls him a
“she”), he denies that this is a fundamental struggle that many
people in our community deal with on a daily basis.

Most disturbingly, when a student sincerely asks about
gay couples coming into synagogue, Rabbi Willig states
facetiously that he does not think gay men should sit on the
same side of the Mehitza (gender partition in synagogue). The
room, populated by immature 18 year old students in Israel,
bursts into a laughter that lasts seven seconds long. 

Maybe they think jokes about gays are funny. Maybe, 
for one of them, it was nervous laughter as he was quietly 
hurting inside. These remarks do not create a situation in 
which all the members of our community feel safe and respected.

Though sexual orientation or gender identity is not an issue with
which I struggle, I am definitely no stranger to the concept of
struggling to find my identity within the Orthodox community.
“Coming out” about my personal religious struggles to my
friends was hard but, thankfully, today I am very happy and
blessed. Knowing that I had friends and mentors--including
professors here at Yeshiva University--to whom I could turn
is what inspired me to remain strong. 

Everybody has a right to feel safe, respected, dignified, and 
supported in our community. While I do not think my struggles 
were as fundamental as the struggles my LGBT friends face, 
I use the comparison to my own struggles as an attempt at empathy. 
When the struggles of my LGBT friends and neighbors are invalidated, 
I am hurt for their sake. Furthermore, I feel as if the struggles that I
have faced are also invalid, even if they are of fundamentally
different nature.

As someone who has spent years learning in this yeshiva,
it pains me to have to air this dirty laundry to the public. I
tremble at the thought that my words could be misconstrued
as disrespecting Rabbi Willig. The talk I am referencing,
however, hurt me and many others in a very profound way.

As a journalist, this is how I must respond. I write this article
not to shame or “call-out” anyone, God forbid, but in the hope
that my words will lead to both introspection and concrete
action about what it means to create a community of dignity
and respect for all.

Interestingly, the CDC cites a finding published in the Journal
of Youth and Adolescence that two factors account for the
lowest levels of depression, suicide, and substance abuse
among students of all sexual orientations: A positive school
climate, and not experiencing homophobic teasing. 

Creating an atmosphere where homophobia is not tolerated 
and positive support is shown towards all will improve the 
lives of the entire community, especially our youth. Respecting 
and supporting those residing on the margins will make all of us, 
especially our youth, happier and healthier.

Leelah Alcorn’s final words were: “Fix society, please.” I
do not know if we can fix all of society, but we can fix our
community. Fix it so that it is clear that every single member
of our community is free to struggle and grow, and so that
everyone is treated with sensitivity and respect, a respect
flowing from the Tzelem Elokim (divine image) endowed in
all of us."

Article available- 

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