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" ( 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.

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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.

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