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On Orthodykes and Acceptance

19 May

Here’s my write-up, published in The Sisterhood column, in The Forward, of a very powerful event I went to this week, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

The issue of the night: Orthodox gay women speaking about their lives and throwing out a challenge to Orthodox Jewish communities to accept their LGBTQ members–

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May 18, 2011, 5:27pm

Gay, Female and Seeking a Home in the Orthodox Community

By Rebecca S

Miryam Kabakov – Courtesy of Miryam Kabakov

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was the first Orthodox synagogue on Miryam Kabakov’s “You Are Not Alone” book tour.

Kabakov, founder of the New York Orthodykes and the editor of the 2010 book “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires“ — an anthology of 14 essays by Orthodox (or Orthodox-leaning) women who identify as lesbian or LGBTQ — said the book tour is about hearing women’s stories and continuing the discussion that the book started. (Check out our recent podcast with Kabakov here.)

Rabbi Steven Exler, a member of the Hebrew Institute’s rabbinic staff, also thanked the audience for “heeding the call that this is an important conversation to be had.”

Alongside Kabakov at the May 16 event were contributors to the collection. They included the pseudonymous Ex-Yeshiva Girl with her “radical queer politics” and the lawyer Elaine Chapnik, each of whom read from their essays. Also taking part in a spirited Q&A was Chani Getter, a lesbian mother-of-three and a former member of the Hasidic community.

Speakers issued several challenges to the audience — a multigenerational, cross-denominational crowd, of both straight and gay people. Kabakov asked: “I ask you, members of the Bayit” — as the Bronx congregation is known to its members — “are you there for your LGBT members?”

Getter, who spoke with passion about her and her three children’s journeys to acceptance within the family’s Modern Orthodox community, closed her comments with the question: “Will you be one of the ones who makes it easy or difficult [for children of gay parents]?”

While there was debate about the issue of whether or not lesbian relationships are halachically prohibited, HIR community members showed active interest in ‘reconfiguring’ the issue away from halachic discussion, and sought out practical steps to make the community more LGBTQ-friendly.

“It’s about visible representation”, said Kabakov. “We want our life passages to be marked, just like you.” Other suggestions included getting Jewish schools to talk about diversity, and starting “intolerance to intolerance” campaigns.

A gay mom in the audience gave another suggestion: “Accept our straight children as potential marriage partners.” She recounted how her daughter was avoiding dating for marriage, fearing any partner would reject her once he discovered that her mother was gay.

There were also great moments of Jewish humor during the evening. One participant spoke about encountering at an Orthodox lesbian gathering a Bobover Hasidic woman who was bemoaning the dearth of suitable gay women to meet in her Hasidic community. Another participant suggested setting her up with “a great Lubavitcher woman.” To which the Bobover woman apparently replied in horror: “Lubavitcher? No way!”

On being Jewish and gay

30 Jul

Here’s my latest story just published in the Jewish Chronicle (UK) about a new statement of principles published by prominent rabbis here in the USA urging for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in the orthodox world:

American rabbis call for gay acceptance

By Rebecca S, July 29, 2010

A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv.

A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv

A group of prominent American rabbis have called for more acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community.

The “statement of principles”, signed by over 80 community leaders, affirms the rights of Jews of all sexual orientations to “be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community… and treated under the same halachic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join”.

Six months in the making, the document – written by rabbis Nathaniel Helfgot of New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; Aryeh Klapper, dean of The Centre for Modern Torah Leadership in Boston; and Yitzchak Blau, an American-educated kollel head in Israel – states that harassing or demeaning gay Jews is “a violation of Torah prohibitions”.

It recommends that homosexuals should not be encouraged to marry someone of the opposite gender, as this can lead to “tragedy and… ruined lives”, and recognises that “change therapies” – controversial treatments promising to make a gay person straight – are often “ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically”.

The document stopped short of embracing gay sexual relationships, stating that halachic Judaism “views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited”.

The authors are explicit in their commitment to halachah, saying that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model” and that the signatories “cannot give [their] blessing to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies”.

Each synagogue must “establish its own standard with regard to membership for open violators of halachah,” the document said. However, it urged families of Jews in same-sex relationships to “to make every effort to maintain harmonious family relations”.

“We want Jews of this orientation to not feel shunned. The goal is now for communities to take up the challenge of fidelity to halachah on the one hand, and embrace people of homosexual orientation and their families as much as we can on the other,” said author Rabbi Helfgot.

The impetus for the statement was a high-profile symposium held at Yeshiva University in December 2009 entitled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World”, in which alumni spoke openly of their struggles of being gay in the frum world.

“A group of educators decided it was time to give people some guidance on this sensitive matter,” said Rabbi Helfgot. “I’m sure there will be people on the right who won’t like it and people on the left who will say it hasn’t gone far enough, but that’s the nature of trying to write a balanced document and trying to be as inclusive as possible.”

American Jewish LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups have been quick to show their support.

“We are very pleased that so many courageous mainstream Orthodox rabbis have taken such an important step forward in recognising the needs of gays and lesbians in their communities,” said Jay Michaelson, of Nehirim, a national Jewish LGBT community organisation. “If this statement can help separate a halachic issue on the one hand, from fear and homophobia on the other, it will go a long way.”

Mordechai Levovitz, of JQYouth, a support group for young Orthodox gay Jews, said that the reaction from its 400 members was “overwhelmingly positive”, with many posting a link to the statement on their Facebook pages.

“Many of these statements heal open wounds. We needed Orthodox rabbis to speak out against homophobia.”

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