The Gay Orthodox Underground
Recently, organized efforts have been made to confront the conflicts between homosexuality and traditional Jewish life.
Excerpted and reprinted, with permission of the author, from Moment Magazine, April 2001.
It is impossible to get an accurate number of gay Orthodox Jews. There is no official membership, and only a handful of people are willing to put their names on support-group lists.
Shlomo Ashkinazy, a gay-rights activist and Orthodox Jew who lives in New York City, says he has spoken with over 200 gay Orthodox Jews over the past few years. Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski, who produced and directed Trembling Before G-d, interviewed hundreds of gay frum (observant) Jews over the past few years for his movie. And those involved in gay community outreach say there are many more out there.
Open and Secret Support Groups
In the New York area, home to the largest concentration of gay Orthodox Jews, at least four support groups have sprung up to meet their needs. There are also a number of informal groups that meet on a monthly basis for Shabbat meals or Talmud study. Some of these informal groups, many of which operate in secret, have been around for years.
"It's almost a cliche," says Ashkinazy, who helped found one of the support groups. "Every gay frum Jew who finds out about [the support networks] says, 'I thought I was the only one.'"
The three founders of the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association chose that name specifically to attract a gay group with an Orthodox background. The group was publicized solely through word-of-mouth.
Sixty people showed up at the first meeting. For Chaim, then 28, walking into a room and meeting people like himself for the first time was a powerful experience. "I had told one person I was [gay]," he says. "All these people were going through the same thing. To see that you're not alone gives you inner strength."
"I am a different person today than I was five years ago," he adds. "I [now] know who I am."
GLYDSA has a confidentiality agreement that extends to all its members. Between 30 to 60 people show up at the group's monthly meetings in New York City, organizers say. Chaim estimates that about 2,000 people have come to meetings over the past five years.
"The people who come are a total cross-section from the Jewish community," he says. "People with black hats, colored yarmulkes, girls who wear skirts, pants. Hasidishe [Hasidic] people. And they come from all over. We've had people from Boston, Washington, Florida, California, Israel, England, France, Canada. They come to see that there is something out there for them."
Similar groups exist in Israel, England, and California. The first West Coast support group was founded in Los Angeles by "Jacob," a 54-year-old Orthodox gay Jew who had been married and living in a New York suburb until ten years ago, when he confessed to his wife that he was gay. Jacob hasn't seen his children since. He tried attending Reform synagogues, but because of his level of observance, he was not comfortable. He started attending an Orthodox synagogue, but was treated as a second-class member (he did not receive aliyot [he was not called up to the Torah], for example) because he was gay.