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An Identity Crisis: Jewish Gays in the Modern World

By Dana Rosenwasser

Cantor David Berger from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah

With a plethora of multi-colored floats and scantily clad dancers, the gay community in New York City celebrated their 39th annual pride parade this past Sunday. While participants embraced gay culture, the march also celebrated acquiring new liberties, as the ban against same sex marriage in California was lifted. The first couple to wed, Robin Tyler and Diane Olson, not only represent a victory to obtain the basic civil rights they were previously denied, but also served as an example that religious devotion would not be changed by alternative lifestyle.

Such Jewish gays as Tyler and Olson, who wish to adhere to organized religion, practice in various degrees and communities. The reform movement is one of the largest branches of Judaism advocating diversity and acceptance of the Gay community. Representing the Reform Movement in North America, the Union for Reform Judaism boasts 1.5 million Jews belonging to the denomination and more than 900 participating congregations.

The premier Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transsexual synagogue, however, lies in New York City and is not affiliated with any Jewish movement or denomination. Founded in 1973, The Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is home to a diverse an audience as imaginable. CBST’s cantor David Berger states his belief that “it is fully possible in today’s world to live amongst gay community.” He also mentions that his fiancé, a student attending rabbinical school, is attempting to further the acceptance of homosexuals in the next religious tier of Judaism; the conservative movement. Berger commented “not only do his fellow students know that he’s a gay man, they also know me as his fiancé; as a couple, and they learn with him and from him.”

But the inclusion of gays in the orthodox movement has proven more difficult for some. Lisa is a member and the webmaster of a lesbian Frum organization called Orthodykes. But until she found her niche, she lived in various geographical locations. While living in New York City, she attended the Yeshiva Day School Association meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on the fourth Thursday of each month. Lisa left the group because “40 people would come and only 2 would be women; I got tired of being grossly outnumbered”.

Her level of devoutness also put her in a different tight spot. She joined the website, but was kicked out for being “too Frum”. And what furthered her frustration with both sides of the spectrum occurred at one of the Gay Pride Parades in Israel. While protestors at the parade from the ultra-orthodox Haredi group were not uncommon, Lisa remembers “I was at the end [of the parade] sitting in Independence Park while someone went on about a culture war and it didn’t make me feel great. I get to be given a hard time in the Frum community and a hard time in the gay community”.

In the orthodox Jewish religion, what is written in the Torah is taken very seriously. Rabbi Avi Shafran is a Haredi rabbi belonging to the Aguthah Israel of America. As an ultra-orthodox rabbi he has written many pieces on aspects of Judaism, including homosexuality. He specifically states that “behavior of a certain sort is wrong” and clarifies that “homosexual actions are forbidden, not orientations. And the fact that those actions are forbidden is clear within the Torah, which obviously some people reject.”

Perhaps the most frequently cited verse against the homosexual act in the bible is in Leviticus 18:22 where G-d explicitly commands, “thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Shafran explains that there is more evidence in the Torah and adds, “while everything is subject to oral interpretation to not literally mean what it means, this does. It is much subject of Midrash and Talmud and is considered to be extremely dangerous for humanity. That is why someone has to take very seriously and bemoan society’s acceptance of it today.”

Cantor Berger, however, dismisses the excerpt by explaining “in the context of that chapter it seems the contact is not consensual and implies that one man is essentially raping another man. I find that it does not give me tremendous insight to loving couples in this day and age that has more to do with love and life than to do with the act of sex.”

He comments further that “one thing that is profound about the Torah is that there is an interpretive process that is available to everyone. I feel strongly that any interpretation that is valid must place human dignity as its highest values. If someone wants to read this paragraph saying that it allows them to treat other human beings in a lesser way, for them there is no real person behind these texts. No rabbi would allow themselves to speak this way; it causes it a lot of people pain.” Lisa even mentions a gay Orthodox Jewish couple she knows who are together, but remain celibate.
While the Torah can be cited for contextual evidence against or for homosexuality, personal identity issues are a big problem for gay Jews. Moshe is a member of the Jewish Queer Youth, a gay Frum organization for young adults in New York City. Upon coming into his own sexuality Moshe says “I tried to make peace with myself, I went through depression, counseling and it seemed that everyone I saw couldn’t reconcile being both gay AND Jewish.”

But for Jews who do not wish to accept their same-sex attraction, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Silodor Berk started JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Established in 1998, Goldberg and Berk created JONAH when “we realized that there was a group of people in this world who were essentially unhappy with their same sex attractions. Because of that, we felt there was nothing specifically in the Jewish world to help those who were seeking help.”

The JONAH program involves patients meeting one on one with counselors, support groups, various types of weekend programs such as shabbatons, bibliotherapy and other non denominational tools. Goldberg adds “It’s really a coaching model to help people achieve their own personal goals. What it basically is, is what we call a gender reaffirming process. Because what happens all too frequently is that patients don’t feel a strong sense of their own masculinity or femininity; so we help them achieve what they seek.”

Cantor Berger, doesn’t agree with the JONAH program and commented “the history of reparative therapy shows us that it can lead to suicide and unhappy people. To deny something inside yourself, placed inside of you...I mean it’s not like changing your hair color.” But Goldberg asserts that he has never had a patient attempt suicide and adds that he observes a higher suicide rate in the gay community. In his defense he states “What we do here has nothing to do with forcing, we are simply offering options and alternatives; we are living in a free country. We often get made out as demons by gay activists, but some of our best friends are people who are gay.”


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