I am a gay Orthodox Jewish teen. That in and of itself may be one of the most controversial sentences in modern Jewish history, but it’s also simply my life. I daven, or pray in com-munity, and I am part of the honors Judaic program at my school. I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep all the fasts, and I celebrate the holidays. However, I also spent my summer in Israel interning for the LGBT wing of the political party Yesh Atid, attended the gay pride parade and am an intern for an organization called Eshel, a group that specializes in Orthodox inclusion for LGBT Jews.
This spring, as an intern for Eshel, which is funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, I was privileged to take part in an informative course on community organizing through a Jewish lens titled Join for Justice (www.joinforjustice.org). When the course ended, each participant was encouraged to take on a summer project and, using the information gained in the course, make a difference in whatever way we could in the world.
Although I knew my project would have an LGBT focus, I couldn’t seem to figure out in what direction I would take my project until I was inspired by Gandhi’s famous adage, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is when it became clear to me that I was that change I wished to see in the world, not in a self-righteous sense, but in that I am far luckier than other LGBT members of Orthodox communities. I have been blessed with loving and supportive family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and a community that has allowed me to find myself Jewishly as a gay man in a healthy manner.
Unfortunately, I am the exception.
Homosexual Jewish teenagers across America remain fearful that they will be shunned by their community and expelled from their homes or schools. In extreme situations, some have taken their own lives in a state of perpetual hopelessness.
Being a closeted gay person proved to be the most difficult challenge I have faced in my life. High school workload, SATs, peer pressure and the many other issues high schoolers are subject to, all paled in comparison to being in the closet. I kept a part of myself under lock and key, hidden in the darkest and deepest depths of my psyche, because I believed that opening that Pandora’s box would rob me of everything I cared for and loved. My religion, my family, my friends, my presence at my school, would, in my mind, all be in serious jeopardy if I dared to reveal the truth to anyone.
However, it came at a terrible price. My frustration with keeping my sexuality a secret eventually spread into other areas of my life like an infectious disease. It poisoned my relationship with my parents and friends and forced me into a constant state of fear, sensi-tive to anything that could in theory “give me away.” I was mentally unstable. I finally reached my breaking point at the end of my 10th-grade year. I realized that nothing could be any worse than staying in the closet, and I took a leap of faith. One by one I told my friends, community leaders, rabbis, teachers, the principal, the head of school, and, of course, my family. Surprisingly, each and every one of them was supportive and loving. At that moment, when I was finally “out,” I instantly felt free, as if a weight I had been carrying for so long that it had become part of my everyday life, had been lifted off my shoulders.
However, at the realization that those who mattered to me did not at all care about my sexual orientation, and in fact, were there every step of the way on my coming out journey, I felt I had wasted years of my life suffering the burden of carrying this secret when I could very well have been what I am now: happy. I loved my school, I loved my friends and my family, and I sacrificed my own sanity in a bid to protect those pillars of my existence. Had I known from the beginning that my friends, school and everyone I loved would support my coming out, I would not have had to endure the unbearable struggle of staying in the closet.
Gay students exist in the Orthodox Jewish School system, and I guarantee you that your local school is no exception. They stay hidden, like I did, out of fear. It was a fear that proved inaccurate, but it feels valid and very well may be for others like me. I am not alone. We are among you.
Will my school be OK with my sexuality? This was a question that haunted me for years, and yet there is a very simple solution that would have addressed this burning question. If students were to know that their school supported them, it would ease many of their anxieties and bring them one step closer to being freed from the life-sucking prison known as the closet.
This is why, when Eshel asked that its interns create a project, I sat with the leadership of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I am currently a senior, to create a Pledge. The Pledge is an à la carte series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to protect their students. With the support of my parents, I worked together with the leadership of Shalhevet High School and authored the Pledge, available online (www.jewishschoolpledge.com), which will be shared with the entire Shalhevet family, to let every student who is like me know that he or she is not alone. Some examples of our Pledge include a promise that no student will be expelled for his or her sexual orientation, that harassment or bullying of any student by another student, teacher, or administrative member will not be tolerated, and that no one will be pushed toward “conversion” therapy. Additionally, the Pledge warrants that the school will strive to connect gay and lesbian students with a support network that is either on- or off-campus, and will provide religious guidance to students throughout the coming out process with trained staff.
As the Pledge was adopted, Rabbi Ari Segal, the Head of School at Shalhevet High School, published an article in our student newspaper where he shared his perspective on how he, as an Orthodox rabbi and the Head of School at Shalhevet, finds a way to support LGBT students at Shalhevet. Rabbi Segal’s beautiful words truly hit home for me, and I pray that every school looks to him as an example of what it means to be a halachically committed and sensitive rabbi.
Every child and teen (and adult) deserves to know that his or her school is a safe environment. Shalhevet turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and supportive place but, for a long time, I did not know that would be the case.
The Pledge takes a necessary and mean-ingful step in bettering the lives of all Jewish students. Furthermore, we wrote the Pledge with the express purpose of creating the perfect balance of protecting gay Jewish teens while not threatening Jewish law, and I firmly believe we have accomplished that. This is not about being politically correct, progressive, or even “LGBT friendly” — the Pledge is about the health and safety of our students.
I am gay. I am Orthodox. I am not seeking to change the halacha and I am not seeking to subvert Jewish values. Quite the contrary: I am seeking to make it possible to be an observant Jew in the Orthodox community regardless of one’s sexual orientation. I invite you to join me on this quest. I invite you to make sure gay students feel as cared for and appreciated as their heterosexual counter-parts. The longer we sweep this issue under the rug, we as a community become com-plicit in the sufferings of our LGBT members. The Torah tells us we are all created, b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we therefore all deserve a fair chance to be a contributing part of God’s nation. So, won’t you join me in making this happen? Won’t you join me in protecting Orthodox observance among all our students? Won’t you join me in making Judaism accessible to everyone? I urge you to reach out to me via this newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like your school to sign this Pledge or to find out more about the project. Together we can make a difference, stand hand in hand and show what it truly means to be a light unto the nations.
Micha Thau is a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and student author of The Pledge.