Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?

By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

U.S., Israeli LGBT community leaders convene

In a first-ever seminar organized by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities from the United States and Israel met recently to explore possible collaborations and share knowledge.

“Israel has a lot to be proud of — there are a lot of LGBT community centers sponsored by the government — and the trip was about sharing and facilitating best practices,” said Myra Clark-Siegel, director of international communications at Project Interchange, which was founded in 1982 to bring leaders to Israel for a week of travel and learning.

It was a natural fit to connect members of the LGBT community through the seminar — which took place Oct. 28-Nov. 4 — given AJC’s commitment to advancing human and civil rights, she said.

The nine American delegates on the trip met with secular and Orthodox Israelis and Palestinians to explore the multiple facets of Israel that cross the political and religious spectrum. They visited with representatives of the Agudah, Israel’s national LGBT organization, and Gal Uchovsky, co-founder of the Israeli Gay Youth Association. The delegation also traveled to the West Bank. 

L.A.-based delegate Jorge Valencia, executive director and CEO of Point Foundation, the nation’s largest LGBT scholarship organization, said there is much the two countries can learn from each other. 

“For example, the U.S. could stand to learn from the manner in which Israel accepts LGBTQ members into its military and see this as a strength, not a weakness to its safety,” he said, using a Q for “queer” or “questioning.” “And as a young country, Israel can learn from the advancements the U.S. has taken to support its LGBTQ youth in school through certain legislative actions and publicly funded youth organizations.” 

Nurturing unity between the LGBT communities in both countries is vital to the equal treatment of people around the world, Valencia added.

“Most recently, we’ve seen the importance of solidarity in our community surrounding Russia’s anti-gay propaganda and the upcoming Olympics,” he said. “We owe it to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Russia to raise awareness across the world of the hatred, harassment and violence that they’re suffering under the current leadership and of our disapproval of such treatment.” 

Another delegate, Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to conducting research on sexual orientation law and public policy, said there’s great value in learning about how countries, such as Israel, handle LGBT rights. 

“Interacting with professors and lawyers engaged in LGBT rights in other countries is helpful in thinking how LGBT rights have evolved here and reflecting on U.S.-specific barriers and opportunities with regard to LGBT rights,” he said. 

Future plans at the Williams Institute include inviting individuals to speak about LGBT rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

“The seminar allowed me to meet and talk with lawyers and scholars working on LGBT rights and consider them to come to UCLA and speak,” Sears said. 

Israel’s position on gay marriage helped influence the Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights organization that recently filed a federal marriage recognition lawsuit, according to executive director Malcolm Lazin, who attended the recent seminar. 

“Most states do not recognize lawful same-sex marriages. As such, you are divorced against your will in 32 states even though legally married int California,” he said. “In 2006, Israel’s highest court decreed that lawful same-sex marriages in foreign countries would be recognized in Israel and treated with equality. As a result, there are a large number of same-sex married Israelis who were married abroad. That case helped spur our thinking about a U.S. federal marriage recognition lawsuit.”

Equality Forum also coordinates LGBT History Month in October. Lazin said his Israeli counterparts now will make use of the organization’s free, online resources as a result of their interactions at the seminar.

“We also provided our Israeli counterparts with U.S. LGBT organizations that could be of assistance to their organization and its members,” he said.

Clark-Siegel said that the program by Project Interchange, which pays for delegates’ trips and receives the majority of its funding from donors, is a great opportunity for a two-way dialogue with Israelis who are adept at getting to best practices. 

“The young leadership is very encouraging in Israel,” she said.

Jewish groups ready to weigh in as Supreme Court considers same-sex marriage

With public acceptance of same-sex marriage growing, liberal Jewish groups are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the Defense of Marriage Act that they have long opposed.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases related to same-sex marriage: an appeal of a federal court ruling that struck down a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, and one of the federal court rulings invalidating provisions of the act, known as DOMA, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex unions.

Since DOMA was passed in 1996, Jewish groups such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women have been among the liberal religious groups arguing against its provisions. At the time, they were pushing against the widespread perception that religious groups almost by definition were opposed to same-sex marriage.

That is no longer the case, said Rabbi David Saperstein, the Religious Action Center’s director and a witness during congressional hearings on DOMA.

[Related: A more modern view of homosexuality]

“There is an increasing religious consciousness across an ever wider spectrum that providing legal protection and religious sanctification to two people who want to create their lives together reflects our highest values,” Saperstein told JTA.

Saperstein said the RAC was planning to file or sign onto an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women, said that recent victories for same-sex marriage in state referenda vindicate NCJW’s activism against DOMA.

“We saw in the last election popular support for marriage equality, with wins in Maine, Maryland and Washington, and voters in Minnesota rejected” a law that would have entrenched the ban on gay marriage in that state, she said. “We've seen tremendous popular support, and we see it’s growing.”

Orthodox groups, active also during the 1996 congressional hearings before the passage of DOMA, are considering amicus briefs since the Supreme Court agreed last week to consider the two cases.

Orthodox groups have opposed same-sex marriage, maintaing that marriage should be defined as union between a man and a woman. They also have expressed the concern that the push for same-sex marriage will end up infringing upon their religious liberties.

“We do plan to file and let our views be known in reference to DOMA and Proposition 8,” the California referendum that banned same-sex marriage and that was overturned by a federal appeals court in January, said Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America. “We don't know whether we'll file on our own or with others — it’s too early for us to make that decision.”

The Orthodox Union was still considering whether to file, said Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for public policy.

An array of liberal Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, NCJW, Hadassah, Bend the Arc, and a number of Reform and Conservative bodies had joined in an amicus brief filed for the lower court appeal of the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, in which the widow of a New York woman is appealing the taxes levied on her late wife’s estate that would have been exempted had she been married to a man.

Now that the Supreme Court is considering the cases, the groups and others are considering whether to join others in amicus briefs or file on their own.

Marc Stern, the associate general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said his group would file a brief backing same-sex marriage but cautioning against a ruling that would be too sweeping and compromise the rights of religious institutions that oppose it.

“You could imagine theories that would lead to that result that would preclude the possibility of protection of religious institutions,” he said.

Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage

An Israeli court has awarded the country's first divorce to a gay couple, which experts called an ironic milestone since same-sex marriages cannot be legally conducted in the Jewish state.

A decision this week by a family court in the Tel Aviv area “determined that the marriage should be ended” between former Israeli lawmaker Uzi Even, 72, and his partner of 23 years, Amit Kama, 52, their lawyer, Judith Meisels, said on Tuesday.

Legal experts see the ruling as a precedent in the realm of gay rights in a country where conservative family traditions are strong and religious courts oversee ceremonies like marriages, divorces and burials.

While Israel's Interior Ministry still has the power to try and veto the decision, it would likely have to go court in order to do so, Meisels said.

A 2006 high court decision forced the same ministry, headed by an ultra-Orthodox cabinet member, to recognize same sex marriages performed abroad and ordered the government to list a gay couple wed in Canada as married.

Same sex marriages are performed in Israel, but they have no formal legal status.

“The irony is that while this is the beginning of a civil revolution, it's based on divorce rather than marriage,” newly divorced Kama, a senior lecturer in communications in the Emek Yizrael College, told Reuters.

He and Even, both Israelis, married in Toronto in 2004, not long after Canada legalized same-sex marriage. They separated last year, Kama said.

It took months to finalize a divorce as they could not meet Canada's residency requirements to have their marriage dissolved there. At the same time in Israel, rabbinical courts in charge of overseeing such proceedings threw out the case, Kama said.

By winning a ruling from a civil court, Kama and Even may have also set a precedent for Israeli heterosexual couples, who until now have had to have rabbis steeped in ancient ritual handle their divorces, legal experts say.

“This is the first time in Israeli history a couple of Jews are obtaining a divorce issued by an authority other than a rabbinical court, and I think there is significant potential here for straight couples” to do so as well, said Zvi Triger, deputy dean of the Haim Striks law school near Tel Aviv.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Orthodox gay activist sues cousin for assault

An Orthodox blogger sued his cousin, whose family owns a large New York Judaica store, for assaulting him.

Chaim Levin, now a gay activist, has sued cousin Sholom Eichler in a Brooklyn court, according to the New York Post. Eichler’s family owns Eichler’s Judaica Store in Brooklyn.

Levin claims that Eichler assaulted him weekly beginning when he was 6, from 1996 to 1999, at the Eichler family home and at a synagogue.

Madoff’s Redemption

If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, and He can be reached at

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’

Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at

JDate Welcomes Gays

For all the nice Jewish boys looking for other nice Jewish boys, has come to the rescue.

The popular Jewish online dating site expanded its search capabilities this month to allow gay men — and also lesbians — to seek matches. The Web site now asks people for their gender and the gender they’re searching, allowing men to search for men and women to search for women.

When his sister didn’t marry a Jewish boy, Gary Pinsky was told by his mother that he had to. Pinsky, 32, joined JDate several weeks ago, after returning to New Jersey after living in South Africa for several years. He said he thinks he can find more serious suitors on the Jewish dating site.

“I’ve gotten three responses since I’ve joined,” said Pinsky, a production stage manager. “They’ve all been very nice and seem to have a good head on their shoulders.”

That’s a big difference from other gay and lesbian dating sites, he said, where potential matches are less serious, and largely not Jewish.

“I didn’t find a lot of Jews out there,” Pinsky said.

Gail Laguna, vice president for communications at Spark Networks, JDate’s parent company, said the Web site’s revision came at the request of many Jewish singles.

With more than 600,000 active members, JDate has become one of the standards for niche online dating sites. The profiles of two Jewish congressmen have even been spotted on the site.

JDate officials say the original Web site did not intentionally exclude gay searches, but there was not a demand for it when the site was unveiled in 1997.

The new site includes other requested features, including a better system for identifying non-Jews. The site has become popular with non-Jews seeking Jews, and non-Jews now can express a willingness to convert as part of their online profiles.

But the expansion to gay searches has had the most immediate impact. In less than a month, 700 members have registered for same-sex searches, Laguna said.

She added there are no plans to market to the gay community or to include gays and lesbians in JDate’s current media campaign.

The Jewish world’s policies on gay rights and gay marriage vary wildly. Reform rabbis may perform gay unions, and the issue has been a hot topic within the Conservative movement, which unlike the Reform movement, does not permit the ordination of openly gay rabbis.

Orthodox groups oppose homosexual acts. The struggle of gay Orthodox Jews was the subject of a 2001 documentary, “Trembling Before G-d.”

Straight people will not receive profiles of gay members or vice versa. But, alas, there’s not yet a filter for screening out members of Congress.

Gay Orthodox Rabbi Peels Back His Life

“Like peeling an onion,” Rabbi Steven Greenberg said, about the process of coming out. The first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, he initially wrote about his sexuality under a pseudonym, Rabbi Yaakov Levado (meaning Jacob Alone), for Tikkun magazine in 1993 and then in 1999 came out publicly in an interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv.

Greenberg, who appears prominently in the award-winning film, “Trembling Before G-d,” now tells the story of his own journey and also offers new readings of traditional Jewish texts related to homosexuality, and argues for gay and lesbian inclusion in the Orthodox community in his first book. “Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (University of Wisconsin), he said, is the peeling back of another layer.

“We all have internal pieces that are not so clear to us; in our recognition and articulation of them, we come out,” Greenberg, a senior teaching fellow at CLAL who has been there for almost 20 years, said in an interview in his New York apartment on the Upper West Side. “It’s a metaphor of growth and self-actualization.”

As wrestling is a more assured verb than trembling, his own stance in the book is confident, presenting a Judaism that is both loving and accepting, where the act of engaging tough questions is essential.

The author, 47, grew up in a Conservative family in Columbus, Ohio. As a teenager, he was drawn to the teachings of an Orthodox rabbi; they studied together, and Greenberg, who was warmly welcomed into the rabbi’s home and community, took on traditional observance.

While he remembers the origins of his religious identity in detail, the origins of his homosexuality are not as clear, although he had a sense of being different from the age of 10. After high school, he attended Yeshiva University and then Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, enjoying “the male camaraderie and physical affection, the spiritual passion and intellectual head-butting.”

Aware of his attraction to a fellow student, he visited a Jerusalem sage, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, and spoke candidly of what he then thought was the truth, that he was attracted to men and women. The sage responded, “My dear one, you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.” The rabbi’s words calmed him and buoyed him above his fears. He felt that he could still marry and have a family.

In his years in rabbinical school back in New York — he received his ordination in 1983 — he dated women regularly, even “fell in love” but had no sexual interest in them. Once, over dinner, a new male friend asked him if he ever felt desire for a man, and their conversation jolted him.

Later that evening, he replaced his kippah with a baseball cap and wandered toward Christoper Street in Greenwich Village for the first time. Soon after, he began his first gay relationship with the same new friend.

Not giving up on the idea of marriage and family, he became engaged but realized he couldn’t marry the woman. He began to fully acknowledge to himself that he was gay, although he treasured his life of observance and his work as a teacher of Torah, and couldn’t imagine giving that up. Then he began writing about his dilemma, published the pseudonymous article and received much supportive mail, which expanded his world.

He moved back to Israel in 1996, began a gay men’s study group and helped raise money for a gay community center. He tied his official “outing” to the opening of the center, and the article about him in Ma’ariv was headlined, “In the Name of Partnership.”

Other gay Orthodox Jews have been counseled by rabbis to try to change through reparative therapy — Greenberg believes there is no demonstrably effective therapy, and that some of what is proposed can harm the patient — or to marry and ignore what they know about themselves or to remain celibate. Many are shamed; many end up leaving the community, but for Greenberg, that was not an option he considered.

Understanding the author’s trajectory is useful for the reader, for Greenberg’s experience informs his original readings of sacred texts. He is also inspired by generations of rabbis who preceded him, who also offered their own interpretations.

“I wanted to demonstrate the breadth of the tradition, the audaciousness of the rabbis,” he said. “Many are not aware of how shockingly bold rabbinic thought can be.”

A project of almost a decade, the book is well-written. Greenberg’s readings don’t lend themselves to quick summaries. He looks deeply into the meaning of words and looks with compassion at their impact.

“I begin with assumptions not about God’s control but about God’s love,” he explained, moving from the opening stories of Genesis, with their depiction of human loneliness, to the two verses in Leviticus that condemn sex between men as an abominable act punishable by death to references in the Talmud to sex between women. He also writes of stories of same-sex love in the Bible, like Jonathan’s love of David.

Greenberg also explores four rationales for the prohibitions in Leviticus, relating to reproduction, social disruption, category confusion and humiliation and violence. It’s the latter, he explained, that is his own most audacious reading in the book.

He suggests that sex between men was prohibited, because it was seen as an act of degradation and aggression in the way that women might have been abused. He asserts that the verses can be interpreted as a critique of the male-dominated social hierarchy, that it’s possible to read the verses as prohibiting the kind of sex that is demeaning, that such emotional violence is abominable even between men and women.

He said that such a reading can be healing for women, as well as for gay men, promoting a sexuality that is not about control.

In conversation, he commented, “The text doesn’t silence me. It calls me to speak my testimony.”

He realizes that some readers will trash his ideas, but he hopes that they will still hear his “as a religious voice that they can’t help responding to.” And he hopes they’ll understand that he is not attempting to corrupt or manipulate the system but to “truly respond to the human condition as I see it.”

Greenberg’s speaking style is warm and rabbinic, frequently quoting verses of text, then translating, always teaching. His face is expressive, showing signs of pain, empathy, freedom and joy, and he gestures with his arms, punctuating his words.

The light-filled brownstone apartment he shares with his partner of four years, actor and musician Steven Goldstein, is filled with books, as well as Judaica items, musical instruments and items from their travels. The apartment opens onto a rare Manhattan commodity, a backyard, where they build their sukkah.

He is comfortable with the role increasingly expected of him, as a spokesman for gay issues in the Jewish community. About gay marriage, he’s careful to separate civil and religious marriage, and as to the former, he’s in favor and sees it as a civil rights issue — where all citizens in committed, long-term relationships should be entitled to the same benefits. The subject of same-sex religious marriage is something he’s thinking about and studying.

In the book’s final section, he constructs the parameters of a respectful conversation between a gay Jew and an Orthodox rabbi, suggesting ways they might hear each other and continue their conversation, although the gap between them might be huge. He presents a working solution to the halachic and communal dilemmas, in which gay and lesbian Jews might be welcomed into synagogues: That rabbis agree not to humiliate or intimidate them from the pulpit, that gay and lesbian congregants not engage in public advocacy, that there be no lying in the community — that gays and lesbians tell the truth about their lives.

Admittedly not perfect, the plan is in fact rather modest, but as Greenberg explained, he believes in incremental change.

He writes that he and his partner were “actively encouraged” to join the Orthodox synagogue where they are now members, after they met the rabbi at a screening of “Trembling Before G-d.” The rabbi, who called the following day to reaffirm his invitation, is Rabbi Steve Friedman of Ramat Orah on the Upper West Side.

“For me,” he explained, “I want to belong not to a gay synagogue, but to a synagogue with gays and straight people, old and young. It’s a wider engagement with the Jewish community that’s most appealing to me.”

If the aims in terms of community acceptance seem modest, what are Greenberg’s dreams?

“I want a 16-year-old in an Orthodox day school who discovers that he or she is gay to know there’s a decent life inside the community that he or she can plan for,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I want it to be possible for the Jewish community to be a place where everyone can fantasize a Jewish future of personal development, love and companionship, service to the Jewish people, to the larger world and to God.”

Rabbi Steve Greenberg will participate in a panel discussion, “Gay Marriage: The Jewish Perspective,” with Dennis Prager, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Josef Kanefsky and professor Marcy Straus, moderated by Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, on May 12, 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For reservations, call (310) 440-1246.

‘Trembling’ Truth

For filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski, “Trembling Before G-d” isn’t just a documentary, it’s a revolutionary movement.

The searing, award-winning film profiles gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile their love of Judaism with the strict biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. But DuBowski hasn’t been content with the good reviews he’s received since the documentary debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. With grants from groups such as Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person Foundation, he’s industriously parlayed the movie into an international outreach effort to change attitudes about the gay frum (Orthodox) community.

When “Trembling” opened in New York in October, 15 Orthodox synagogues sponsored post-screening dialogues. Two-thousand viewers participated in a passionate discussion after a Nottingham, England, screening last year. And when “Trembling” opens at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on Feb. 20, the director’s goals will be equally ambitious.

He’s hired a Los Angeles outreach team, headed by former Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles publicist Michelle Kleinert, to organize discussions and related events with Orthodox and community groups. DuBowski and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay frum rabbi, will be on hand to talk to audiences. Events this month include a screening sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a New Israel Fund event.

“To have [Orthodox] rabbis and synagogues actually putting their names on a public dialogue about an issue that has never had a public hearing is extraordinary,” marvels DuBowski, who himself is a member of the Jewish gay community.

Nursing a glass of water recently at a busy Santa Monica restaurant, the New York filmmaker spoke of the extraordinary effect his movie has been having around the country. “We opened in New York on Oct. 24, and it was supposed to have a two- week run,” he recalls. “It broke box office records for opening day. It did so well that … it’s grossed over $300,000, which for a documentary is extraordinary.”

Spoken like a true creature of show business. But for the small, thin, 30-something with thinning hair and a Harvard degree, his physical presence belying the passion within, the commercial prospects for the film are the least of his concerns. What DuBowski is after is something much more radical: He wants frum Jews to learn to nurture and include observant gay and lesbians in their midst, instead of giving them the bleak choice of becoming “cured” of their sexuality or facing lifelong exile from the only way of life they have ever known. And he wants us to understand that “Trembling Before G-d” is changing lives — lots of them.

“Already we’ve had famous rabbis all over Long Island and New York announcing it on Saturday morning from the pulpit,” DuBowski enthuses. “And what we did in the synagogues of New York, we’re repeating in every city we go to. I’m meeting with Orthodox rabbis and holding dialogues and discussions with all kinds of panels.

“It’s put the film on the map in the frum community.”

In Nottingham, a woman stood up after a screening and said, “I went to the mikvah three weeks ago to cleanse myself of my homosexuality. After seeing the film, I’m going to accept it.'”

In other cities, DuBowski says, “People have come up to me and whispered, ‘I buried my son,’ ‘I buried my brother who died of AIDS,’ and they’re so ashamed they’ve never been able to speak of it to anyone. So with my grants I hope to build a supportive network of rabbis and Orthodox mental health professionals.”

But DuBowski admits that at least one section of the Orthodox community slams the film and criticizes it for being “incomplete and distorted.” Among the naysayers are officials of Agudath Israel, who released a letter titled, “Dissembling before G-d,” criticizing the film for not treating homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured.

The question that DuBowski finds most irksome comes from Conservative and Reform Jews: “If the Orthodox believe they are an abomination,” some people ask, “why don’t they simply find non-Orthodox congregations where they will be accepted?”

“You’re asking someone just because of their sexual orientation to rip the root out of their culture and to go into another,” DuBowski protests. “For some people it works, but for the vast majority it’s like asking someone to cut off their sexuality to save their spirituality or to cut off their spirituality to save their sexuality.”

Don’t tell DuBowski he’s doomed to failure since Orthodoxy, by definition, is fixed and immutable. “Why then have [so many] Orthodox synagogues invited the film to screen?” he counters.

“My ultimate goal is when an Orthodox parent has a gay child that they can say to that child, ‘I can’t say that our shul may be the shul you’ll grow old in, but there’s a shul in this city where the rabbi is supportive and that you don’t have to give up Torah, you don’t have to leave the community, you can live your life there as a religious Jew.’ I want there to be safe havens where gay and lesbian people can live lives of Torah and mitzvahs and help build the Jewish people.”

For information about the movie, see For information about a $250-per-person gala benefit
at the home of “Sex & the City” creator Darren Star on March 7, call Judy
Sitsitzer at (310) 899-9191. To set up discussion groups and Q & A sessions
with DuBowski, Greenberg and those in the movie, contact Michelle Kleinert at
(323) 868-3624 or . For screening times at the Laemmle theater, call (323) 848-3500.

The Next Battle

The next chapter in the struggle for normality in Judaism on the part of gay men and lesbians will take place within Conservative Judaism over admission to rabbinical school.

Conservative Judaism defines the final battlefield for full equality because it forms the vital center of American Judaism, between Orthodoxy’s aspirations for Torah authenticity and Reform’s commitment to acute contemporaneity. And out of the Jewish Theological Seminary beats the lifeblood of Conservative Judaism through its rabbinical school.

Why the urgency? Because the sides are hardening, the issues passing from chronic to acute day by day. On the left, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and their far-out competition (“New Age Judaism”) have ordained openly gay and lesbian rabbis for years. On the right, integrationist Orthodoxy finds ample halachic reason to reject the proposition, and self-segregationist Orthodoxy stonewalls the issue altogether.
The University of Judaism, through its dean, spelled out the present policy of Conservative Judaism: “One who says he/she refrains from gay or lesbian sex for halachic reasons would be considered for admission to rabbinical school (just as would the Orthodox rabbinical schools).”

That policy — the theological counterpart to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” — hardly promises a long-term, stable response to what is, in Judaism, an unprecedented aspiration. It is, quite simply, the demand to serve like anyone else on the part of practicing gay young men and women.

I see three reasons why “don’t ask, don’t tell” will not provide a long-term solution to the question of homosexuality in the Conservative rabbinate. First, because the centrist position is unstable. Second, because the political realities in this country have shifted, and liberal and left positions have redefined sexual attitudes and policies. Conservative Judaism’s position on homosexuality is inconsistent with its political liberalism.

Third, and most important, the human realities have changed. A generation has come along that will not stand still, that insists upon admission, and that will not be denied.

A colleague told me of a student on campus who wears a kipah, keeps kosher, davens every day, and is pursuing a degree in advanced Jewish studies. He is a campus leader, smart, kind and humble. In conversation, the young man mentioned that he would be in Israel in the summer to help plan a gay pride event in Jerusalem.

My colleague said he had never before met such an impressive, spiritual and pious person who spoke openly and unashamedly of being gay. The young man said he wants to become a Conservative rabbi. To be admitted, though, he would have to pledge celibacy. And he was not willing to accept those terms. He insisted on complete equality.

Such a story indicates that Conservative Judaism is turning its back on a self-defined minority of its own faithful who seek acceptance in terms of respect and dignity.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a halachic issue. After all, the vast majority of Conservative Jews are not halachic to begin with. At stake is religious public policy: the formation of a consensus that, in due course, will percolate upward into halachic formulation in the Conservative context (whatever that formulation yields).

I am nearly 70, so I well remember, three decades ago, when it was a sensation for a woman to be accepted into Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. The second woman to go there was a student of mine at Brown University. She came for advice and asked if I thought she would make a good rabbi. I told her she would be spectacular. And she was, and is.

Over the next decade I was able to help at least one woman a year realize her aspirations to become a rabbi. By 1980 we stopped counting, as it was no longer noteworthy. So Conservative Judaism followed in the path of HUC, but only after a battle that ripped open the fabric of the movement and cost the seminary some of its best faculty.

This is going to happen again. But the coming battle for Conservative Judaism will certainly end with doors open to professing gay and lesbian young people to enter the rabbinate. Notice I don’t say, “to gays and lesbians.” They have been there all along. The only question is, will gays and lesbians enter openly and proudly, or surreptitiously and on sufferance?

Will the Jewish Theological Seminary put gays and lesbians through the crucible of self-denial that Jews in the Ivy League went through two generations ago, or will they come along normally and routinely and make the enormous human contributions that are theirs, perhaps uniquely, to make? The clock is ticking.

Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and a 1960 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Condemning the Vote

It’s bad for Jewish unity, but not as bad as the decision to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

That’s how Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are viewing the Reform movement’s recent decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.

But even though the leaders of Judaism’s more traditional movements say the Reform rabbis’ decision is less divisive than the 1984 move on patrilineal descent, Orthodox leaders are harshly condemning the vote.

The criticism of Conservative leaders is more subdued.

Also, those active in promoting Reform Judaism in Israel insist that because the resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” it will not pose a serious obstacle to attracting Israelis to the movement. The Israeli Reform movement has generally taken a more cautious approach to controversial issues because it does not want to give the Orthodox establishment ammunition.

Not surprisingly, leaders in the Reconstructionist movement — which recognizes patrilineal descent and in 1993 supported same-sex commitment ceremonies — backed the Reform decision.

Other movements, though, predict it will undermine Jewish unity.

While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate ketubot — or Jewish marriage contracts — and liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions. Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the 200-member Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speculated that the resolution’s passage will encourage Reform rabbis who do not yet officiate at same-sex unions to consider doing so. He said his movement’s 1993 resolution “started what became a significant shift in Reconstructionist rabbis.”

Public discussion of the issue “made it less possible for individual rabbis to avoid the issue,” said Hirsh, who began officiating at gay and lesbian ceremonies after 1993.

“Having support of the rabbinic group makes it easier for you to make a stand in your own congregation,” he said.

The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.

Rabbi Joel Meyers acknowledged that despite this position, some Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies and — unlike Conservative rabbis who officiate at intermarriages — they are allowed to remain in the Rabbinical Assembly.

Meyers does not expect Reform’s move to strain Conservative-Reform relations, and he predicted it would have less of an impact than the patrilineal descent issue, which he said “goes to the heart of defining who’s Jewish and who’s not and that’s a more serious question.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that said, “Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

“It’s another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA’s executive vice president. “First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying it should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership.

“Even the prohibition against incest could go,” he said.

But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not “split the Jewish people in two.”

Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders say they will continue to work together, despite their differences on the same-sex issue.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly happy about its compromise language.

“I imagine there’ll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us,” he said.

However, he noted that he “could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us,” and is far more concerned about Reform’s image among its “target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing.”

The leader of Israel’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said he does not agree with the resolution, which he thinks will undermine both movements’ efforts in Israel, but said it will not affect his willingness to work with the Reform movement in efforts to gain recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“It will make our position hard — we’re always associated with Reform, and Israelis don’t always differentiate between Masorti and Reform. But I think it will create more understanding to the fact that these are distinct movements.”

Yolanda Potasinski, left, and her partner under the chuppah. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated at the 1997 commitment ceremony.

A Step Forward

Gay Jews say Reform vote is

a step toward acceptance.

By Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”

The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

In Los Angeles, the only city in the world with two synagogues serving primarily gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) lauded the Reform movement for “taking a leading role” in the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. Some date Reform’s historic path toward the recent vote to 1972, when it formally accepted BCC as a member in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood credited the Women’s Reform Network, the national organization of Reform women rabbis, with pushing the issue of gay marriage before the plenum. “We feel the vote of the Reform rabbis is in keeping with the views of the liberal Jews of California,” she said.

Back at Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — the bimah features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.

“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked. Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night. “I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”

Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”

Another st
udent, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.

Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.

“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.

Saturday, November 25

Rabbi Steven Greenberg usually kept quiet through the gay jokes. After all, he had been in the closet in the Orthodox community for 20 years, so he was used to smiling through the ridicule, through tirades about same-sex marriage.

But not that day last year around the Shavuot table. His friend and teacher, also an Orthodox rabbi, held up a ketubah with an illustration of two men at the top and launched into a comedy routine about what the “reformers” were doing to sacred tradition.

Greenberg stood and ordered his teacher to sit down. “Those two people who are just cartoon figures to you actually in real life are human beings,” he said, “and they probably looked long and hard and suffered a great deal to find love in their lives. And now the finding of that love is so precious, you can’t imagine how precious it is. You don’t understand how difficult it is to fight against a cultural weight of self-hatred. And likely you can’t grasp this because no one has ever said to you, ‘rabbi, I’m gay.’ So let me be the first. Rabbi, I am gay.”

Sitting in his brother’s Long Beach backyard one gray morning last week, Greenberg imitates the faces at that Shavuot table, dropping his strong, clean-shaven jaw, furrowing his heavy gray brows, opening his bright brown eyes wide.

Then, as if uttering a punch line, he delivers the rabbi’s response: “Stevie, have you gotten help?”

Now that Greenberg, 42, has made a very public point of being the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, this kind of story is a little less painful than it used to be. And it illustrates what he thinks needs to happen in the Orthodox community: He is convinced that if traditional Jews open their ears, and their hearts, to homosexuals, if they listen to the pain, loneliness, confusion and self-hatred that often comes along with being gay in the Orthodox community, they will be forced to rethink the rejection they have thus far offered up to the homosexuals among them.

Greenberg, a teaching fellow at the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is an intellectual, articulate and thorough in presenting his thinking.

He’s been around long enough to know that he will not be considered Orthodox by most people who are. And he is not naive enough to believe that, in one decisive moment, he can convince the world that male homosexual sex is within the confines of halachic Judaism.

But he does believe he can open the door just wide enough so that homosexuality can become a legitimate topic for discussion. He believes his coming out will give others the strength to do the same. And once the personal testimony of their sons and nieces, brothers and best friends is heard, Greenberg says, the authorities who interpret halacha may be moved to creatively rethink the prohibitions that appear to be black and white.

Though to many this might appear to be a losing battle, Greenberg has a powerful weapon in his arsenal: his personal story, a compelling tale of fighting his own identity until he could no longer deny that being gay was an essential part of his soul, that it was the only way to bring love into his life.

‘A Richness of ‘Spirit’

Greenberg, who was in town as a scholar-in-residence at Beth Chaim Chadashim, a Westside synagogue for lesbians, gays and bisexuals, has no doubts about whether homosexuality is inborn or a chosen lifestyle.

“There’s hardly a person in the West who would want to be gay if they were asked, because it’s so not normative, so othering,” he says. “The only reason you fight to accept yourself and challenge the norm is because you don’t have many choices.”

Though Greenberg can’t pinpoint when he knew he was gay, he remembers his childhood and teenage years being spotted with confusing emotions and sensations. He detailed some of his journey in an article in Tikkun magazine in 1993, written under the pseudonym of Rabbi Yaakov Levado (Hebrew for “alone”).

When he was about 15, Greenberg, whose family is Conservative, began studying with an Orthodox rabbi and found himself enthralled by the rich texts and traditions.

He attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate and then as a rabbinical student. When he was 20, he studied at the prestigious Yeshiva Har Etzion outside of Jerusalem, where he was attracted to a fellow student. Concluding he was bisexual, Greenberg decided to approach Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, a respected rav in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi,” he told the elderly man, “I am attracted to both men and women.”

To Greenberg’s amazement, the rabbi responded, “You have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”

While Eliashuv’s students recently responded to this story saying the rabbi never said such a thing, Greenberg says those students issued that response without asking the rabbi. And, he says, the words are deeply etched into his memory.

“A weight was lifted off me, to think that whatever this was, it was a richness of spirit,” Greenberg says. “He wasn’t permitting me to have sex with men, he was telling me that my desire was not ugly in and of itself.”

Greenberg, who was ordained in 1983, did not admit he was gay until he was 28, and still he continued to date women for another seven years.

“I was still trying to make it work. I was so motivated for a family and children and a life — for being part of the flow of humanity, which is so appealing,” Greenberg says. “It’s a center of real hurt in my life that it didn’t work out that way. But that hurt doesn’t justify a life of deep, deep self-deception and deception of others.”

‘If You’re Gay, Get Out’

While living in Israel the past two years, Greenberg decided to come out publicly in the national daily newspaper, Ma’ariv. He timed the article to coincide with the early March opening of the Jerusalem Open House, the first community center for gays and lesbians in Jerusalem, which he helped found.

The center includes a clandestine support group for haredi youth, and a group calling itself the Orthodykes. In New York, the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association meets monthly.

Greenberg says many Orthodox youth who think they are gay are encouraged to marry anyway, at least to start a family, even if it ends in divorce. “The cruelty in that is unthinkable to me,” Greenberg says incredulously.

Others are encouraged to hide their gayness or remain celibate, condemning them to a life of lovelessness, he laments. In some cases, gay youths are simply told to leave the family, for their presence in the community is just too jarring.

“The subliminal message is if you’re gay, get out, for our benefit and for yours,” Greenberg says.

But often families unwilling to abandon their children are willing to accept a compromised level of halachic observance, just as they sometimes are in other areas of halacha.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, says he, like most other rabbis, has counseled gay congregants and their families. He says he has listened with compassion, but makes clear that the halacha forbids homosexual sex. “They have to come to terms with the fact that not everything we want and desire is permitted,” Muskin says.

Using an argument often heard in Orthodox circles, Muskin says he treats homosexuals as he would treat anyone who is violating a mitzvah. Muskin would certainly not expect an observant Jew to proudly proclaim that she cheats on her tax returns or regularly eats cheeseburgers.

But Greenberg says the cheeseburger analogy just doesn’t work. “People can live deep, emotional, committed, loving, wonderful lives and not eat cheeseburgers,”he says, apparently having heard the argument one too many times. “But to tell a person that to be a member of this group you have to live a life without self-expression and love and commitment and intimacy and daily touching and caring and holding… that would be an unbearable burden for most people.”

Torah’s Puzzling Attitude

Greenberg is a few months away from completing a book that, along with telling his personal story, explores what he believes is the Torah’s puzzling attitude towardhomosexuality. Greenberg asserts that there is more to the discussion than the surface meaning of the verse in Leviticus 18: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

While Greenberg is reluctant to lay out the specifics of his arguments without the benefit of several hours of background building up to his conclusions, he says that he is “attempting to demonstrate this verse is more interesting and ambiguous than a simple, superficial reading would suggest. This is what rabbis do when they confront a verse: find anomalies in order to enrich its meaning.”

But, he says, rabbis will only be motivated to reinterpret the verse if the issues become personal, rather than abstract and foreign. “In this area I believe halacha is wrong, because its refusal to talk to people makes it fail to be authoritative. True halacha has to be open to listening to people,” he says. And he is willing to be the first to talk.

“The story of a gay rabbi is the story of a person who had incredible, powerful motivation, personal and religious, to fight his sexual identity to the end. And the story of a 20-year struggle against my heart and my final decision that it is futile, helps portray how difficult it is for gay and lesbian people and makes clear why this is truly a humanitarian, and I would even say a Jewish, imperative.”

For more information on Jerusalem Open House, go to or call Hagai El-Ad at (617) 247-8420.