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.”

President Donald Trump on April 13. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Trump’s Jewish groupies should be nervous

The near-messianic belief in President Donald Trump held by certain pro-Israel Jews dates to the campaign, when he seemed an unshakable friend to the Jewish state, especially compared to Hillary Clinton. But the president already has reversed himself on China, North Korea, Syria, Russia and NATO. Trump’s dizzying abandonment of once-unshakable positions raises the question of whether Israel will be the next ally he decides to pass over.

In fact, the Trump administration already has sent mixed signals that should worry hard-line Zionists. During the campaign, Trump firmly supported the West Bank settlement project, but in April he said expanding settlements “does not help advance peace.” His promises to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem have been downgraded to getting what Vice President Mike Pence calls “serious consideration.”

Though the many Orthodox and other conservative pro-Israel supporters of the president expect the embassy to move, they should be cautious. The man whose considerable ego is built on dealmaking has called Middle East peace “the ultimate deal” — and that means compromise. In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump boasted of aiming very high, but “sometimes I settle for less than I sought.” Another of his principles is to “never get too attached to one deal or one approach.”

West Bank settlers and their financial and political backers in the Diaspora see every one of their positions as inalienable. They will inevitably find any Trump-style deal regarding Israel thoroughly dispiriting.

Those confident that Trump’s commitment to right-skewing positions on Israel won’t share the fate of his promises to stay out of Syria and label China a currency manipulator point to his bedrock Evangelical support and the role of Jewish family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Neither is a slam dunk.

So far, evangelicals have followed (the steadfastly pro-life) Trump more than the other way around – most prominently on gay rights. The Family Research Council and similar groups muted their disappointment when Trump didn’t issue an anti-gay executive order and reappointed an Obama administration gay-rights diplomat. Evangelical Zionist fervor could similarly wane should the president waver on Israel.

Regarding Kushner and his wife Ivanka, true believers on the right may be overly enamored with their own extremist belief that anyone with a more accommodating position toward Palestinians is necessarily anti-Israel.

Trump’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law have never identified with the most religiously and politically conservative segments of Orthodox Judaism. The rabbi responsible for the very fact they are a Jewish family is famously on the more accommodating side of Orthodoxy, and three years ago, the school associated with their Upper East Side synagogue invited a prominent Muslim critic of Israel to speak. While the invitation was later rescinded, the controversy would be unthinkable at nearly all other Orthodox schools and congregations.

It’s true that Kushner has been close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for many years, but Netanyahu himself is suspect in right-leaning Zionist quarters for his support of a two-state solution and supposed excessive friendliness with Palestinian leaders. As for settlements, The New York Times says Kushner’s thinking “is not well understood.”

We may be facing a “Nixon goes to China” moment for both Kushner and Trump. That expression refers to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 China trip normalizing relations between the United States and the world’s most populous country At the time, Democrats would suffer political disaster for de-escalating tensions with the communist behemoth. But as a Republican with impeccable anti-communist credentials, Nixon was able to take that bold but important step.

The Likudniks who celebrated Kushner’s appointment as Middle East envoy were reading the wrong tea leaves. What use is a negotiator who could never budge? Trump’s thinking may very well be: if even Kushner is willing to pressure Israel to make concessions on settlements, Jerusalem, and Palestinian sovereignty, the administration will appear to be an honest and fair broker.

As a resident of Jerusalem, dual citizen of the United States and Israel, and center-right Zionist, I pray the administration vigorously defends the security of the State of Israel. But recent world events underscore what I told my pro-Israel friends when I told them I was voting for Clinton. Her pro-Israel credentials may have been suspect, but her stability and predictability were better for America – and, ultimately, Israel – than a president whose positions change radically as he learns on the job and discovers that being a president is a lot harder and less fun than being a candidate.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and, or E-mail him at

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Jewish silence in the face of atrocities in Chechnya?

In recent days, reports have emerged about authorities in Chechnya rounding up scores of gay men, imprisoning them, beating them, with many dead.  Reports are now coming to light of concentration camps where gay men are being held and subjected to brutality, torture and murder.  Apparently, this deplorable treatment is in response to the application of a Moscow-based gay rights group to hold Pride parades in the region. Chechen authorities are denying these claims.  Alvi Karimov, a Chechen spokesman told Interfax, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic. If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

These reports of purging, murder, brutality and erasure are disturbing enough in themselves.  But this Passover, I am struck by another disturbing reality:  American ignorance of this issue in general, and Jewish ignorance in particular. Of course, we are living in times where our news cycle is overwhelmed with rising threats over Syria, North Korea and Russia.  At home, our media is beset over the latest scandal du jour in connection with the presidency.  It is indeed very difficult these days  to notice what is happening in a small republic in the north Caucasus mountains.

But we cannot afford not to notice.  If we have been paying attention to the meaning of our Passover seders, we know that we ourselves are a people who were brutalized, oppressed and murdered simply for being who we are.  We have gathered as families and communities, telling our story of having been refugees of slavery.  And we emerge from our seders with a clarion call to invite ‘all those who are hungry to come and eat’ together with us.  The beginning of our ethics, and our very Jewish identity, lies in our ability to empathize and to act on behalf of all those who still know the oppression that we have known.  And after the Holocaust, with Chechen authorities rounding people up, putting them in concentration camps, and murdering them, the silence of the Jewish people on this issue is unconscionable.

A danger inherent in the Passover experience is to read the Haggadah only in tribal, particularist terms:  God’s unique love and rescue of our people vindicates our people alone, and denigrates all other peoples.  That danger extends to all the times that we fail to see the story of who we are reflected in others, simply because those others are so different from ourselves.  I once spoke to an American Jewish woman who was a young mother during the years of the Second World War.  I asked her if she knew at the time about the internment of Japanese Americans, and she answered yes.  When I asked her what she thought about that internment during those years, she responded that there was a war going on!  She felt that it was not the time or place to speak out against such a thing, and frankly, it didn’t occur to her at the time to speak out.

The essence of Passover is that we, ourselves, were the ‘other.’ We, ourselves, were the ones whose plight was ignored by those who might speak up.  To be Jewish is to be, eternally, the other.  And in a very real sense, all those who are oppressed and erased must become a part of our people.  The gay men in Chechnya may seem so far away and other to us.  But in this case, they literally are us, as the story of the Jewish people is, and always has, included the story of LGBT people.

The good news is that our people do respond so often when called upon to speak out on behalf of the oppressed.  Organizations like HIAS and others are doing great work to raise awareness and to act on behalf of refugees and others in dire need of our help.  The challenge, however, is to endeavor to notice those who have escaped our attention–perhaps because their plight feels too far beyond our reach, or their stories too ‘other’ and different from anything we can relate to.  The most Jewish thing we must do, however, is to speak out and act on behalf of the very ones who seem the most ‘other’ to us.  It is only through their redemption that our own redemption from slavery can truly become complete.

Gil Steinlauf is a prominent Conservative movement rabbi in Washington, DC.  His opinions are his own.

30 years and 30 big changes

In the Jewish Journal’s inaugural issue on Feb. 28, 1986, readers already could see it was not going to be their parents’ kind of Jewish newspaper. The Journal was different from its predecessor owned by the Jewish Federation, as well as the Orthodox-leaning B’nai B’rith Messenger and the crusading Jewish Heritage.

The new weekly, edited by Gene Lichtenstein, sent a message with its first cover story dedicated to anti-school busing and conservative Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member. It was going to step outside the well-worn path of covering the status quo of Westside and Beverly Hills liberal politics, and broaden coverage to include a Jewish grassroots, right-leaning firebrand.

In the three decades since that edition, this broader approach — including news, features, opinions and eventually blogs from all points of L.A.’s Jewish communal compass — has been the newspaper’s guiding rule. Turning through old, bound volumes, with pages browned and edges foxed, the paper’s coverage presents a portrait of 30 years of change, growth and evolution within the local Jewish community. Here are 30 noteworthy topics and events that touched L.A. over the past 30 years, as reflected in the Journal’s pages.

1. Embracing LGBT Jews

Although a cover in 1986 announced the continuing conflict within Judaism over gay Jews, by 1998 a news feature detailed increased acceptance — and plans for the celebration of more than 25 years of the world’s first LGBT synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. Getting over the shandah, the embarrassment, denominational Judaism began a serious conversation over transgender acceptance and rights, as reflected in another stirring cover story, this time in 2015.

2. King Juan Carlos Comes to L.A.

Almost half a millennium after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia visited Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard to make peace on Oct. 1, 1987. “For the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles, the gesture is one of historical dimension,” Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell wrote. The Journal went on to chart the growth of a large and vital Sephardic community in L.A.

3. Intermarriage: To Worry or Not to Worry?

Concerns about intermarriage go back all the way to the Torah. But when the 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey found the intermarriage rate among couples who were married in the five years ending in 1997 was 41 percent, well, it didn’t seem so bad to some people. That changed for many when the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 a rate of 58 percent nationwide — and 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

4. The Rise of Iranian and Russian Jewish Immigrants

With the Iranian Jewish immigrant community at close to 17,000 by the late ’90s, we learned to love lavash, Persian cucumbers and late night simchas, while recognizing (if not understanding) Farsi in Pico Boulevard shop windows. As for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more than 24,000 flocked to the area by the late ’80s. Apartment buildings in West Hollywood began to fill with Russian immigrant families, and Santa Monica Boulevard became dotted with Russian bakeries and storefront markets. Were they here to stay? Da.

5. A Growing Orthodoxy 

With all the new kosher restaurants on Pico and Ventura boulevards, it seemed clear by 2000 that the Orthodox community was booming. For the kosherly conscious, there was a clear increase in the availability of heckshered foods, as well as public displays of Yiddishkayt, such as Tu b’Shevat street fairs and car-mounted menorahs, and a massive influx of Orthodox families into previously WASP-y Hancock Park.

6. The New Israelis

Around town, we grew accustomed to hearing Ivrit spoken in restaurants, movie theater lines, folkdance spots like Café Danssa, and the Fairfax record store Hataklit (both now closed). By 2007, especially in the Valley, Israelis had “their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks,” according to a feature by Tom Tugend. Drawing that community together was the Israeli American Council, begun in 2006. The IAC fires up the largest L.A. Jewish gatherings of the year with the annual Celebrate Israel festival in Rancho Park.

7. Logging On for Love

The inaugural issue of the Journal chronicled the angst of making a Jewish match in a city expansive enough to be its own diaspora with “The Single Life” column. But that was old school. Jewish computer dating began here in the mid-1970s, and rebooted in 1997 with the founding of JDate by Joe and Nickie Shapira of Beverly Hills. Swiping right, in 2014, were Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two of the Jewish founders of the dating app Tinder. But face-to-face love connections thrived at “Friday Night Live,” an innovative singles-oriented Sabbath service started in 1998 at Sinai Temple that drew up to 1,500 souls.

8. Oy, Did We Have Mail!

The first message on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, was sent by a UCLA team led by a Jewish professor, Leonard Kleinrock, in 1969, altering forever the way we give and gain news about our lives. Joining that widening stream, the Journal first went online in 1996, allowing it to cover breaking news, and eventually providing a means for readers to instantly comment, kvetch and post blogs. Now L.A. is home to numerous virtual Jewish sites, and every congregation and organization is a click away.

9. Women of valor and power

With the newly appointed director of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Deborah Lipstadt, on the paper’s cover during its first year, the Journal set the tone for covering local Jewish women leaders making waves on a national scale. These have included rabbis such as Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the first woman to lead a major metropolitan congregation; Naomi Levy, author and founder of Nashuva, and Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR.

10. Higher Ratings for Jewish Identity in Hollywood

30 Something

30 Something

gellersTV shows with clearly drawn Jewish characters such as “Thirtysomething,” “Seinfeld” and “Northern Exposure” reflected a growing hipness and ease of being Jewish. Los Angeles, with a large contingent of Jewish writers, producers, and showrunners, filled the culture with characters such as Monica and Ross Geller (“Friends”), Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Ari Gold (“Entourage”) and Howard Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”), as well as cartoon characters Kyle Broflovski (“South Park”) and Krusty the Clown (“The Simpsons”). More recently, Maura Pfefferman (born “Morton”) of Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” gave us a transgender take on Jewish life.

11. The New Jewish Side of Town

In 2004, famed New York-based streetwear brand Supreme opened a large shop on Fairfax Avenue, just up the block from Canter’s deli, signaling a change to a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that was filling up with trendy skate clothing shops and galleries. As Fairfax turned full-hipster, younger observant Jews, especially those with families, were moving to Pico-Robertson, which was transforming into the Jewish side of town complete with new kosher restaurants, shuls and markets.

12. New museums to look forward — and back

The Torah commands Jews to “zachor,” to remember, and with the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park in 2010, we had two new places to look deeply into our painful past as a way to navigate the present. Looking to the future, the Zimmer Children’s Museum opened, helping to transmit and create Jewish memories for children and families. And in 1996, the Skirball Cultural Center opened in the Sepulveda Pass, connecting art and culture with Jewish vision and values.

13. Mazel Tov, It’s Mitzvah Day!

First held in 1999 as a project of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Mitzvah Day was an expression of tikkun olam as volunteers painted, repaired and renewed their city. Begun by TV, theater and movie writer David Levinson, the idea flowered into a community-wide event that drew thousands of participants, changing its name in 2003 to Big Sunday, eventually evolving into a weekend, and then in 2016, into a month of events, attracting up to 50,000 volunteers of all faiths.

14. The Day Rabin Died

Shot by a right-wing extremist while leaving a peace rally on Nov. 5, 1995, the assassination of the Israeli prime minister who negotiated the Oslo Accords — for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize — reverberated throughout the community, sounding an ominous warning to leaders who wish not to learn war anymore. Some 10,000 people attended a massive memorial rally on a cordoned-off Wilshire Boulevard to mark the end of a man, and a dream.

15. ‘Fighting On’ at USC; Making UCLA Cool to Jews

usc-uclaIn the 1870s, Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish businessman, banker and philanthropist was one of three men to donate the land for USC, which 100 years later was viewed as a home for WASP elitism. In 2002, a decade of increased inclusiveness at the school was reflected when Stanley Gold was appointed the university’s first Jewish chairman of the board of trustees. In 1972, UCLA was the first major American university to fund a Jewish newspaper, Ha’am, but by 2015 the school was getting headlines for a judicial board nominee being questioned over her Jewish background. In 2016, a student body president left the school alleging harassment by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. More hopefully, that same year, the school’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Mapping Jewish L.A. project celebrated the history of Boyle Heights with an exhibition.

16. American Jewish University Goes Big

In 2007, the University of Judaism merged with the 1,500-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute, marrying two 60-year-old L.A. Jewish institutions into the American Jewish University. And when big names came through town, from Bill Clinton to Bill Maher, a likely stop was a speaking engagement through the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which drew thousands.

17. Got Kosher? Yup.

challah-gotkosherBeyond the opening of kosher Mexican and Thai restaurants, Los Angeles saw the rollout of multiple trucks selling kosher tacos and another truck selling kosher Montreal egg rolls. Add in Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory — now offering concessions at home Dodgers games — and the pretzel challah of Got Kosher? There was bad news in 2013, though, when the Journal reported a  scandal at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat market after a private investigator videotaped the owner allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store.

18. The Dodgers Go Blue and White

Long after Sandy Koufax and fellow Jewish Dodgers brothers Larry and Norm Sherry, who both attended Fairfax High, put on Dodger blue, fellow members of the tribe Stan Kasten (president and part-owner) and Andrew Friedman (president of baseball operations) joined the team. And in 2000, the year they got Jewish slugger Shawn Green, the team began heavily promoting Jewish Community Day.

19. Harold Schulweis z’l

The issue of Dec. 18, 2014, marked the passing of Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Harold Schulweis at age 89, calling him “the rabbi of rabbis.” Arriving at his Valley pulpit in 1970, Rabbi Schulweis went on to pioneer synagogue-based chavurah, counseling centers, and outreach to interfaith, gay and lesbian Jews and converts. A superb thinker and orator, he insisted upon connecting the Jewish world with the larger community worldwide through foundations and outreach organizations like Jewish World Watch.

“Harold Schulweis is a rabbi,” said Rabbi Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center. “This is a little like saying a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin. … He has, as much as any rabbi in our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose.”

20. The Rise of Mega-Synagogues AND Upstart Congregations

Large congregations such as Stephen Wise Temple, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leo Baeck Temple and Sinai Temple all thrived by doubling down on the full-service synagogue model.

At the same time, a 1982 guide to Jewish Los Angeles listed a few independent congregations, mostly Orthodox. In comparison, the 2016 Jewish Journal “City Guide” showed 16 independent, mostly nontraditional congregations, including Metivta, Open Temple, IKAR, Nashuva, Valley Outreach and Movable Minyan, taken together serving thousands of families. L.A.’s plethora of rabbinical seminaries — the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class in 1999, and the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (founded in 2000) — helped fuel their growth.

21. A Jewish Approach to…

As social awareness of issues like disabilities and addiction grew, so too did unique Jewish communal responses.  Beit T’Shuva, an innovative addiction treatment center, started 30 years ago and has grown to treat thousands.  And services for special needs greatly expanded to dozens of programs and organzations.

22. The First Intifada, 1987-1991

intifadaBesides the fact that no one knew it would be the first, the Journal did not know what to call it. It settled on, in 1987, the “hostility between the Palestinian youth and Israelis.” By 1989, a piece about the fear and hopelessness many were feeling in Israel, titled “Feeling helpless in the Intifada,” captured the anxiety of many Jewish Angelenos. The continuing conflict has led to the L.A. birth of Israel advocacy organizations like  StandWithUs and many, many rallies, op-eds and arguments.

23.  The Winning Campaigns of Jewish Candidates

For more than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, there was nary a Jewish city councilmember. That changed in 1953 with the election of 22-year-old Rosalind Wyman to the Fifth District seat, which includes the Westside and the Fairfax district. Now held by Paul Koretz, the seat has been Jewish ever since, with several who held the seat rising to higher office: Zev Yaroslavsky and Edmund D. Edelman to L.A. County Supervisor, and Michael Feuer to the State Assembly and position of L.A. City Attorney. Among numerous Jewish electeds, the highest profile is current Mayor Eric Garcetti.

24. The Fall and Revival of Jewish Centers

Disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in 2001 led to the closure of numerous centers, including Santa Monica’s Bay Cities JCC in 2002 and the Conejo Valley JCC in 2004. With pickets, posters and T-shirts, members of the Westside JCC rallied and eventually won independence, and the center in Silver Lake came back to booming life as well. A JCC continued in Long Beach and even though the JCC at Milken in West Hills closed in 2012 after Federation sold the property, the North Valley JCC was reborn as the Valley JCC in Woodland Hills.

25. Moving Westward and Beyond

The 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey was our statistical proof that we were moving westward, but the signs had long been there to read. New synagogues had opened in Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley, kosher markets and day schools too, and in 1997, Mount Sinai Memorial Park expanded to Simi Valley. By the new millennium, Jews were moving east as well — to Koreatown, Echo Park and downtown.

26. From Delis to Mainstream Dining

When Al Levy in 1886 first operated an Oyster Bar Pushcart, and later an Oyster House restaurant in downtown L.A., he was prying open the way for Jewish chefs and entrepreneurs to move into mainstream cuisine. Following in Levy’s footsteps, L.A. became home to the nation’s best family-owned delis, including Langer’s, Canter’s, Izzy’s, and Nate ’n Al.  Now, the city is home to chefs including Alma’s Ari Taymor, Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, and Jessica Koslow, owner of the always-hopping Sqirl, who made the cover of last year’s Passover issue.

27. A Local Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

A chance meeting in 1980 in a Beverly Hills leather shop between Australian author Thomas Keneally and the store’s owner, Leopold Page (Leopold Pfefferberg), who had survived the Holocaust due to Oskar Schindler, set in motion this movie, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1994. Steven Spielberg directed the film, and at the Academy Award ceremony, he credited Page as the “catalyst for the film.” In 1994, Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, dedicated to recording the video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Shoah.

28. Federation: From Umbrella to Innovation

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles worked to transform itself from an umbrella group funding and coordinating Jewish social services and aid here and abroad to a social innovator in its own right. In 2010, the Journal covered the appointment of then-52-year-old Jay Sanderson as president, determined, he said, to “throw the doors open.” Since then, Federation has launched numerous projects aimed at drawing younger Jews, new leaders, the entertainment industry and unaffiliated Jews into communal life.

29. Saving Jewish Buildings

In a city that usually bulldozes and paves over its history, three acts serve as towering achievements in historical preservation. One was the rescue of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights by Stephen Sass and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 2000. Another was the purchase of the original home of Sinai Temple in the Pico Union neighborhood by singer-songwriter Craig Taubman in 2013. And a third was the $100 million restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. All serve not only the Jewish community, but local neighborhoods as well.

30. School Choice

In the early 1980s, if you wanted to attend a Los Angeles Jewish high school, there was only one choice: YULA, known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. By 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken Community High School. Today, more than 9,700 children attend 42 Jewish schools, with another 10,000 in supplementary Jewish schools, about 7,500 in early childhood programs, and thousands more in camps. Cost is still a concern, but online learning and other innovative programs offer opportunities to reach even more of the young generation — and keep Los Angeles Jewish life thriving for many, many years to come.

Women’s March D.C.: Here for one another

Sunday I boarded a plane back to LA after walking with my daughter Rebecca, 22, at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. 

We started Saturday morning among a bimah full of inspirational women leaders in the salmon pink walled sanctuary at the historic synagogue, Sixth & I. We walked on Shabbat, in a sea of marching Jewish home-made sign- and banner-carrying pilgrims, and prayed, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “ with our feet.”

And this is what I learned I pray to live in a world where we are here for each other.

I arrived on a plane to D.C. after a broken overhead bin resulted in a checked bag, which turned into a lost bag. Good-bye pink knitted pussy gear, good-bye warm coat and sundry staples. I spent most of the weekend feeling a bit un-equipped, and it put me at the mercy of those who were in a position to throw me a line.

I was grateful to find people who were kind and helpful, from strangers who shared phone chargers to friends who schlepped warm clothes on crowded metros across the city to make it possible for me to march.  I was reminded what a privilege, and indeed a critical feature of dignity and safety, it is to be warm and be surrounded by people sympathetic to my needs.

Over the course of the march weekend, I was privileged to meet, to witness and to hear from many people who converged on the city to share a vision for the world that is both bold protest and compassionate intervention. A vision that seeks to protect our planet for future generations, and that spins outward from a center that is rooted in care for the vulnerable. 

On this march that meant the people and institutions that have been the focus of attack —  people of color, Jews and Muslims, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ, Americans who are poor, children seeking education in our public schools, disabled Americans and Veterans , those who rely on affordable health care and women who refuse to relinquish control-legally, morally or physically-over their own bodies.

I met a group of marchers who were the lionesses and change-makers of the women’s movement in the 1970’s, including civil rights lawyer Judith Lonnquist, and her daughter Victory Lonnquist who just completed a 6 month activist residency at Standing Rock , where she, a trained firefighter herself, was blasted with ice cold water in sub zero conditions by local firefighters. She said there was no way for her to really understand what was happening there without showing up, digging in and living there and hearing from members of the tribe, in intimate and meaningful ways that only standing side by side makes possible.

I met Mushe Tgaw, a taxi driver and an Ethiopian immigrant.

“You mean like Moshe?” I asked him.

“Yeah, like Moses,” he said.  “My mother named me after Moshe Dayan because my people are great admirers of Israe.”

He didn’t think much of the march until his daughters, Abegael 16, Egla 14, Sara 10, asked to go.

“They told  me, ‘Daddy we want to be a part of history.’”

He smiled. The proud immigrant father of two daughters born in Ethiopia and his youngest, born into the promise of America. He was able to become a citizen but he wonders if those who come after will be , “as lucky as me.”

I met Jerry and Wally, a gay couple who travelled from Massachusetts to D.C. to march for men and women walking the path toward marriage equality after them.  Wally is a Hispanic immigrant, and they were able to obtain good legal counsel and had the good luck of finding love during the Obama years in a state with progressive legislation. But they worry that a young gay immigrant who falls in love during the Trump administration will have not one but two obstacles against them in the fulfillment of their civil rights and dignity. They marched for all those young couples who may fall in love and wish to build a life together in this “new era.”

And I met Jane Plitt, the very first staffer ever for the National Organization of Women in Chicago in the 1970’s and an early championess of womens’ birthright to equal wages, equal rights and the dignity to preside over their own bodies. For her, the walk was magnificent because it represented the next wave of feminist leadership to finish the work that she and her sisters started. She said with a tear in her eye, that it was important to her, a relief, and something she was not sure she would see before she died. But here she was, seeing it, and I saw it, with deep appreciation for my daughter Rebecca and her generation, too.

And I witnessed our magnificent Rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Brous modeling humanity from the march stage in our nation’s capitol. Where she reminded us all that our hearts are capacious, and we can build a better world if we join hands with the compassion in one another, with each step, with each prayer, with each person, millions and millions of women and girls, and the men who love them, strong.

Samara Hutman is  the Director of Remember Us I The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah and Righteous Conversations Projects.

Inauguration, march test capital rabbis

On Jan. 20, the United States inaugurates a new president and ushers in an era of new policies and rhetoric. But at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C., eyes are on the day after, when some 200,000 marchers are expected to gather to reassert support for policies they think will be threatened under President Donald Trump.

The synagogue, named for the intersection where it has stood for more than a century, is hosting a Shabbat of programming surrounding the Women’s March on Washington. The march will set out Saturday morning from downtown Washington and advocate for women and minorities, including support for reproductive and civil rights, environmental regulation, and protections for immigrants and the LGBT community. Among those scheduled to speak is Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles.

“We assumed that most of the Jews would be coming in for the march and not for the inauguration itself, so we wanted to have a space, especially for Shabbat itself, that was open to everybody,” said Sixth & I Rabbi Shira Stutman. (Nationwide, polls show 74 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton; in the District of Columbia, more than 90 percent of residents chose Clinton over Trump.)

The march’s agenda, Stutman said, “felt like values that were important to us.”

Washington synagogues are divided on how to approach a fraught weekend that will move from a moment of triumph for Trump supporters to a show of numerical strength from his opponents. Some, like Sixth & I, are embracing the march and integrating their Sabbath activities with it. Others hope to carry on as usual and remain out of the fray. None of the city’s major synagogues will be celebrating or commemorating Trump’s inauguration itself with special programming.

“It’s going to be a very intense week,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, which will not be participating in the march. “Just the act of being together, [congregants] knowing they have their Jewish community together taking care of them, that’s all we’re going to do.”

Synagogues and their rabbis have been grappling with the question of how to respond to Trump since the beginning of the presidential campaign. A group of rabbis protested Trump at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, citing his remarks and policies targeting Muslims, Mexicans and others. Before the High Holy Days in September, rabbis in swing states said they planned to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

Trump, for his part, says clergy should have more latitude to express political views. He has proposed repealing a law that prohibits religious institutions from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Stutman said Sixth & I is planning activities around the march not as a stand against Trump but because it supports the marchers’ goals. Along with Jews United for Justice and T’ruah, a rabbis’ human rights group, the nondenominational synagogue will host meals, as well as a program of reflection and song before the march begins Saturday morning. In the afternoon, it will offer meditation, yoga and lectures on women’s rights and social justice.

More than 800 people are slated to attend the morning program.

“That is our opportunity to have a moment of quiet during what is going to be a very emotionally intense weekend,” Stutman said. “I recognize for many, if not most people, this is also a protest march, but what Sixth & I is signing on to is not the protest but instead the possibility of standing with other Americans.”

The area’s Reform synagogues are also organizing around Jewish marchers. Congregations and groups will co-host a morning prayer service before the march near its starting point with worship tailored to its themes. Readings are slated to include quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while attendees will sing folk songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

“It is important to us to give Reform Jews the opportunity to observe Shabbat” at the march, said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., who is one of the service’s organizers. “The intersection of Judaism, Shabbat and social justice — that’s where we’re headed.”

Rodef Shalom is not endorsing the march as a synagogue, though its women’s association will be chartering a bus there and Schwartzman’s family will be participating. Schwartzman also intends to address Trump’s inauguration in a sermon Friday night, but she said Reform congregations need to be careful to distinguish between Jewish values and liberal politics.

“I’m very worried about how Jewish values are going to be compromised in the new administration,” she said. “I want him to know about our commitment to social justice, whether it’s refugees, immigrants, hunger, poverty, LGBT, the long history we have with civil rights as a movement.”

Adas Israel also is not endorsing the march, but it is hosting a Friday night dinner for out-of-towners in the city for the weekend’s events. Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue, is having a Shabbat dinner for guests, too, while not commenting on the march or the inauguration. The Orthodox Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue will be holding services as usual. (Its rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, staged a one-man protest of Trump during the AIPAC conference.)

Adas Israel’s Steinlauf was one of 58 Washington-area rabbis to sign a letter last week urging Trump to “revisit your campaign rhetoric and the hate crimes it may have unleashed.” Steinlauf said he may join the women’s march after Saturday morning services. But he also said his congregation must refrain from political statements so it remains welcoming to all comers.

“As a major congregation in Washington, D.C., we understand we will be playing a central role locally and nationally in terms of moral leadership during this administration,” Steinlauf said.

“But we also understand that this is Washington, D.C. We’re not going to be checking people’s political affiliations before they walk in the door.”

100 anti-Semitic incidents reported in US post-election, watchdog finds

One hundred anti-Semitic incidents occurred in the 10 days following the presidential election, representing about 12 percent of hate incidents in the U.S. recorded by a civil rights watchdog.

The report released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center looked at 867 hate incidents that occurred in the 10 days following the election of Donald Trump. The incidents targeted various minority groups, including Jews, immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims and the LGBT community. Incidents counted had been submitted through the watchdog’s website or reported in the media.

Of the 100 incidents classified as anti-Semitic, 80 were “vandalism and graffiti incidents of swastikas, without specific references to Jews,” while others targeted Jews more overtly, such as the harassment of  individuals or vandalism of a synagogue, the report said. Many of the vandalism incidents included references to Trump, the nonprofit said.

The report referred to an attack prior to the election on a historically black church in Mississippi as “a harbinger of what has become a national outbreak of hate, as white supremacists celebrate Donald Trump’s victory.”

JTA has reported on anti-Semitic incidents following the election, including acts of vandalism featuring swastikas and Trump-related themes left in public areas as well as on the homes of Jewish individuals.

Earlier this month, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, said anti-Jewish public and political discourse in America is worse than at any point since the 1930s.

The election season saw the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement whose followers traffic variously in white nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-Semitism and a disdain for “political correctness.”

Many alt-right members, including prominent white nationalists, have been vocal in their support for Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. and likened Mexican immigrants to rapists.

The president-elect said last week that he did not want to “energize” white supremacists and denounced an alt-right conference in Washington, D.C., where speakers railed against Jews and several audience members did Hitler salutes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center report said that the 867 incidents “almost certainly represent a small fraction of the actual number of election-related hate incidents,” citing a Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that two-thirds of hate crimes are not reported to the police.

The document also noted that 23 of the incidents reported were anti-Trump, including harassment of supporters of the president-elect.

Jewish women’s group on Trump: ‘We will fight this with everything we have’

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency poses special challenges to many members of the Jewish community. How will they react to his proposed immigration raids and medical insurance cuts? What about Trump’s appointing to a top White House post Stephen Bannon, who heads the right-wing website Breitbart News, who has been accused of giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites?

Those subjects are being intensely discussed in the Jewish media and throughout the community, with many predicting the worst. Others, more optimistic, hope Trump’s campaign was just a stunt, staged to get him elected, and he’ll soon affect the solemn demeanor and sensible Republican politics expected of such a rich man. Jewish Trump supporters cite his relationship with his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his friendship with Likud Party-loving Jews such as Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson.

As I looked for Jewish reaction to the Trump victory, I came across a thoughtful, critical commentary posted on the website of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles by council board president Helen Davidov and executive director Hillary Selvin. The council, with up to 3,000 members in the Los Angeles area, has been on the cutting edge of social change since it began helping Jewish immigrant women in the early 20th century. It rescued Jewish children from Hitler, fought McCarthyism in the 1950s and today is a leading fighter for reproductive rights and for the LGBT community. In the recent election, it was part of the coalition that won voter approval for the Los Angeles bond issue to finance housing for the homeless.

The piece by Davidov and Selvin was in line with that tradition.

“This election brought up levels of emotions for all Americans that we have not seen in years,” they wrote. “We must channel these feelings and ‘rise up’ to continue our fight for the rights guaranteed in our Constitution. The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles is a leader in the fight for women, children and families. … [We] will continue to advocate the rights of all women to make our own health care decisions, and for access to the health care we need, for the sustainability of our planet, for an end to gun violence, for the protection of our individual rights, for gender and racial equality … for immigrant rights and for health care for all. We will stand up against gender-related violence and all forms of hate and intolerance. We will stand up for inclusiveness, cooperation and collaboration.”

One morning, I drove to the Council of Jewish Women/LA office on North Fairfax Avenue to talk to Selvin.  She’s been executive director of the council for 12 years and before that had worked in other Los Angeles Jewish community organizations. Older women and men were arriving for a program. Listening to them talk, I could see the facility filled a valuable place in their lives. Selvin talked to me about harnessing this energy.

“There are opportunities before us to create positive things,” she said. “When people feel frightened, threatened, they end up coming together to achieve greatness. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in this country. Our communities will get stronger. We don’t have a choice. Whether it is the Jewish community, the interfaith communities, the LGBT community, the divisiveness, the hatred this campaign brought out, we need to stop.”

I asked her about immigration, a subject with special resonance to Jews, a community of immigrants and those descended from them.

Trump’s demagogic anti-immigrant rhetoric, directed against Latinos and Muslims, helped get him elected. Now he will have power to unleash immigration officers against those suspected of being here without documentation, invading their workplaces or stopping them on the street. What should Jews do?

“We have to protest,” Selvin said. “We have to be out there vocally. We must have peaceful protests. But we have to protest. We have to say this is not OK.  We have to be out there fighting for these rights and if that means we know a raid is going to happen, we put ourselves out in front. … We have to support the laws of this country but we also have to support the people who give to this country.”

I asked her about the increasingly controversial Bannon, whose appointment as Trump’s chief White House strategist has split the Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League called the Breitbart News Network “the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” But the Zionist Organization of America has defended Breitbart as a strongly pro-Israel media outlet.

“The National Council of Jewish Women is appalled,” she said. “We will fight this with everything we have. This country will rise up against people like Bannon.”

As we wrapped up the interview, I asked Selvin if this election result presents a different kind of responsibility for the Jewish community.

“I think it wakes us all up and tells us we can’t be complacent anymore,” Selvin said. “It wakes us up to the work we need to do to help each other. It’s not just the Jewish community, but the whole community in which we live. If we see something wrong, we must stop it. If we see bigotry, if we see hate, if we see anti-Semitism, we have an obligation to stop it.”

As I left, the parking lot was filling up. From these women and men will come the activists in the National Council of Jewish Women/LA, ready for what promises to be a most challenging time.

BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Jews join in to show support

For most, the experience of growing up as the Jewish child of a transgender father is recognizable only as the plot of the television series “Transparent.” But for Jackie Malie Mason, that was her childhood.

“Before my father rose from her ashes [as an out transgender woman], my relationship with Judaism wasn’t very passionate,” she said. But watching her mother’s Jewish family accept her father “with open arms,” even when her father’s own non-Jewish family didn’t, showed her that Judaism is a faith of “love and acceptance — and horseradish on Passover.”

Mason spoke on a panel to a group of some 70 people gathered on Nov. 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, at the West Hollywood headquarters of JQ International.

Love and acceptance were the day’s watchwords at JQ’s Trans Equality Brunch, the largest gathering ever focused on transgender issues for the organization, an alliance of the Jewish and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Guests were given nametags and asked to write their names and preferred gender pronouns, and then gathered on a small, open-air patio at JQ’s office on Santa Monica Boulevard for a brunch of lox and bagels. Inside, the men and women’s restrooms were papered with signs reading “whichever.”

“What an amazing moment this is in our history — and herstory, and theirstory,” Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, the director of JQ’s call-in helpline, said as she introduced the panel that followed the brunch.

During the panel, Mason, along with two transgender women and one transgender man, took questions from moderator Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, a social worker who works in the transgender community.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is a nationally recognized event calling for empowerment of transgender individuals and their allies as well as reflection on lives lost to suicide and assault, both endemic in that community. 

The transgender panelists were invited to share their experiences with the crowd, many of whom came from sponsoring congregations Temple Beth Am, Temple Kol Tikvah, Beth Chayim Chadashim (an LGBT congregation), and the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

“How many of you have tried to keep an inflatable beach ball underwater?” said Mike/Michelle Dennis. “It’s really hard, right? Well that’s what I did for 50 years.”

Dennis, who is 74, said she uses both names to foster questions that lead to understanding.

Jake Hofheimer is a more recent initiate to the transgender family. The 17-year-old is a senior at the New Roads School in Santa Monica and a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. He said at the event that both communities have proved very supportive of his transition.

But support from the Jewish community has not been monolithic. On a trip he went on with the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement, a teen from Oklahoma began making demeaning comments toward transgender people, calling them disgusting and mentally ill. When Hofheimer said that he was transgender, the teen was surprised.

“He said, ‘Oh, I kind of thought you were a normal dude,’ ” Hofheimer recalled. “‘I was like, ‘Well, what is normal?’ ”

After the panel, many participants headed around the corner to a vigil at the West Hollywood Library. Despite televisions that flanked the stage showing flickering candles, the atmosphere was festive: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” played over the sound system as a couple danced in the back, and behind the stage members of a mariachi band tuned their instruments. 

Rain fell steadily; in the covered plaza of the library, though, spirits were high. Hosted by West Hollywood’s Transgender Advisory Board, a first-of-its-kind government panel, the event drew some 300 attendees, who sat in folding chairs and cheered raucously for statements of solidarity and calls for transgender empowerment.

But when the day’s speakers addressed the crowd, their message was somber, recalling the memory of the transgender individuals who died this past year. 

Taking the stage, Hofheimer told the crowd how he was continuously humiliated at his all-girls middle school, even facing physical harassment for being a “tomboy.”

Many speakers referenced the presidential election earlier this month as cause for concern. Mention of Vice President-elect Mike Pence drew loud boos.

“Especially now — what’s happening in national politics — it’s more important than ever to come together, because we really are stronger together,” West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister told the Journal as she prepared to go onstage.

Meister said she’s motivated by her personal identity as a Jewish woman to ally herself with the transgender community.

“Knowing our history, we have to stand with minorities who are trying to get to equality,” she said.

The Pledge

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 ( 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 (, 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 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.

The challenge of our time

In the wake of last summer’s horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, I wrote to the Shalhevet community about our responsibility to take active steps to create safer spaces for the LGBT community. Well, the moment has arrived. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. As individuals and as a community, we must tackle this issue head-on.

Haven’t we come far enough? Between tolerance and acceptance

I have heard many people assert that we already have turned the tide on this issue insofar as the observant community demonstrates more tolerance and less explicit homophobia than ever before. Although I agree, I fear that we may be slipping into a state of complacency on this issue. To put it plainly, “being nice” cannot serve as the end-goal. Basic kindness is but the starting point of human decency.

I certainly do not want to belittle the importance of our community’s increased sense of tolerance. But what’s next? Of course, halachic Jews will always be limited in the degree to which they accept homosexuality as normative. But we must find a place that goes beyond mere tolerance even as it may stop short of full-fledged acceptance. Our commitment to Torah and mitzvot not only allows, but requires, that effort. 

The challenge to emunah 

This may surprise many adults, but the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today. More young people are “coming out” than ever before, and that repeatedly puts a face to this theological challenge.

These weighty issues do not live in the abstract; they powerfully and emotionally impact genuine individuals living in our Orthodox community, with families and friends. What may seem like an interesting sociological debate in truth is creating crushing pain, anxiety and general turmoil for people about whom we care deeply.

[RELATED: The Pledge]

As they go off to college, students invariably face the painful moral dilemma created by the seemingly intractable conflict: believing in the primacy and validity of the Torah on the one hand, and following their hearts’ sense of morality with regard to loving and accepting their gay friends — or perhaps “coming out” themselves — on the other. All too often, this earnest challenge results in our children quietly losing faith in the Torah as a moral way of life.

In my experience, many, if not most, 20- to 40-year-olds in the modern Orthodox world struggle with the issue of homosexuality and the divinity of the Torah. They believe in a kind and just God and they want to believe in the divinity of the Torah. But at the same time, they feel fairly certain that being gay is not a matter of choice. In the apparent conflict of these ideas, the first two premises seem to be losing ground. Students today do not find solace in the argument that the issue mirrors other questions of theodicy — children born with severe disabilities, tsunamis or other natural disasters, or the proliferation of cancer, for example. This generation by-and-large views this particular challenge to faith as irreconcilable.

Steering away from the issue might feel safe, but that avoidance is detrimental and dangerous. Rather than avoid, we must actively and thoughtfully engage. Even just taking those initial steps, I believe, will alleviate the burden of this theological struggle, and will help prevent those tempted to throw in the theological towel to circumvent the tension altogether. In other words, I believe that putting this issue front and center will, in the long run, bring our young people closer to Torah and halachah — not further away. 

I’m just an educator

I imagine that many of you also struggle with the question of why God would seemingly create (or allow for a situation in which there exist) people who are gay but then forbid them from acting on it. But that is up to G-d and I think we should stop discussing the “why” of it and leave that to God. The more we try to understand this, the more harm we do. Simply stated, my shoulders are not broad enough to reconcile the totality of this issue.I will leave the discussion of this massive theological question to the Gedolim of our generation. But I beg the Yeshiva University Roshei Yeshiva and the Gedolim of our community to take up the discussion now. Please do not wait for other groups to address this issue and then lambast them. Our Gedolim rightly claim the mantle of Torah leadership for our community but they must assert themselves. They must fill the vacuum that exists right now. If not, the difficult and vital issue will be addressed by those to their right and left.

I also will leave the specifics about what side of the mechitzah someone occupies and the structure of shul membership to the poskim and rabbis of shuls. But again, I beg our community leaders to address the matter in a timely and forthright manner. If the specific conflict has not yet arrived in your community (which I believe it certainly has), it will be there shortly.

Finally, I will leave discussion about nature and nurture to psychologists and sociologists. Although I have read many articles on the topic, and feel strongly that there exists a genetic component to this issue, I know that others disagree and cite social and cultural factors as a cause or at least predictor. I think that this discussion only distracts from the more significant point: Many, many gay, lesbian and transgender people today have no control over their sexual orientation.

Whatever your stance on “causation,” I believe we would have a hard time denying that many gay people do not choose to be gay. And to address another common refrain, while in the past most people have suffered silently while attempting to sublimate their inclina-tions … our teens generally view that approach as, at best, an exercise in avoidance (and, at worst, a recipe for torment and self-hatred). People today do not feel the need to sublimate those urges and desires to live meaningful and fulfilled lives. In fact, they see it as inhumane and offensive to suggest such self-denial or self-abnegation. But again, this is for the Gedolim and Poskim and mental health professionals to discuss. 

The children are suffering — an educator’s view

The Shalhevet High School student body, like every other Orthodox school, includes gay students, and we have worked hard to create a loving and supportive environment for them. Still, we must do more. Young people in the LGBT community have told me that they feel invisible when we counsel them in private; they feel somewhat loved, but only unofficially, “tolerated,” but not embraced. This state of limbo cannot persist. We will lose our children — emotionally, religiously, and even physically — if we continue, even with the best of intentions, to make them feel ostracized and invisible. If we persist in these mistakes, we will only water down the ideal that each and every one of us is created “b’tselem Elokim” (in God’s image). 

So what can we do? Talking some tachlis

So what concrete steps might we take? Here are some initial thoughts:

Allow, or even sponsor, a support group for our LGBT students.

Find ways to celebrate those individuals choosing to live an Orthodox life while struggling with their sexuality. These brave students are responding to this powerful test of their emunah. Let us not relegate them to second-class status.

Encourage — and indeed expect — that our straight students support their gay peers in our school. Gay students deserve the same friendship and solidarity as anyone else, especially as Jews trying under the most challenging of circumstances to navigate the Torah and observe its commandments.

Implement anti-discrimination human resources policies and create a safe working environment for all employees.

Modify our educational plans and curricula to focus on discrimination against LGBT communities.

Provide our teachers with professional development in this area through organizations such as Eshel.

Find a way to assure our LGBT students that they belong and have a place at school and in our community. We’ve already set this process in motion at Shalhevet.

Ultimately, we will not succeed in satisfying the full range of expectations of every LGBT advocate. Even as we move the ball forward, some will claim that we’ve still fallen short. We can push and tinker around the edges, but as an Orthodox community, we cannot simply change Orthodoxy. Our attempts in the margins will invariably paint us “not Orthodox enough” on the one hand and “not pro-gay enough” on the other. As so often is the case, we find ourselves stuck in the middle. But we cannot allow that purgatory-like status to stop us from making the changes that we feel are appropriate. 

Why now?

Read the news. People are being shot and killed because they are gay. As Jews, we have always stood up against hate. People — our children — are in pain. They feel invisible. They are crying themselves to sleep after someone uses the word “homo.” Many of them hurt themselves when someone calls them a slur on social media. Jews have always stood up to protect the weak. We know better than anyone what it is to be hated and persecuted for something that is essentially beyond one’s control. We have a moral imperative to stand up and do what we can on this issue.

To those who want change — a challenge

For those who want faster pace for acceptance on this issue, here is another challenge. We dilute the efficacy of the argument when we choose to circumvent or dispose of the halachic process. When we do so, we diminish our credibility and enable naysayers to sidestep our arguments. When we fail to daven three times day or learn Torah regularly, when we aren’t makpid about kashrut, how can we expect to engage in this halachic discussion? To paraphrase the great Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the credibility of this message can emanate only from a halachichally committed messenger.

For those who disagree with me and believe we should tell our young people, however painful, to sublimate their homosexual feelings and live a life of celibacy, I ask you the following question: What would you say if your child came out to you? Would you tell him or her to sublimate those feelings? Would you suggest he or she live a celibate and lonely life?

Rabbi Ari Segal is head of school at Shalhevet High School. This op-ed first appeared in The Boiling Point, the school’s student news source, at, and is reprinted with its permission.

Workshop aims to change Orthodox LGBTQ conversation

If you type “Orthodox Judaism” into the Google search engine, the first suggestion that comes up is “Orthodox Judaism food” (nothing like Mom’s matzo ball soup!), the second is “Orthodox Judaism rules” (we certainly have a lot of them) and the third is “Orthodox Judaism homosexuality.”

What is the place within the Orthodox community for people who identify as LGBTQ? If Google doesn’t clarify the issue, Jewish law, or halachah, provides more questions than answers, as well. The topic was uncomfortably brushed aside by rabbinic authorities until the gay rights movement gained traction across the United States. Now, the Modern Orthodox community is beginning to openly discuss how to reckon with its LGBTQ members. Indeed, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, in an op-ed on his school’s student news website, called the issue “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” 

In Los Angeles, following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Eshel, a national support and advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews that offers programming in Los Angeles, convened a group of Orthodox community members in the Pico-Robertson living room of Harry and Dorit Nelson to address the changing landscape, and an official LGBTQ Allies steering committee emerged from a subsequent meeting. The committee then teamed up with JQ International, a non-denominational, West Hollywood-based organization, to organize an Allies workshop event that took place on Sept. 18 at the law offices of Nelson Hardiman.

Some 45 people participated in the program, including mental health professionals, Jewish educators and members from multiple Los Angeles congregations, as well as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Steering committee member Julie Gruenbaum Fax (a former staff writer for the Journal) said she was pleased but not surprised by the turnout. 

“What was so clear to me from putting this event together is that people are thinking about this,” she said. “We tapped into something that already existed.” 

Even as LGBTQ rights have expanded within the secular community, the Orthodox community has relied on biblical and rabbinic ordinances that appeared to leave little room for interpretation within the framework of traditional halachah. As a result, many Orthodox LGBTQ Jews have felt there is no place for them within their communities.

For Fax, this was a major motivating factor for getting involved. “It hurts me that the community that I love, the Orthodox community, would be causing such despair,” she said.

At the workshop, Greenberg painted the broad strokes of the halachich issues plaguing Modern Orthodox poschim (legal scholars), then shifted the conversation in another direction.

“OK, that’s the halachah,” he acknowledged, recounting a conversation with a fellow rabbi. “But have you heard the stories?”

Greenberg offered his own story about coming out publicly in 1999 after struggling with his conflicting identities for 15 years. Other personal stories cropped up over the course of the workshop. One man told of his sister coming out to their parents an hour before Shabbat, and how their Charedi brother refused to accept her until his own son came out many years later. Joseph Harounian, a gay Persian Jew from West Hollywood, said how difficult it was for him to come out to his community 17 years ago and spoke of his hopes that his visibility will make it easier for the youth of today.

Micha Thau, an out senior at Shalhevet and an intern at Eshel, said he hopes more LGBTQ Orthodox people will begin to open up about their experiences. “Everyone has a different story,” he said. “My story is different than everyone else’s, and everyone has their own points of tension. My story doesn’t connect to everybody, but someone else’s story may.”

After Greenberg’s presentation, the group divided up to role-play three potentially difficult scenarios: engaging rabbis and other community leaders over coffee, talking with kids during a car ride home from school and navigating a dinner conversation that turns homophobic. The goal was to learn to assert oneself as an ally, to open lines of communication and promote a culture that is welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. 

In addition to promoting personal stories, the steering committee also emphasized the importance of initiating change at the grass-roots level as a means of spurring rabbinic authorities into action. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea recently hosted a panel at the synagogue titled “Coming Out and Opening Up,” but his work in this area has been at the forefront among Orthodox religious leaders.

“We all know that a grass-roots, lay-led movement is much more effective than waiting for the rabbis to change their perspective,” said Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, a Conservative rabbi and JQ International’s helpline director. “And I say this as a rabbi,” she said, smiling.

Eshel founder and co-director Miryam Kabakov singled out parents of LGBTQ youth as “catalysts for change.” While alienated kids coming out often seek out more accepting communities, their parents often will want to remain in their own communities, and this can stimulate change from within.

“The kids go away and don’t come back, and the parents are deeply disturbed by that,” Kabakov explained. “So they’re the ones who are pushing the rabbis.”

According to Kabakov, seeds have already been planted for future action. Eshel, which is in the midst of a multi-year cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Commmunity Foundation, Los Angeles, has held one-on-one meetings with many Orthodox rabbis around the Los Angeles community and led training sessions with educators at Shalhevet, a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school, and Pressman Academy, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth-grade day school that employs several Orthodox teachers. Also, a committee was recently formed to organize social gatherings for LGBTQ members in the Pico-Robertson area. 

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Shalhevet head urges Orthodox community to take on LGBT acceptance

Something’s eating Rabbi Ari Segal.

That’s why the head of school at Shalhevet High School, an Orthodox Jewish day school on Fairfax Avenue, penned a nearly 2,000-word editorial for the school’s student newspaper, The Boiling Point, on LGBT acceptance within the Orthodox community.

“The moment has arrived,” he wrote in the Sept. 14 op-ed. “We can no longer sit on the sidelines. As individuals and as a community, we must tackle this issue head-on.”

Titled, “The biggest challenge to ‘emunah’ [faith] of our time,” the editorial calls on Orthodox scholars to reconcile the Torah’s prohibition on homosexual activity with the lived experience of young gay Jews.

“The reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today,” Segal wrote.

In particular, he called on leaders at Yeshiva University (YU), where he received his ordination, to tackle the issue head on.

“I beg the YU roshei yeshiva [heads of school] and the gedolim [luminaries] of our community to take up the discussion now,” he wrote.

In an interview with the student newspaper, Segal urged readers to “stay tuned” for changes at Shalhevet aiming to boost tolerance and acceptance of LGBT students.

Responding to a request from the Journal to explain his reasoning behind the editorial, Segal responded via email from Israel:

Over the last few years, I have worked to create a loving, supportive, and safe environment for LGBT students in our school. More recently, however, I’ve realized we have not done enough to clearly demonstrate our full acceptance of these young men and women in our community. They’re still scared, and in pain.  And it’s not just gay students themselves, but so many young adults in our community who have lost faith in the divinity of the Torah on account of this particular issue. 

And while halakha is explicit in regards to homosexual activity, I felt I could not sit on the sidelines as we lose so many of our young people — physically and spiritually.  I started searching for that space between tolerance (the current status quo of “hate the sin, not the sinner”) and full-fledged acceptance/celebration. I felt the first step in achieving that is having this conversation, finding the words and the wherewithal to express the challenge, to release ourselves from the theological paralysis that we may feel around the issue. 

In short, what motivated me to write this piece is my deep love of these students and my deep belief in the divinity of the Torah. 

 Read the full editorial here.

At Jerusalem Pride March, Orthodox welcome

It had been a rough week or so for Israel’s LGBT community.

The mayor of Jerusalem opted not to attend the capital’s pride march so as not to offend haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist residents.

His decision came on the heels of 300 leading religious Zionist rabbis backed a prominent colleague, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who called LGBT people “deviant.”

Beersheba police banned a planned pride march from the southern city’s main street over security concerns, after the city’s chief rabbi criticized the event.

And the jailed haredi Orthodox man who murdered 16-year-old Shira Banki during a stabbing rampage at last year’s pride march in Jerusalem and his brother were charged with planning another attack this year.

Still, the vibe at the Jerusalem Pride March Thursday, attended by an estimated record-breaking 25,000 people, was cautiously optimistic. There was widespread agreement among participants that, despite setbacks, Israel is getting more LGBT-friendly.

Yuval Regev, a 22-year old who works in digital media in Tel Aviv, posed for photographs with friends in a homemade mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face.

“We want Bibi to be here with us, and he’s not. So we brought him over,” he explained, as he waited to be screened by police before the march.

“But from right to left on the political spectrum, it’s positive that we’re hearing support,” he said. “It’s better to be gay in Israel in 2016 than it was in 2006. And it’s still getting better. It would just be false to say that because we’re going down the nationalistic path, we’re going down the homophobic path.”

Regev cited the election of Amir Ohana, the first openly gay Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party, as evidence of the emerging pro-LGBT consensus in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu was among the ministers who condemned anti-LGBT remarks by Rabbi Levinstein. The prime minister posted a Hebrew-language video to Facebook Thursday calling the Jerusalem event a “march of unity” for all those who believe in equality. After facing criticism, Barkat on Wednesday defended his decision to skip the march, telling Channel 2: “I am a partner to the aim of achieving more tolerance, but not every means brings you to that target.”

Like Regev, Tom Canning, the associate director of the Jerusalem Open House — the LGBT group behind the Jerusalem Pride March — saw marked progress in Israel, along with room for improvement.

“I’m happy that at least at the highest levels of government, they’re not letting what’s happening go quietly, and Nir Barkat has been widely condemned. He’s one of the fewer leaders in Israel who doesn’t support Jerusalem Pride,” he said.

“It’s clear that most of the homophobia is within Orthodox communities. But ultra-Orthodox communities have never been our enemy and we will be continuing to work in our ways, quietly and behind the scenes, to create tolerance wherever homophobia remains.”

Noa Eshel, a 24-year-old student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was marching with a group of dozens of LGBT activists from Beersheba. Organizers there called off the Beersheba march in favor of a protest at the city council after the High Court of Justice allowed police to reroute it. A former student in a mixed religious-secular preparatory course for the Israel Defense Forces, she said she and her friends agreed on the need for more dialogue, and less condemnation.

“I know a lot of rabbis who are going to be here,” she said.

Emanuel Miller, a 29-year-old British Orthodox Jew who works at an NGO in Jerusalem and prays three time a day, stood in the middle of the march wearing signs on his front and back.

The front sign read: “Hatred is my enemy. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.” The back sign: “Love and let love. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.”

“I think it’s essential when people are scared and feel vilified, for the people who are vilifying them to come out and show them that yes, we recognize that you’re human beings,” he said. “Religion can be used as a tool for good or bad. … There are rabbis who have come out and said wonderful things.”

While most of the march was relatively subdued, lacking the hundreds of thousands of revelers, floats and half-naked men Tel Aviv Pride is famous for, a rowdy wedding party made its way down the street, with the grooms, Jerusalemites Yochai Werman and Yotam Hacohen, dancing under a mobile huppah.

Gabi Gabai, 45, an Orthodox educator from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, stopped at a memorial to Banki along the march’s route. He was with his wife and six children.

“This is my first time [at a pride event], just because of the murder and because of all the bad voices. I wanted to tell my kids that you can think differently,” he said. “There are a lot of people here with a kippah, without a kippah. I don’t think this is a big issue now. This is a matter for all the country. It’s not just for the gay community.”

Despite the positivity among marchers, the 2,000 police deployed along the fenced-off route were a reminder that not everyone in the city felt the same way. Police arrested 48 people suspected of trying to disrupt the march.

Banki’s parents had urged the public to attend the march this year, and her father addressed marchers at the end of the route Thursday evening, saying: “The lesson we have to learn from Shira’s murder is that moderation is a virtue for all of us, and that radicalization of any kind is a sure path to destruction.”

Liron Shimonie, a 31-year-old stylist with two gay sisters, said she and many of her friends were at the march to honor Shira Banki.

“I came just because of Shira. It was very important to me. I saw it on TV. I felt the injustice, and I wanted to do something,” she said. “There’s not a lot I do. But I’m doing this.”

IDF reevaluating relationship with rabbi who called homosexuals ‘perverts’

The Israeli army reportedly said it will reevaluate its collaboration with the head of a pre-military yeshiva in the West Bank following controversial comments he made, including calling homosexuals “perverts.”

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who runs the Bnei David academy in the Eli settlement, has been the subject of public condemnation since a video speech surfaced on Sunday with the perverts comment. He also claimed the Israeli army is promoting a socially liberal agenda and said the Reform movement isn’t Jewish and in fact is an offshoot of Christianity.

According to the Israel Defense Forces’ announcement Tuesday, the reevaluation will include Levinstein visiting military bases and lecturing students, Ynet reported. The IDF said it will make a decision after Levinstein provides a clarification on his comments, according to Ynet.

However, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagi Topolanski, canceled a visit to the academy on Tuesday in the wake of Levinstein’s controversial remarks.

The Ministry of Defense has called on Bnei David for clarification as well, Ynet reported. The yeshiva receives half of its funding from the ministry, according to Ynet.

A video of Levinstein’s speech at a conference that reportedly gathered 700 rabbis and educators from the National Religious sector appeared on the haredi Orthodox Hebrew-language website Kipa.

“There’s an insane movement here whose members have lost the normalcy of life,” he said. “This group makes the country mad and has now penetrated the IDF in full force – and no one dares open their mouth and speak out against it.

“At Bahad 1, there are lectures by perverts,” he said, referring to the main training base for Israeli army officers, with perverts meaning homosexuals.

Levinstein also said: “Under the framework of pluralism, soldiers and officers are taught to refer to [LGBT people] as ‘proud,’ but I don’t dare call them that… ‘perverts’ is what I call them.”

Lady Gaga joins mourners at L.A. City Hall to vent anger, grieve

Singer-songwriter Lady Gaga was visibly and audibly shaken as she took the microphone in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 13 to speak words of consolation and anger to a heartbroken crowd of more than 2,000 mourners.

Moments before, Lorri Jean, the CEO of the L.A. LGBT Center, asked the crowd to hold the flashlights on their phone aloft in place of candles, which were disallowed by the Fire Department. A galaxy of glowing lights greeted the superstar’s surprise appearance.

Before Lady Gaga came on stage, Jean sounded a note of blame and shame towards religious and political leaders who incite hatred against homosexuals.

“These leaders have blood on their hands,” she said. “They might not have pulled the trigger, but they certainly loaded the gun.”

Makeshift signs aloft during the vigil for victims the Orlando nightclub massacre vented anger at Donald Trump, gun violence, homophobia and Islamophobia. One cardboard-and-marker poster summed up the mood of the crowd: “Enough is enough.”

But anger gave way to mourning as Rabbi Denise Eger of Kol Ami Congregation in West Hollywood urged the crowd to take time for their grief.

“There will be a time for action,” she said. “There will be a time for voting. There will be a time for rising up. But tonight, we must mourn our loss.”

Lady Gaga’s brief remarks were followed by a reading of the names of the victims. She was joined in the reading by a procession of L.A. community and political leaders, including City Controller Ron Galperin, the first openly gay elected official in the city.

Afterwards, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles led the crowd in song.

“We are a gentle, angry people,” they intoned. “Singing, singing for our lives.”

Israeli security experts weigh-in after Orlando massacre

Omar Mateen had left a long and worrisome trail much before he stunned the world with the mass murder of 49 men and women at an Orlando nightclub.

For the past nine years, the 29-year-old New York-born resident of Ft. Pierce, Fla., worked as a security officer for the G4S company in the town of Jupiter, during which time, it appears, he managed to spook many of his co-workers, numerous acquaintances and his Internet bride.  

“When I saw his picture on the news, I thought, ‘Of course, he did that,’” said Eric Baumer, a G4S co-worker told Newsday. “He had bad things to say about everybody — blacks, Jews, gays, a lot of politicians, our soldiers. He had a lot of hate in him. He told me America destroyed Afghanistan.”

“He did talk about killing people — gay people — people he thought were bad,” Baumer added. “I didn’t know he meant it. How could you know?”

Another co-worker, Daniel Gilroy, told the New York Times that when he heard about the shooting attack “I wasn’t shocked. I saw it coming.”

Mateen, he said, “talked about killing people all the time.”

Expressing regret that no action had been taken against Mateen, Gilroy, a former police officer who claims to have repeatedly alerted G4S to Mateen’s profane utterances and frequent racial, ethnic and sexual slurs, said “he was just agitated about everything, always shaken, always agitated, always mad.” 

“I kind of feel a little guilty that I didn’t fight harder,” Gilroy said. “If I didn’t walk away and I fought, then maybe 50 people would still be alive today.”

A former neighbor, Oana Braescu, 32, of Ft. Pierce, recalled hearing Mateen screaming at his former wife, Sitora Yusufiy.  

“He’d scream and scream, and one time … I could hear her asking him to stop hitting her,” she recalled, adding that she had seen Yusufiy run out of the house in tears more than once. 

Speaking from her new home in Boulder, Colorado, Yusufiy told CNN that she was “devastated, shocked. I started shaking and crying. More than anything I was so deeply heartbroken for the people that lost loved ones.”

She described her onetime husband of about a year as initially “normal,” then, gradually, becoming physically abusive. 

Two years ago, alerted by Mateen’s colleagues, the FBI investigated him for potential links to Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, the first American-born terrorist to carry out a suicide bomb attack in Syria.

Experts and lay people alike are now focusing on the question of how it was all missed. 

Israeli security experts who have amassed more direct experience than most of their colleagues with “lone wolf” Islamist attacks had words of identification and words of caution for their counterparts in the West. 

Sounding grim, Ram Ben-Barak, the former deputy chief of Israel’s famed Mossad intelligence agency, told The Media Line, “This is a war. It is an attack upon the West and the United States just like at the time of 9/11.” 

“To fight a war, you need intelligence,” he continued.” To neutralize terror you need intelligence. You need to identify the target population and act; and the laws about what it is permissible to collect and what is not will need to be changed.”

In numerous surveys, Israelis have displayed a much greater willingness than Americans to relinquish certain rights of privacy in exchange for a vigorous security régime, a fact reflected in Ben-Barak’s comments, which he mitigated by adding “of course, you need regulation in place so that this is not abused, but the targets need to be uncovered and stopped before they manage to perpetrate their attacks.” 

“They will have to start to develop networks, quickly,” he said of his American peers. “The problem today is not in collecting intelligence, but in processing it and separating the wheat from the chaff. And even then,” he sighed, “it’s not 100% sure. These are very complicated events.” 

The complication in the definition of the crime came quickly, as Los Angeles police announced the arrest of a suspect identified as James Howell, who was arrested hours after the Orlando massacre while on his way to the LA Gay Pride Parade carrying in his car an arsenal of assault rifles, explosives and Tannerite, a substance used to make pipe bombs, along with loaded gun magazines taped together and a security badge. 

Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times correspondent covering militant Islamist movements, tweeted extensively about Mateen’s adherence to instructions transmitted in recent months by Islamic State outlets encouraging “lone wolf” attacks, and stated that as a result, “I feel somewhat uncomfortable calling the Orlando shooter a ‘lone wolf’, but am continuing to do so because I don't know of a better term.”

“Several elements of the Orlando siege… recall operational tactics used in recent months by top ISIS cadres,” she posted.

Michael S. Smith, a terror expert from the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, posted in reaction that in fact there has only been a single true Lone Wolf in the history of American terror: “the Unabomber. Had 0 contacts.” 

In a bizarre moment in the day’s proceedings, Seddique Mir Mateen, Omar’s father, posted a Facebook video announcing the death of his son to some 8,000 followers.

“My son, Omar Mateen, was a very good boy, an educated boy, who had a child and a wife, very respectful of his parents,” the immigrant from Afghanistan said speaking directly to the camera.

Mateen Jr. was, in fact, divorced and has no known children. 

“I don’t know what caused this,” the father said. “I did not know and did not understand that he has anger in his heart.”

“Only God can punish homosexuality,” he continued, referring to the attack at Pulse, the popular Orlando gay nightclub. “This is not an issue for humans to punish.” 

A senior Israeli security expert who had operational responsibilities for ensuring the security of the last Olympic Games and World Cup, told The Media Line that “a case like this is an almost impossible task.” 

Mentioning the recent attack on a Tel Aviv café, the expert, who requested anonymity on account of the discretion required by his work, said “it is very difficult to prepare against the so-called ‘lone wolves.’ Until the leaders of ISIS are eliminated, it will in my estimation be impossible to keep up with all the individuals — with these lone terrorists it is very, very difficult.” 

Ben-Barak, the former deputy head of the Mossad, also emphasized the difficulty of acting against such threats, and declined to criticize the security arrangements at the nightclub. “In every case,” he said, “the building itself is the very last line of defense. Think of a football game—it doesn’t much matter if an attacker hits the cash registers at the entrance or commits his crime on the pitch. You get to the same result. The building itself is important, but it is the last ring of security.” 

Why transgender inclusion is a Jewish imperative

Just when the LGBT community thinks it has taken another step toward full equality and inclusion, along come the Dennis Pragers of the world to remind us how far we still have to go.

In his most recent opinion pieces in the Journal (“The Torah and the Transgendered,” Dec. 4, and “The Hate Is All in One Direction,” Dec. 11), Mr. Prager portrays transgender people and trans inclusion as incompatible with the teachings of Torah, and calls into question the very Jewishness of those of us who reject his narrow and bigoted view in favor of basic human dignity.

Most deplorably, he attacks — yes, Mr. Prager, attacks — Keshet board member Rabbi Becky Silverstein for having the audacity to identify and present as male while retaining a conventionally female name. 

Mr. Prager’s message is not only wrong — it is wrongheaded.

Wrong, because it demands that the Torah remain frozen in time, incapable of inspiring new generations of Jews seeking answers to contemporary challenges. Wrongheaded, because it appeals to the worst instincts of human nature.

Our Torah is a living, breathing document, whose words and teachings can be understood and interpreted anew to reflect humankind’s limitless ability to evolve, change and grow. Its beauty and wonder lie in its capacity to provoke and guide our community as much today as it did 5,000 years ago.

We claim a Torah that embraces complexity, mystery and inclusivity. Mr. Prager offers a Torah that is simplistic, static and divisive, one that not so successfully masks his contempt and fear of “the other.”

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that human gender is infinitely more diverse than the gender binary. Talmudic discourse over the generations identifies various categories of people who, according to their descriptions in the text, would today fall under the broad umbrella of “transgender.” These include the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the androgynos (a person with male and female sex organs), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).

To be sure, you won’t find a transgender liberation manifesto in the Talmud. But you will find thoughtful discussion of real people whom the rabbis clearly encountered in their lives, and an attempt to discern their roles in society. 

Like Mr. Prager, the rabbis concerned themselves with distinctions and differentiation. Unlike Mr. Prager, they well understood and acknowledged the magnificent diversity of human gender.

Mr. Prager’s decision to single out and scorn a specific rabbinic leader and Jewish institution is evidence that his voice does not belong in our discourse or any self-respecting Jewish publication. His words foment fear and hate, and serve to bully and intimidate. 

Our community must resolve to place understanding and inclusion at the forefront of our thinking and our actions. Mr. Prager’s recent comments notwithstanding, the news on that front is encouraging. 

In addition to the historic victory in the Supreme Court for marriage equality earlier this year, last month the Union for Reform Judaism publicly affirmed its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.

We challenge the Jewish community to build upon this momentum and use Mr. Prager’s words to spur us further, faster. It would be a terrible loss if even one Jewish organization thought twice about embracing or hiring a transgender individual for fear of being attacked in the Jewish media. Or worse yet, if even one transgender Jew decided to leave the Jewish community for fear of rejection.

We urge Jewish leaders of all denominations and movements to join with unflinching courage the fight for full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. 

Know that all of us at Keshet — and countless others — will always stand with you.

Idit Klein is executive director of Keshet, a national grass-roots organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman is director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, and a Keshet educator. B. Andrew Zelermyer is chair of the Keshet board of directors.

White House hires first openly transgender staff member

The White House has hired its first openly transgender staff member, officials said on Tuesday, marking the latest step in President Barack Obama's public support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a transgender woman who has worked as a policy adviser for the National Center for Transgender Equality, will serve as outreach and recruitment director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.

Obama, who is currently on vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, initially opposed gay marriage but came out in favor of it in 2012 and has made LGBT rights a priority of his time in office, helping to end the “don't ask, don't tell” policy that prevented openly gay service men and women from serving in the military.

The transgender community has received less attention from his administration. The Department of Defense is in the middle of a review of the policy that effectively prohibits transgender men and women from serving in the military, and the White House has said it welcomes that move.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president who has been active on LGBT issues, said the new hire was a reflection of the administration's priorities.

“Raffi Freedman-Gurspan demonstrates the kind of leadership this administration champions,” Jarrett said in a statement.

“Her commitment to bettering the lives of transgender Americans, particularly transgender people of color and those in poverty, reflects the values of this administration.”

The NCTE, where Freedman-Gurspan has worked as an adviser on racial and economic justice, welcomed the appointment.

“President Obama has long said he wants his administration to look like the American people. I have understood this to include transgender Americans,” said NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling in a statement.

“A transgender person was inevitably going to work in the White House,” she added. “That the first transgender appointee is a transgender woman of color is itself significant.”

Pride Parade slaying sparks calls for change to LGBT protections

The slaying of a 16-year-old girl at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade has sparked calls for LGBT-rights legislation — as well as pushback from those who oppose it.

Shira Banki died Aug. 2 after being stabbed while marching in the July 30 parade. Five others were wounded in the attack.

“It never crossed our mind that Shira would be murdered as a symbol,” her parents said in a eulogy on Aug. 3, according to a copy of the text on the Israeli news site Ynet. “An unnecessary death of a young girl, innocent and full of good intentions and deeds. A death that gives us and hundreds of other people sorrow and pain as deep as the sea, without end or benefit.”

The suspected assailant, Yishai Schlissel, a Charedi Orthodox man from Modiin Ilit in the West Bank, had been sent to prison for committing a similar stabbing at the same parade in 2005. Schlissel was freed from prison for that crime last month. He is now in custody.

The attack also comes six years after a shooting at a gay club in Tel Aviv that killed two and wounded a dozen others.

Israel’s leaders condemned the stabbing attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to “deal with the murderer to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Shira was murdered because she courageously supported the principle according to which everyone is entitled to live their lives in dignity and safety,” he said in a statement Monday. ”

The attack prompted calls for legislation that would protect LGBT rights, as well as an end to denunciations of LGBT Israelis. Knesset member Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Union announced publicly that he is gay in a July 31 column  in the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot. Keren Neubach, an Israeli journalist, also came out of the closet in the wake of the attack.

“We can no longer remain silent because the knife is raised against the neck of the entire LGBT community, my community,” Shmuli wrote. “It will not stop there. This is the time to fight the great darkness.”

But the outcry over the stabbing also led to pushback. Education Minister Naftali Bennett was disinvited from a protest against violence on the night of Aug. 1 after he refused to sign a pledge to advance LGBT-rights legislation. Bennett defended his decision, saying he supports gay rights with limitations. After the attack, he increased the budget of an LGBT youth group, Israeli Gay Youth.

“We have specific disagreements,” Bennett said Monday morning on Israel’s Army Radio. “I’m for full rights for the gay community in terms of civil rights. In terms of formal Israeli state recognition of marriage, we’re not there. That’s the argument.”

Another member of Bennett’s Jewish Home party, Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, took a harder line against gay rights activists. Smotrich is a longtime opponent of the gay rights movement.

“The witch hunt has begun,” Smotrich tweeted the day after Bennett’s disinvitation. “Everyone who dares to oppose same-sex marriage and abomination marches is arrested by the police. Delusional. A dark day for democracy. Enough silencing!”

Many Israeli politicians have sought to draw a link between the July 30 stabbings and the torching of a Palestinian home hours later that killed an 18-month-old boy. Rallies across Israel on Saturday night decried the violence, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for stronger action to prevent future attacks.

On Monday, Rivlin spoke of Banki at a conference of Israel’s General Federation of Students and Young Workers.

“She joined the parade in the name of the values in which she believed — tolerance, equality, hope and love,” he said. “The battle against incitement and hatred does not begin and end with police protection. Silence and indifference to both real and virtual threats will only increase the danger.”

U.S. Boy Scouts committee approves allowing gay adults to serve as leaders

The Boy Scouts of America Executive Committee unanimously approved allowing gay adults to serve as leaders, a major step toward dismantling a policy that has caused deep rifts in the 105-year-old organization, officials said on Monday.

The group's National Executive Board will meet to ratify this resolution on July 27, the Boy Scouts said in a statement.

“This resolution will allow chartered organizations to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation, continuing Scouting's longstanding policy of chartered organizations selecting their leaders,” it said.

In May, Boy Scouts of American President Robert Gates told the group's national meeting that the ban needed to end, saying the status quo cannot be maintained.

The Irving, Texas-based organization lifted its ban on gay youth in 2013 but continues to prohibit the participation of openly gay adults. The selection last year of Gates as president of the Boy Scouts was seen as an opportunity to revisit the policy.

Gates, as U.S. secretary of defense, helped end the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy that barred openly gay individuals from serving in the military.

Why we are crying

I was reminiscing with a friend last night about my 21 years as rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the first and oldest LGBT synagogue in the world (founded in 1972). I arrived in 1994, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and my calendar filled immediately with death-bed conversations, funerals, shivahs and a congregation in grief.

In 2008, my calendar filled to overflowing again, this time with the extraordinary high of wedding after wedding during that all-too- brief 4 1/2-month window of legal marriage in California before Proposition 8 slammed the window shut.

My reminiscing was prompted, of course, by news of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on the morning of June 26 — flinging open the window of marriage equality in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  

My wife, Tracy Moore, an out lesbian activist since the early 1970s, wrote to her cousin that Friday:  

“It does seem that change happened fast! Consider how long it took to get Loving v. Virginia (1967) to do away with ‘anti-miscegenation’ laws. Still, many have long suffered for lack of these rights. Children forgone, deathbed farewells forbidden, inheritances appropriated, jobs lost or not striven toward thru fear of exposure, relationships undermined for lack of family support. On and on. I’m glad you helped me think of those things by sending me your congratulations on this most thrilling day.”

I think of people I have known personally:

The years she lived in fear her ex-husband would sue her for sole custody by outing her in court as “unfit.”

The father whose children were removed from his life — even visiting rights, let alone joint custody, were denied.

The one dying from AIDS, whose parents descended and locked his partner out of his house.

I remember the first time I saw pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt: “I am 21 years old. If you are reading this, I am dead.” 

The toll taken over the years on teachers who chose to deny being gay or lesbian so as not to lose their livelihood or be denied the job they loved.

I cried, too, watching President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden telling the country that the Supreme Court’s marriage decision moved us a step closer to a more perfect union, even knowing that he would leave the garden moments later to fly to Charleston, S.C., and deliver that eloquent eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine voices of faith killed by the disease of racism and violence still running rampant in our country. (Since the shooting, six historically Black churches have been victims of arson.)

And suddenly I was crying again — remembering the LGBT community’s delicate balance on Election Night in November 2008, when news of Obama’s thrilling election came side-by-side with the Prop. 8 win, which brought a screeching halt to the weddings and aufrufs our community had been so enjoying.

On June 28, BCC honored actor Jeffrey Tambor for his extraordinary work as the character Mort/Maura Pfefferman in Jill Soloway’s amazing Amazon Prime series, “Transparent,” and for his commitment to use his star turn to advocate for LGBT people, particularly transgender people who face so many hurdles in their lives, including civil rights withheld from them. 

At Friday’s rally on the Day of Decision in West Hollywood Park, where LGBT people and our allies have gathered so many times over the years, shedding tears of outrage, sorrow and joy, I was reminded that our tears have fed the roots of our resolve to resist, persist and overcome. 

 As a representative of the faith community at Friday’s rally, I reminded the crowd (though many needed no reminding):

We know marriage is not the be-all and end-all of civil rights. We know that marriage is not for everyone, nor is it bliss for all who enter it.  

We know that there are many battles still to fight, for transgender rights, health care rights — including mental health, rights to living wages, to shelter, to food, to legal immigration, to gun control, to an end to global warming, and an end to bullying and discrimination and prejudice and injustice in all their many forms.

As a religious community, we celebrate today how far we have come. But we don’t rest yet — we know there is a long road ahead until the day we can say that all people, all genders, all colors, all configurations of families, may truly rest secure knowing that the law is there to protect us all so that all human hearts may open wide and let love in. Let Love Win. 

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (

LGBT Persian Jews live in changing times

Although attitudes are becoming increasingly accepting toward homosexuality in the Jewish community, prejudices remain in the typically more conservative Persian community. To help bridge the gap, JQ International — a nonprofit, Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to supporting LGBT Jews — held a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

The March 19 event, held at Spice Affair Indian restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, drew more than 100 people, including Jews and Muslims, for dancing, drinking and shmoozing from 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Attendees enjoyed Persian snack food, Indian entrees and cocktails and filled the dance floor as a DJ played upbeat Persian sounds. 

As the evening went on, the energy of the room went up a notch. Couples and groups boogied on the floor, showing off traditional Persian moves — arms extended outward and rotating in circular motions, knees bent — and even the older members of the mostly male crowd were showing signs of life. 

Among those celebrating Nowruz, whose official observance was March 21, was a 74-year-old man named Jansheed, who declined to provide his last name and who came from Newport Beach for the event.

“I was always out — I was never in,” he told the Journal when asked when he came out of the closet.

Born Muslim, the man described himself as nonreligious. He attributed the growing acceptance of LGBT people to education and “television, radio and newspapers that say, ‘It’s all right to be gay.’ ”  

Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, said this was the first time the organization coordinated an event specifically for the LGBT Persian community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and ROI Community helped put on the event. 

JQ International board of directors member Shervin Khorramian, who spent his 20s living in Asia and Europe, according to the JQ International website, said there was a specific goal to the gathering. 

“This event is really a chance for us to get the Persian community together, specifically, the gay Persian community,” he said. “It’s an effort to get people together and create a Persian community for the gay Persians of this city.”

Many of the attendees at the event were still in the closet, Gellis said. 

Attendee David Kianmahd indicated that this type of party could be just the beginning, as more gay Persian Jews come out of the closet and parents of LGBT Persian Jews have to change their attitudes if they are still hanging on to biases against homosexuality.

“I feel like there is this new, young generation starting to come out,” he said. “It’s kind of forcing parents to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, Khorramian, 44, who said he came out to his friends and family approximately 20 years ago, has been dedicating his life to promoting inclusion for LGBT Persian Jews ever since. He drew a parallel between his personal journey and that of the larger community. 

“It’s been a real step-by-step process, learning to accept, having them [my family] accept back — it’s been a give-and-take, and now I can say after 22 years, we’ve really crossed the Rubicon. This is it, we’ve crossed the point where we are in a position of being accepted. Fifty years from now, we are going to look back, and we will no longer have to say whether we are out or not, we just are,” he said. “We’re taking that final journey.” 

Rabbi Denise Eger seeks to open doors wider to all Jews

What does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love compassion and walk humbly with your God.

“It’s on my wall,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, pointing to the spot in her office where her favorite Bible verse is written (also transcribed on her tallit). “Prophet Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8. It’s really a reminder of what our human tasks are.”

They are tasks she will have a chance to tackle on a large scale as the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America. When she takes the helm of the 126-year-old Reform organization March 16, at age 55, she will be its third woman and first openly gay leader.

Meeting in the LGBT-friendly West Hollywood synagogue Kol Ami, of which she is the founding rabbi, Eger — a longtime activist on many fronts — said her goal as CCAR president is to make Judaism bigger, more accepting and more inviting. 

“We have to open the doors wider, and open the tent wider, and open the synagogue wider, and open the JCC wider, and open the Federations wider. So that’s my goal to help Jews become more Jewish  —  to open the doors wider,” she said.

Rabbi Steve Fox, CCAR chief executive, said he’s “extremely excited” about Eger becoming president, particularly because she’s been a strong leader and crusader for human rights.

“It’s also very meaningful for the rabbinate that we have elected our first openly LGBT president at a very historic moment in time,” he said.

In 1977, CCAR passed its first resolution calling for human rights for homosexuals, demanding the end to discrimination against members of the LGBT community. It later advocated for the ordination of openly gay rabbis and affirmed the right of a rabbi to officiate at an LGBT wedding. 

But sexual orientation isn’t all that defines Eger. Talking to her is like talking with a family friend — easy and relaxed. Every so often, in a moment of inspired enthusiasm, her face lights up and she speaks passionately, like she’s in the midst of reciting the best part of a sermon. 

In typical rabbinical fashion, Eger speaks in call-and-response, repeating the questions that are asked to her before responding. Asked which biblical character she’d like to spend time with, she throws the question right back at you before answering decidedly: Deborah.

“You know, she’s pretty cool,” Eger said. “She sat under this palm tree and people came to her for advice and counsel and, supposedly like the oracle of Delphi, she gave pronouncements. But she was also a general, so here was this really gutsy woman in a time when women did not do those kinds of things, and she had her finger on the pulse of the nation.

“And I think it’d be really cool to sit under her palm tree with her, have a little cafe au lait or a cup of tea and hear her reflect on her take on leadership … and on the role of women.”

Eger grew up in Memphis, Tenn., in a close-knit Southern Jewish community, which was smaller and less fragmented than the one she later found in Los Angeles.

“The South is a great place to be Jewish, because it’s a tight Jewish community,” she said. “Whether you’re in Atlanta or Memphis or Nashville or New Orleans, the Jewish community is very interrelated, very family.”

With the South as her backdrop, Eger was raised in the belly of human-rights activism. She remembers driving her mother to work on Beale Street, where her cousins owned a business, and sitting outside of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

“Now it’s the National Civil Rights Museum, but at the time, it was a crumbling slum mess. It had fallen into disrepair and disarray in a terrible neighborhood in town — urban blight — and I used to sit there and think, ‘How could this great man have been assassinated? What in our country could lead to such horror?’ And really that inspired me along the way to say that my Judaism was going to be a vehicle for helping others, to lift up those who felt ‘other.’ ”  

Eger knew what it felt like to be an outsider from the time she was 12.

“I knew that I was a lesbian, and it was the South and it was very formal and there was no room for that. It was a different time, you couldn’t talk about it, you had to remain hidden, so that’s where I felt out of step,” Eger explained. 

But for her, the synagogue was a place of refuge, “of great safety and continuity for me.” It was about this same time that she decided she wanted to have a Jewish profession. Originally, she thought she’d be a cantor but decided during her sophomore year in college to become a rabbi. So she transferred from Memphis State University, where she was a voice major, to USC, which had a joint program of religion and Jewish studies with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1988, she was ordained a rabbi.

For many of Kol Ami’s congregants, largely composed of local Russian and LGBT communities, this is their first time returning after many years of avoiding synagogue because of a fractured relationship with their inherited religion, whether it be for personal or political reasons.

“There’s always an ‘other,’ so I think that I’ve been taught both by parents and my rabbis and teachers what it means to help lift up the voices. And that’s one reason we’re Kol Ami, ‘voice of my people,’ ” Eger said.

People of all sorts find their way to the congregation — and Eger. Fifteen years ago, Wendy Goldman was between congregations after her rabbi retired and her mother passed away. “I wanted a place to grieve and find spiritual renewal,” she said. 

So Goldman turned to Kol Ami and, although she identifies as a straight woman, she never felt out of place in the primarily LGBT congregation. Later, when she was in the hospital, she remembers the relief she felt upon seeing Eger at her side during a trying time.

“Groggy from the anesthetic, I opened my eyes to see [Eger] sitting at my bedside, helping me to have courage to face the recovery I was facing,” she said. “She is truly a special person to me.”

Located across the street from a hyper-developed stretch of high-rises, retail chains and grocery stores, Kol Ami got its start in 1992. Back then, the neighborhood was, to put it nicely, downright sketchy — so much so that contractors chose to have the main doors for the congregation in the back, accessible via the parking lot. 

“It’s now a lovely residential neighborhood,” said Eger, who called the synagogue a “mitzvah” of urban development, explaining that, as the first new building on the block, it helped spark what followed.

Her accomplishments as a mouthpiece for human rights are extensive. Eger is a spokeswoman for the LGBT community, sitting on the boards of countless organizations, promoting AIDS awareness, equal marriage rights and basic civil rights. She was the first woman and openly gay president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, blogs regularly for the Huffington Post and has received numerous awards. (She’s also engaged to be married and the proud mother to Benjamin, who is in college.)

Much of her activism, she said, is inspired by her own childhood Memphis rabbis, who staged marches and protests during a tumultuous time in the civil rights era. 

One of those role models was Rabbi Harry Danziger of Temple Israel in Memphis, who served a term as president of CCAR a decade ago. In particular, Danziger said he remembers Eger’s confirmation, which is typically a formal ceremony. Acoustic guitar in hand, she opted to sing Joni Mitchell’s folk ballad “The Circle Game.”

“I take enormous pride in her becoming president, but more, I take pride in the rabbi and human being she has become,” Danziger said. “It is an honor to have been her rabbi and to be her predecessor as president of the CCAR, which is such a force for Jewish continuity and tikkun olam.” 

For all her metaphorical talk about opening doors wider in the Jewish community and beyond, circumstances are making that happen literally. This past July, a stolen Tesla crashed into Kol Ami’s edifice, and now part of the building remains boarded up. 

So what’s the No. 1 item on Kol Ami’s to-do list? Literally opening the doors wider. 

“We’ve known we wanted to change the front entryway for a while now. I didn’t think it would happen by a car crash into a building,” Eger said.

It’s symbolic of her larger plans. 

“Imagination is the greatest gift from God that we have, and what a sin it is if we don’t try and use it,” she said. “And now we have to imagine, what’s the future of Judaism going to look like. What can we make it look like?” 

And that’s why she’s excited to be president of CCAR — “because I’ll be in a position to do that imagining in a larger scale.” 

Meet Joel Simkhai, the Israeli foundr of Grindr

“Everybody knows Grindr. If you’re a gay man and you don’t know what Grindr is, then you’re lying.”

Steve Levin may be head of sales at — you guessed it — Grindr, but he isn’t speaking hyperbole. 

Late at night at a drag bar in West Hollywood, a table of seven gay men in their 20s all discussed the social app, which has revolutionized how gay men meet each other since it launched in 2009. All but one of them had the app downloaded on their phone. When the odd man out was asked why, he said that he used to be on the app, but a year ago he opted for Scruff (a Grindr spinoff designed specifically for men with facial hair). Regardless of the app, though, he continued, “Being gay, there’s no way around it — apps are the best way to meet guys.”

Grindr was started as the first social app exclusively for, as it advertises, “gay, bi and curious guys.” Now embarking on its sixth year, it boasts staggering stats with nearly 14 million downloads in more than 192 countries. 

Founder and CEO of the social phenomenon, Joel Simkhai, never expected Grindr to be such a success. Born in Israel, raised in New York and now living in Los Angeles, Simkhai first got the idea for Grindr as a way for him to meet guys — simple as that. 

“As a gay man, you’re always wondering who else is gay,” Simkhai, 38, told the Journal. “The problem is pretty inherent and [there] has never been a good solution. For years I’ve been thinking about this problem.” 

Finally, when the second-generation iPhone came out in June 2008, he came across an answer. The technology is fairly straightforward: The app uses a geolocation device that allows users to view a selection of profiles categorized by location (the nearest Grindr user is pictured first). Tapping on a profile picture allows the user to read a brief profile and, if he so chooses, send a pic, message or share his own location. The next step, if both parties agree, is an official meet-up.

So what separates this social network from all other social networks? 

“It can help you get out of the house,” Simkhai said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the social networks don’t do that. They’re asocial in a lot of different ways. With Grindr, you interact with the goal to meet, and that’s something that I’m very proud of.”

“[W]e’ve been fighting for our equality and against persecution for a long, long time. Gay men and women are still fighting back now.”
— Joel Simkhai

Simkhai called the app “magic vision” for guys, referring to how it’s changed the dynamic of how gay men meet each other. 

“You sit in your office, you sit in your house, you sit on the bus or wherever, and there’s all these people around us, but it’s pretty hard to figure out who else is gay,” he said. “It really gives you a way to see everyone who is gay around you.”

Sure, the app originated as a hook-up app, but it’s become much more than that, especially in smaller communities, according to Levin. He said that in major cities, “There’s a million ways for gay guys to meet each other, but in other countries and Middle America or rural areas, it doesn’t exist, and it’s terrifying to come out.” 

It’s in cases like those, where gay men are virtually isolated from a larger gay community, that Grindr makes its biggest impact, Levin said.

There are pages and pages of testimonies on where users share their success stories. There’s Mario from Sulzberg, Germany, a place he described as “very conservative”; Min and Paopao found each other in Suzhou, China; and Skip, who’s currently serving in Iraq, met fellow Grindr users in Baghdad. The stories are endless. 

Simkhai said Grindr adopts a bigger role in the lives of secluded gay men throughout the world, especially in countries where homosexuality is criminalized. 

“From our perspective, in a lot of these countries, there are no gay bars or gay communities, no real gay life, and so for our users, that’s really gay life for them,” he said. “This is their main media to meet other gay men, to interact and to not feel alone, to not feel like they’re a weird creature, that they’re very normal and very human.”

In 2013, Grindr was officially banned in Turkey. Simkhai immediately responded by issuing a public statement: “We are very upset to hear that the Istanbul Anatolia 14th Criminal Court of Peace blocked Grindr as a ‘protection measure.’ Grindr was created to help facilitate the connection between gay men — especially in countries where the LGBT community is oppressed.”

Instances like these are why the company founded Grindr for Equality in 2011, an outreach initiative that mobilizes Grindr users across the globe to bring LGBT equality issues to the forefront. In 2014, its “Get Out Safely” campaign partnered with Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration International, the only international organization devoted to advocating for LGBT individuals seeking refuge from persecution based on their gender and sexual preference. Grindr distributed a message to app users living in countries such as Egypt, Russia and Uganda, providing step-by-step information that would ultimately help them leave their countries and escape persecution. More than 7,000 users clicked on the link to seek help.

“We’ve done a bunch of things around the world to push governments into new things and to warn users of the dangers that they’re facing. We try to figure out what can be done,” Simkhai said. 

Simkhai said that as a Jew he’s a minority already, and “we’ve been fighting for our equality and against persecution for a long, long time. Gay men and women are still fighting back now. I’d love to see that greater equality and greater love for different people and different sexual orientations.”

Coming to this country as an immigrant — not to mention being diagnosed with dyslexia as a child — he is proud to have overcome significant challenges.

“To think that you could build something from scratch that becomes international and is used by millions of men all the time, to have such an impact, is really exciting,” he said. “Hopefully I serve as a role model,” he said.

After a few quiet moments, Simkhai continued, “The word ‘role model’ comes off a little strong. Hopefully, somebody could look at me and say, ‘If he could do it, then I could do it.’ ”

Joel Grey, Jewish actor best known for ‘Cabaret’ role, comes out at 82

It’s no longer surprising for a prominent actor to come out publicly as gay.

What is a little surprising, however, is when he does so at age 82.

Joel Grey — whose illustrious career includes winning an Academy Award, Tony Award and Golden Globe Award, all for playing the master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” — came out Wednesday in an exclusive interview with People magazine.

“I don’t like labels,” he told the magazine, “but if you have to put a label on it, I’m a gay man.”

Grey, who was married to actress Jo Wilder for 24 years and is the father of actress Jennifer Grey, was already out to friends and family, but had not spoken publicly about his sexuality.

Grey’s original surname was Katz, and his father, Mickey Katz, was also an actor. In the People interview, he recalled growing up in Cleveland and “hearing the grownups talk in the next room, my mother included, talking derisively about ‘fairies’…”

In addition to his award-winning “Cabaret” performances, Grey, who is also a photographer with three books of photographs and a Museum of the City of New York exhibit to his credit, has played a wide range of roles for stage, film and television. Among the more incongruous ones, given his Jewish background: Joseph Goebbels in “The Empty Mirror” (1996), Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” (1999) and the narrator in “Twas the Night Before Christmas”(1974).

His CV includes some Jewish roles as well, however: in 1994, he appeared in the show “Borscht Capades,” which the Philadelphia Inquirer described as a “kind of a Yiddish vaudeville.”  And while he may not be a Jewish doctor, he’s played them on TV, including Jude Bar-Shalom on “Brothers & Sisters” and Dr. Singer on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, ‘Rabbi of Rabbis’ and world-renowned Jewish leader, dies at 89

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, died at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89.

Schulweis led the Conservative “>Jewish World Watch

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“Harold Schulweis was  a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at VBS.

“He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life, introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America,” Feinstein said.

Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions. In 1970, he took the pulpit of VBS in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States.

Responding to the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based “Chavurot” in 1971, gathering small groups of families to share religious life and family celebrations. His “para-rabbinic” initiative offered a revolutionary model of lay-professional synagogue leadership. Schulweis also launched a para-professional Counseling Center within VBS, offering psychological and family support to the synagogue members and the wider communities. Each of these innovations has been replicated in congregations nationwide.

[MORE: “>, in 1985 as a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. Mazon asks Jewish families celebrating life cycle moments to dedicate 3 percent of the cost to the hungry who live among us.

In 2004, Schulweis delivered a sermon at VBS on the Jewish high holidays calling for a Jewish response to genocide. He challenged the congregation: 

“We took an oath, “Never again!” Was this vow to protect only Jews from the curse of genocide? God forbid that our children and grandchildren ask of us, ‘Where was the synagogue during Rwanda, when genocide took place and eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in one hundred days?’”

Among those moved to answer the rabbi’s challenge was attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who assumed the role of founding president of the Jewish World Watch (, now a coalition of Jewish organizations dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing resources in response to the on-going genocide in Darfur, Congo, and around the world. JWW has grown into the largest anti-genocide grassroots organization in the world, a coalition of some 70 synagogues, churches, schools and other groups with some 30,000 to 40,000 donors.  Schulweis’ challenge, and Kamenir-Reznik’s friendship with the rabbi, “has transformed my life and has changed my philosophy of what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “Nothing I have done in my life has been more meaningful and has had a larger impact.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Sidney Orel from Valley Beth Shalom at a Jewish World Watch march.

Schulweis’ concern for genocide around the world, led him to reach out to the large Armenian population in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood. In 2005, the rabbi officiated with Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America at the first joint commemoration of the Jewish and Armenian Holocausts. He joined band members of the rock band, System of a Down, all of them children of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust, in an educational program affirming the common responsibilities of Jewish and Armenian youth to remember their collective experiences of genocide, and to act to prevent its reoccurrence.

Harold M. Schulweis was born in the Bronx in 1925, the son of a ferociously anti-religious editor of the Yiddish daily “Forverts.” As a child, Schulweis never set foot in a synagogue, but he grew up surrounded by Yiddish poets, nationalists, revolutionaries, and artists. At the age of 12, he happened upon a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Attracted by the music he heard from the street, he slipped in and was enraptured. He began studying Talmud with his pious, Chasidic grandfather, eventually enrolling at Yeshiva College, from which he graduated in 1945. An ardent student of philosophy, he became a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1950. At the same time he studied philosophy under Sidney Hook at New York University, receiving a masters degree in 1950 with the first English language thesis on Martin Buber’s philosophy. He subsequently completed a doctorate in theology at the Pacific School of Religion. Schulweis taught philosophy at City College of New York, and served pulpits in Parkchester, New York, and Oakland, California, before coming to Valley Beth Shalom.

Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique interpretation of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Schulweis’ “Theological humanism” is rooted in the Biblical conviction that the human being bears the divine image, and in philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of God revealed in deep human relationships. Schulweis imagined God not above us, but within and between human beings. Prayer and religious observance, Schulweis instructed, are not directed above as a plea for supernatural intervention, but within — as an inspiration to individual and communal reflection, commitment and moral action. Building on the theology developed in his doctoral writing, Schulweis advocated “predicate theology,” identifying those aspects of human activity which are “Godly.” “God,” he frequently argued, “is not believed, but behaved.” Conscience is the living nexus between the divine and the human in everyday life. The cultivation of conscience is the central function of religious life and religious education.

Diverse members of the Los Angeles Jewish community spoke of their deep sense of loss at the passing of Harold Schulweis.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor and longtime political heavyweight Zev Yaroslavsky remembered how, as a college student, he became the Los Angeles co-founder of the movement to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing refuseniks and other Jews to leave for Israel and other countries.

At the time, most Jewish establishment organizations looked askance at the efforts and tactics of the young protesters, but Schulweis backed them from the beginning.

The rabbi decided to talk to his congregation about the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Yaroslavsky went to hear him.

“It was like no other sermon I had heard before,” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Rabbi Schulweis didn’t preach at the congregation, but opened up a dialogue, a question-and-answer session with 700 people. I was blown away.”

When non-Jews ask Yaroslavsky about Schulweis, the former answers, “If the Jews had a pope, Rabbi Schulweis would be in the running.” Adding to the encomium, basketball fan Yaroslavsky continues, “He’s the John Wooden of rabbis. When he speaks, the most powerful, the most successful people hang on his words.

“His death is an incredible loss and he is leaving us a legacy that no one is likely to eclipse. We, who were touched by him, are the blessed ones,” Yaroslavsky said.

Scholar and peace activist Gerald Bubis knew Schulweis for more than six decades and stressed his enormous influence, through his writings and ideas, on the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as on rabbis and synagogues across the country.

Schulweis could spin out an idea and “through a process of osmotic absorption,” rabbis and laymen not only accepted the idea, but went about implementing it in their synagogues and institutions, Bubis said.

John Fishel, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sought out Schulweis for advice when he arrived in this city in 1992 and, in turn, Schulweis drafted Fishel to serve on the board of Jewish World Watch.

“Harold always took on causes and projects others didn’t want to wade into,” Fishel said. “His knack was to recruit people of stature and then keep them focused on the job.”

Among the numerous awards and honors Schulweis was bestowed are the Israel Prime Minister’s Medal, United Synagogue Social Action Award, and Los Angeles County’s John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from the Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alisa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren.

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (“>Valley Beth Shalom“>Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.


Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' sermons:

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (collections is a living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of Rabbi Schulweis' writings, sermons and teachings. 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' columns for the Jewish Journal:

Jewish Journal stories on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis:

Cartoon: The same-sex marriage party poopers

Aboard Amsterdam’s Jewish gay boat, activists warn against tolerating hate

Its passengers included celebrities, a rabbi and revelers in biblically themed costumes, but the Jewish boat at Amsterdam’s gay pride parade stood out for more than just its riders.

Following a west-to-east course along the Dutch capital’s Prinsengracht canal on Saturday along with dozens of similarly flamboyant vessels, the Jewish boat was the only one in the parade isolated by police. Two boats with three officers each escorted the ship, while two additional agents sailed aboard the Jewish boat itself.

With increased violence aimed of late at Jews in the Netherlands and across Europe, authorities weren’t taking any chances.

“We’d planned this just to show that we [gay Jews] exist as a community but with all that’s happened, I’m now here to stand up for our rights also as Jews to live as equals without threats by those who want to see Jews or gays silent or dead,” said Gideon Querido van Frank, the Jewish boat’s chief organizer, who boarded the boat wearing a Bronze Age soldier outfit laced with glitter.

As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has unfolded over the past month, acts of violence and intimidation have risen in Holland, threatening the country’s reputation for tolerance.

In addition to repeated acts of vandalism at the home of a Dutch chief rabbi, police last week confirmed reports that in two separate incidents, a Jewish woman was assaulted for displaying an Israeli flag on her home. One was beaten on the street, while the other had a firebomb and stones hurled at her window.

In The Hague, Muslim extremists twice chanted slogans about killing Jews at demonstrations that featured jihadist symbols, sparking a national debate about limiting freedom of expression because police failed to intervene.

But none of that deterred the 50 people who registered to sail aboard the Jewish boat at the 19th Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade, a world-famous aquatic procession that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from across Holland and beyond. If anything, the attacks led passengers to broaden their message of tolerance for gays to include rejection of anti-Semitism and a demand that authorities crack down on hate speech.

The people intimidating Jews are also responsible for “a reversal in the level of acceptance of gay people in the Netherlands,” said Marianne van Praag, a Reform rabbi from The Hague who boarded the boat even though it sailed on Shabbat because she believes that speaking out against hatred of Jews and gays has become “a matter of life and death.”

In some areas of the city, van Praag told JTA, “gay people no longer dare hold hands on the street because they don’t find it safe.”

“I find it imperative that a statement on this be made also from the religious circles,” she said.

Throughout the parade, participants flew a rainbow flag emblazoned with a Star of David and cheered at spectators waving Israeli flags in solidarity. Organizers referred to Israel over the loudspeaker, not least in introducing the boat’s main attraction: The transgender pop idol Dana International, who led Israel to victory at the 1998 Eurovision song contest with her hit “Diva.”

“I don’t believe in any religion, so I’m here as an Israeli, not as a Jew,” Dana International told JTA. “But it’s time to end the persecution over religion or national reasons. Just cut out all that s***. That’s my message.”

Dressed in a tight black dress and golden leggings on the boat’s main platform, Dana International shouted into the microphone, “Thank you Amsterdam for being so tolerant of gay rights and all minorities. Thank you Holland for being the most tolerant place on earth. Don’t ever change.”

While many Dutchmen are proud of the liberal policies and values for which their country is renowned, some fear it is changing. In particular, the spate of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks has prompted concern that not enough is being done to defend Dutch freedoms from people bent on abusing them.

“Tolerance is important but needs to have limits,” said Ken Gould, a gay Jewish cantor who runs KunstenIsrael, the Netherlands Foundation for Israeli Culture. “Clearly those limits have been breached. I am here also to draw attention to that.”

In the wake of the anti-Semitic demonstrations in The Hague, a petition with 17,000 signatures was sent to the Dutch Senate asking for the resignation of Mayor Jozias van Aartsen because city police denied hearing incitement at the demonstration despite footage that seemed to prove it.

“We can’t close our eyes and pretend there are no problems any longer,” said Louise Fokkens, who with her twin sister, Martine, rode the boat in matching white costumes. “It’s time to fight back and make a stand, and that’s why we are aboard.”

The Fokkens twins, who are in their 70s, are famous in the Netherlands for having worked 50 years as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District before their retirement earlier this year. The fact that they are Jewish isn’t very well known, yet someone painted a swastika near their apartment during Israel’s previous military campaign in Gaza, Louise Fokkens said.

“Last time they targeted the Jews and the gays, nobody said anything,” said Martine Fokkens, referring to the Holocaust. “Well, this is us saying something.”

Jewish groups praise Obama on LGBT worker rights expansion

A number of Jewish groups praised President Obama for extending federal job protections for gay employees to employees of government contractors.

Obama signed two executive orders, one extending existing job protections for federal employees who are gay to employees of federal contractors, and another adding transgender employees to those deserving protections.

Praising the move this week were Bend the Arc, a social action group; the Anti-Defamation League; the National Council of Jewish Women; and the Religious Actions Center of the Reform movement. The orders were signed on July 18.

“The immediate impact of this executive order is that the many LGBT Americans who are part of the vast workforce of federal contractors no longer have to fear that they might be fired from their job because of who they are,” Stosh Cotler, Bend the Arc’s CEO, said in a statement. “There are still millions of LGBT Americans working in private industry with no protection from discrimination.”

LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender.