After Oct. 7, Jewish unity must include queer Jews

In the days, weeks, and months after Oct. 7, I was inspired to see how the Jewish people rallied together to support our siblings in Israel. I was added to new group chats every day coordinating thousands of donations to Israeli soldiers and families. It was beautiful and hope-inducing to keep hearing the messages of “Am Echad b’Lev Echad” (“One Nation With One Heart”) and “B’yachad Nenatzeach” (“Together We Will Persevere”) from all corners of the Jewish Diaspora. 

Yet, when I look a little bit deeper, it’s clear to me that the ideals of unity unfortunately do not extend to everyone within the Jewish community. As we mark seven months since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, the Jewish community must find a way to stand together against hate, violence and antisemitism in true unity — and that means including queer Jews. 

Many queer Orthodox Jews (and youth in particular), who have historically been ostracized by their communities, need that embrace even more so now. In the past, they have turned to queer-friendly spaces outside the Jewish community for love and support when they have felt abandoned by Orthodox families and institutions. For months, however, many of those same queer communities have felt hostile and unwelcoming to Jews. 

In February, I visited Israel on a trip for Jewish educators organized by UpStart and iCenter. It was an opportunity to bear witness to the horrors that happened on Oct. 7 and to give love and support to the people of Israel. Because of my work for JQY, an organization that supports and empowers LGBTQ+ Jewish youth from Orthodox, Chassidic and Sephardi/Mizrahi communities, I framed the trip for myself through the lens of the queer Jewish experience, paying particular attention to what I could impart to the queer community with whom I work upon my return. 

Instead, I came back with a message for the greater Orthodox community.

While traveling around the country, I would see “Beyachad Nenatzeach” plastered everywhere: on sidewalks, buildings, lamp posts. As in America, it inspired a feeling of hope in me to see these signs and all of the tremendous acts of chesed (kindness) taking place all over the country. 

Sadly, however, it became clear through conversations with some Israelis that this message of unity did not always ring true. I met many, parents especially, who felt abandoned and angry at a government that was supposed to protect them. Despite these feelings, they still kept their main focus on the health and wellness of the children. 

This determination to continue caring for their youth in these difficult times really resonated with me and my work at JQY.  

The queer Jewish community is feeling more ostracized and isolated than ever, especially when they see the Jewish community rally together for those in need but not for the queer Jews. Teen participants at JQY’s drop-in center in New York City and in our online groups have expressed feeling extreme loneliness. As one recent anonymous commenter on a JQY social media post put it: “It’s so painful, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere.” 

We have already seen too many tragedies of queer Jewish youth losing their lives to suicide. The risk of suicide for LGBTQ+ teens alone is four times higher than their peers, and data from JQY shows that number is even higher among queer Jewish teens: Close to 70% of queer Jewish teens have reported suicidal ideations. There is a mental health crisis in this community, and current events are only exacerbating the issue. 

If queer Jews cannot rely on support and solidarity from the broader LGBTQ+ community at this moment, then the Jewish community must make it known that they accept queer Jewish youth and will welcome them with open arms. 

From many private conversations that I have had with friends, family and rabbinic leadership, I know that there is certainly more acceptance and support of queer Jewish people in the Orthodox community than others realize. But people are often hesitant to express that support publicly and proudly, often due to their own fear of ostracization, which means teens don’t know they could be accepted in these communities. It is not enough to have quiet, individual acceptance. There needs to be a communal move towards acceptance, which will expand our community and unite us further in times of tragedy. 

With antisemitism on the rise worldwide, and American Jews reportedly feeling more fear for their lives, there has never been a more important moment to embrace every Jewish person, regardless of sexuality and gender identity. 

I urge Orthodox community leaders and rabbis to speak up in this moment and make it perfectly clear that these teens have a place in your community — that they are still part of the family. Even just a small gesture like affixing a safe space sticker in your office or to the front door of your shuls/schools can do so much to create feelings of acceptance and welcoming for queer youth. 

If we don’t find a way to welcome them, we risk losing them forever — and that is not a price the Jewish community can afford to pay. 

Let’s use “Beyachad Nenatzeach” as a rallying cry in these times, and make sure that the “we” truly means everyone. I pray that with our complete unity, we will be zocheh (meritorious) to welcome all the hostages home and live in peace. 

Israeli American Gila Romanoff is the teen and community program manager at JQY, a nonprofit mental health organization supporting LGBTQ Jewish youth, with a special focus on teens and young adults from Orthodox, Chassidic and Sephardi/Mizrahi communities.