‘People Just Like Them’

Increasing dialogue about LGBT issues in the Orthodox community in Israel leads to increased awareness, acceptance

Image: “Eyes Wide Open” film (Israel 2009). Courtesy Peccadillo Pictures.

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

On a Saturday night in 2015, thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem to rally for tolerance after 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed and killed while marching in the Jerusalem pride parade.

An unlikely individual – an Orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau – stood up on stage and delivered an unlikely message: “We must free the Torah of Israel from the handcuffs that she has been bound in by people of darkness,” he said. “The Torah is a Torah of light, and Judaism must illuminate the world.”

And he said that any Jew who was “at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“It was amazing to see,” said Daniel Jonas, former chairperson and spokesperson of Havruta, Israel’s largest organization of Orthodox Jewish gay men.

It was also a defining moment for the religious LGBT community, who for as long as one can remember has been ostracized from the Orthodox Jewish community – shunned from synagogues, and generally not allowed to participate in Orthodox communal life.

American-Israeli rabbi, Aaron Leibowitz, said Banki’s death “was the point where I realized I could not be silent anymore.”

Indeed, in recent years, according to Leibowitz, there has been a growing number of Orthodox LGBT individuals who have come out of the closet on a communal level. At the same time, it has become clearer to rabbinic and other Orthodox leadership in Israel just how costly lack of acceptance of these people might be.

“Those in the closet who are not accepted run the risk of developing depression or even committing suicide,” Leibowitz said, noting that he believes the driver for greater openness toward LGBT people in the Orthodox-Jewish community is “compassion.”

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of Yeshivat Amit Orot Shaul in Israel, expressed similar sentiments. He said that any rabbi who outwardly condemns homosexuals is “wrong twice: You are trying to impose your culture and your opinion on others – wrong. And you are endangering them at the same time.

“Our job is to strengthen homosexuals, empower their ability to cope with their challenges, and their loyalty to halacha.”

He said that the Orthodox community must first recognize the situation – that there are many Orthodox LGBT people. Then, it must accept the situation. And finally, the community must be able to discuss this situation in a way that is not black and white. He said there is a wide-range of questions and answers regarding homosexuality and one must approach the subject with nuance.

“How does the community re-orient itself in a way that is a clear adherence to halacha, on the one hand, but on the other hand, is a new communal attitude toward members of our community who are out of the closet?” asked Leibowitz, who said there is a tension between being loyal to halacha and acceptance of the “21st century understanding of gender and homosexuality.”

He said LGBT individuals should be “honored” as full members of the Orthodox community.

“This is a step that Orthodox institutions need to make – and it’s a challenging one,” Leibowitz said.

At the same time, he said the LGBT community should take parallel steps. Leibowitz said when it comes to getting a “stamp of approval,” the LGBT community cannot expect to receive this from the community. Rather, it needs to provide such validation for itself.

“It is OK to say we seek to be honored and seen and included,” said Leibowitz. “But the LGBT community cannot expect full legitimacy in all aspects of their lifestyle.”

As Jonas. He founded Havruta in 2007 to provide a group for gay men from religious backgrounds a platform to gather. At first a small Jerusalem-based initiative, Havruta quickly expanded to reach gay men all over Israel. Now it operates in Tel Aviv and Haifa, as well.

“Many of us, including myself, grew up with the sense that we are totally alone and are probably the only ones who deal with this,” Jonas said. “But when you come to a meeting and see a bunch of people dealing with the same issues and experiencing the same thing, who have same perspective, it gives you power. You don’t feel a lone anymore.”

He also said that it is essential the LGBT and the non-LGBT Orthodox communities interact.

“When a person sees another person, not only a headline in the newspaper, they see we are not evil,” said Jonas. “They see we are people just like them.”

Jonas said he is experiencing growing acceptance in the Orthodox community in the last decade and that one of the ways he can tell is the “number of beards and head coverings” at LGBT wedding he attends. In the past, he said, these would be very small weddings with limited guest lists.

Ariel Dominique Hendelman lives with her partner in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, where she founded Shabbat Shelach to create a community for Lesbians in Jerusalem. Today, the group has around 140 members and they eat two communal Shabbat meals together every month. She is also involved with an Orthodox-lesbian game night and lecture series.

“Judaism at its best is a living, breathing entity,” said Hendelman. “We’re seeing this ever-evolving question unravel before us.”

What’s next? In the future will an Orthodox rabbi officiate at a LGBT wedding?

Said Cherlow: “Never say never, but I cannot see it.”

With reporting by Noa Amouyal.