Why Don’t Orthodox LGBTQ Teens Just leave Orthodoxy?

Photo courtesy of JQY

By Rachael Fried

A few months ago, the Huffington Post made a mini-documentary on the JQY Drop-in Center for LGBTQ Teens from Orthodox communities, The Hidden Struggle Of Queer Jewish Youth. The video discusses how many from this underserved population reach out to JQY while struggling to accept their identities and come out to their families. It highlights the astronomical levels of suicidality that we have found in our work at JQY (almost 3 out of 4 teens who come to our Drop-in Center have experienced suicidality). These levels are not only higher than the national average for other teens their age, but also significantly higher than the average for LGBTQ teens. At JQY, we recognize this as a quiet emergency – quiet because the majority of these teens are not out to anyone beyond the Drop-in Center walls and as a result, they go under the radar, suffering in silence.

Given all of this, perhaps it is not surprising that a common question we receive is “if Orthodoxy is so bad, why don’t they just leave?” A quick skim of the comments on the Huffington Post video will reveal remarks such as “I just don’t understand for the life of me WHY LGBT people insist on being included in Abrahamic faiths,” “Don’t stay where you’re unwanted” and “Religions are evil. It’s really not that complicated, folks.” Despite the Huffington Post’s overwhelmingly progressive readership, our youth are receiving judgment rather than empathy. The plight of LGBTQ teens from Orthodox communities seems predicated on the perception that these teens are choosing to live an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. The irony that the “choosing a lifestyle” rhetoric is now being used by queer individuals and allies against queer youth should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is not only relegated to internet trolls and digital bullies. It is a sentiment we receive from Jewish community members, LGBTQ community members, religious leaders, and even funders.

There is a simple answer for why these teens don’t “just leave”: It is because they can’t. The question in and of itself seems to be overlooking an important underlying issue. This is not about young people facing theological or religious challenges. This is about youth feeling rejected by their families and communities. Suggesting that these minors “just leave” has the potential to make their situations even worse. This is even more evident and important to keep in mind during a pandemic when many children and teens are confined to their homes.

In most Orthodox households, children are not given the choice of how to practice their Judaism. This applies to youth who want to be more observant than their parents, for those who want to be less observant, and for those who want to leave one Orthodox community to go to a more inclusive Orthodox community. A closeted 14 year old cannot just tell their Orthodox parents that they would now like to attend a non-Orthodox school or synagogue. In fact, the law allows parents to raise their children the way that they choose. Disagreeing with ones parents on religious issues, even when pertaining to queer identity, is not grounds for a child’s removal or emancipation. We know this firsthand as some of our JQY teens have tried using the law to escape their parents’ Orthodox house rules, and the law sides with the parents. If a minor runs away from home, unless there is physical abuse or neglect, they will be forced to return to these Orthodox systems. Sometimes, Orthodox queer youth do not suffer from being kicked out of their homes – they suffer from being locked in. We also have many teens at JQY who will do anything to continue to be full contributing members of their Orthodox communities. If they had the choice to stay or leave, there would be no question that they would stay in their homes and institutions that have brought deep meaning into their lives.

An Orthodox teen is completely enmeshed in their Orthodox world. Their schools, camps, synagogues, youth groups, families, social circles, extra-curriculars, and support systems are all affiliated with Orthodoxy. Even Orthodox young adults are often completely dependent on their parents and community. Asking why a teen “remains” Orthodox is the equivalent of asking why they don’t leave everything they know in order to start over with nothing, from nowhere. This is a cohort of people who already feel isolated. Many don’t have access to communities outside of their own. Most think that they are the only ones “like them” before coming to JQY. Questioning why they “stay Orthodox” and don’t leave their communities is part of the systemic rejection that puts these youth at risk in the first place.

Instead, we need to respond to this population like we would any other youth cohort facing elevated risks of suicide, trauma, poverty, abuse, and mental health challenges. When engaging a population of queer youth from Orthodox homes who are largely closeted to their families for fear of rejection, we must shift from a focus on religiousity and peoplehood to crisis care, mental health, and wellness programing suited for minors without parental consent.

Support should never be contingent upon belief – religiously, politically, or otherwise. This is what makes JQY so unique. Successful support programing that speaks to the risks facing LGBTQ teens from Orthodox homes will look quite different from programs for LGBTQ Orthodox adults, or programs for teens from non-Orthodox or more queer-positive communities. Programs for Orthodox adults may focus on religous questions, which communities to join, or how to incorporate your queer identity within Orthodoxy. Similarly, programs for non-Orthodox youth might be about cultivating exciting queer Jewish community through retreats, camps, and family events that parents support or even take part in. Fortunately, there are organizations like Eshel and Keshet who work tirelessly to meet these imperative needs, respectively. JQY programs are rooted in clinical care, where both youth traumatized by and youth inspired by religious observance feel supported, empowered, and loved. Our focus on the Orthodox community is a product of communal needs assessments, highest risk factors, and culturally competent care – not Jewish affiliation or dogma. In this way, JQY, along with our partnering organizations compliment each other to create a communal tapestry of support where no one’s needs fall through the cracks.

So, to the teens, rabbis and funders who may be reading the comments on the Huffington Post video, please know that at JQY there are youth who want to leave Orthodoxy and youth who want to stay. Both belong, and both deserve support. Our programing does not exist to bring into question the validity of any religious denomination, and we are certainly not here to encourage people to think any which way about Orthodoxy. Our goal is to ensure the physical and mental safety and well-being of each individual teen that comes through our doors. We meet them where they are, wherever they are.

This is the point that is missed by those who question a kid who stays within their own community. LGBTQ teens from Orthodox communities are at risk (and by the way, the levels of risk do not go down if one does choose to leave Orthodoxy once in a position to make this decision.) They, like every other teen in the Jewish community and beyond, deserve the support and resources they need in order to thrive. They do not deserve to be judged or questioned on why they are Orthodox.

Furthermore, from a values perspective: They should not have to leave. There are those who are fighting and will do everything they can to remain a part of the community that they love and call home. And there are those who fight to leave and live their lives elsewhere. Regardless, this is not a choice that anyone should be forced to make. If our answer to a teen who is facing rejection is the binary choice of either being queer or Orthodox, we are not doing our job to empower future generations, we are not building a stronger Jewish people, and we are not treating our youth with the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings.

We need to make sure that no Jewish teen, from any denomination, has to think that they can’t tell the people that they love who they are. And no one should ever need to leave their own home in order to feel pride.

Rachael Fried is the executive director at JQY, an organization that supports LGBTQ youth from Orthodox homes. She is an ROI Community member, a Wexner Field Fellow, and a Ruskay Institute alum.