The Attempt to Queer Jewish Religious Spaces

An article published in the Huffington Post last week shed light on a new program led by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles which involves synagogues across denominations to take part in a pilot program that lasts for one year. The program involves members of the synagogue to participate in workshops that open up the synagogue in question to openly queer members, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression, with the help of an outside representative from HUC-JIR.

While there do exist synagogues that are specifically created by and for queer Jews, such as Congregation Beth Simhat Torah in New York, Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta or Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, there exist very few Orthodox synagogues that are LGBT-affirming. Indeed, many say that they are open and accepting, but those who (like me) identify as both LGBT and Orthodox often feel uncomfortable in an Orthodox setting because, even the most liberal accepted approaches, such as in the Statement of Princples from last year, employ the “love the sinner; hate the sin” policy: queer members should be accepted, but the act of homosexuality should be condemned.

With declining membership rates in synagogues — a phenomenon that is not unique to one denomination of Judaism — this seems, to me, not only to be an excellent way to boost membership, but to help include a community that has long felt on the fringe. However, I should point out that the article does not once mention an Orthodox synagogue (although the program is designed for all denominations); in fact, the article makes nary a mention of Orthodoxy with the exception of the beginning of the article, which portrays Orthodox synagogues as supporters of reparative therapy and woefully unwelcoming and to say that many Orthodox synagogues are actively not welcoming to LGBT members.

While this seems somewhat — well, okay, mostly — true, the article does not really reflect Orthodoxy or its movement to accept the LGBT movement. For example, Congregation Darkhei Noam in New York is an Orthodox-affiliated synagogue on the Upper West Side that has fully accepted the LGBT community, and has even allowed an openly gay couple to convert and name their baby. That having been said, there are no other fully-LGBT-affirming Orthodox synagogues that I know of personally (although I’ve been told that more exist), this still represents a significant shift in the Orthodox movement to accept the LGBT community in a way that’s not “love the sinner; hate the sin.” Additionally, the organizers of the program do not believe that the Orthodox movement will sign on to the new program, since the change has to come from the community; this is because most of the Orthodox movement still has yet to fully accept — or even want to accept — the LGBT community.

Well, that’s disappointing to hear, now, isn’t it?

One thing, though, that’s comforting (for me, at least) is that I’m not the only one who reads a mission statement for a synagogue that identifies as “open and accepting,” and interpret it as “open to everyone except gays.” Additionally, it’s high time that few congregations offer programming specifically geared toward LGBT members and couples or actively working to attract LGBT members and couples.

Fewer, still, are actively trying to engage LGBT teens, which is what probably hurts me the most.

That having all been said, this program is still a pilot, so it’s entirely within the realm of possibility than an Orthodox synagogue will join and create their own task force and partake in the program, although it seems highly unlikely, if even possible. Several synagogues are scheduled to complete the pilot program within the coming months, so we’ll have to see how exactly this plays out. Stay tuned!

Where are the LGBTQ Jews?

In an article by Mark Segal in LGBTQNation, Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, pondered the noted absence of LGBTQ Jews within the world of Jewish history. He writes:

Here’s the rub. Many of the most prominent pioneers of the LGBT community were Jewish; perhaps the most well known, Harvey Milk, does not even get a mention. In fact, in what might look like a backhanded insult to the LGBT community, there are two gay men in the museum’s Hall of Fame gallery — Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein — who are both closeted thanks to the [National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia], as neither of their displayed bios mentions it.

Not only is this discrimination by censorship, it reminds me of a time when, in the Jewish tradition, if you discovered something about a member of the family that was shameful, you didn’t talk about it.

It think that it’s important here to note that I do, also, fault the museum for not mentioning leaders in the LGBTQ movement through the twentieth century — Harvey Milk, as perhaps the most famous of these people is a prime example.

However, I do also think that Segal is slightly one-sided in his writing. While the museum is indeed at fault for never mentioning Milk or mentioning Sondheim’s or Bernstein’s connections to the queer community, this is a relic of the past era, like Segal dutifully notes.

While the museum in Philadelphia might be stuck in the past, the Jewish community itself — and, of course, the rest of the world — are warming up to the idea of Jewish LGBTQ heroes. Indeed, however, you can see all of the collaboration (collab, for short) channels of queer YoutTubers, and yet none of them, it seems, are openly Jewish. This was one of the reasons that I began and created my YouTube channel (the first video of the aforementioned channel was posted earlier today).

Regardless, however, there are organizations that exist today that serve to help LGBTQ Jews, organizations that are no doubt not mentioned within the aforementioned museum. These organizations — Keshet and Nehirim — are actively working to promote and advocate for LGBTQ Jews. Keshet recently launched a poster campaign that promotes the lives and legacies of Jewish LGBTQ figures, such as Harvey Milk and Kate Bronshtein.

The world — the Orthodox world — is changing, and changing rapidly. There are new articles, new petitions every week that advocate for both the expulsion of the queer Jews from the Jewish community and the inclusion by others. While the museum is a relic of an era where gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews were shunned and ignored, that is something that is rapidly changing.

And so, I implore you, my readers, to understand that this museum is not representative of the Jewish world as a whole, nor is it representative of the Orthodox world as a whole. The facts are true, yes, but the implications are not. Orthodoxy is becoming more and more open, more and more accepting.