Israeli, Orthodox and Gay

Israeli LGBT Orthodox leaders (right to left) Zehorit Sorek, Asaf Lebovitz, and Eyal Liebermann, with A Wider Bridge Executive Director Arthur Slepian, at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav

November 2010 —

A Wider Bridge organized a speaking tour that brought leaders of the largest LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel to audiences in three major US cities. All told, they spoke to or met with over 530 people! With the support of over a dozen co-sponsoring congregations and organizations, we brought these leaders’ inspiring stories and message to diverse audiences at venues as varied as Reform and Conservative congregations, Orthodox organizations, a Conservative seminary, and a Jewish high school.

The tour had a great start in Los Angeles, with a panel discussion at Temple Beth Am, a large Conservative synagogue near Pico-Robertson, attended by over 80 people. Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat from Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim and Rabbi Denise Eger from Congregation Kol Ami also spoke at the event.

In San Francisco, the Israeli leaders spoke to more than 200 people over the course of several events, including more than 80 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.  They also spoke to a group of about 60 at a Shabbat lunch and shiur that they led at the Mission Minyan, to four classes of students at the Jewish Community High School, and at an event at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.

In New York City, 100 people attended our event at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (we ran out of chairs!), and 60 came a few nights later when the leaders spoke at a meeting of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth). The leaders also met with groups consisting of Orthodox community leaders, New York-based LGBTQ Orthodox leaders, and Jewish Theological Seminary students and staff. And the speakers were warmly welcomed for Friday night Shabbat services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

Here is a summary of what people who came to the events heard and experienced:

The leaders – Asaf Lebovitz, Zehorit Sorek and Eyal Liebermann, came to the U.S. as representatives  of Havruta, an organization for Orthodox gay men, and Bat Kol, Israel’s organization for religious lesbians.  They also spoke about the work of several other related projects: Shoval, an Orthodox LGBT speakers’ bureau and education project, and The Pride Minyan, a group that develops prayer services and holiday celebrations that are designed to be a welcoming place for religious LGBT Jews. They spoke as well about their work in helping to run support groups for Orthodox LGBT teens that are run in conjunction with Israeli Gay Youth.  All of these groups work together as part of a broader collaboration known as Religious LGBT Community or Kehilah Datit Ga’ah.

The leaders spoke of the remarkable growth of these organizations, from only a handful of members when they were founded just a few years ago, to now representing many hundreds of Israelis. And the groups now have an online presence that gets many thousands of hits per month. When Eyal spoke about the broader history of this fledgling movement, he cited as a pivotal moment the screening in Israel of the American made film “Trembling Before God.” With this movie, many LGBT people in the Orthodox community saw that they were not alone, and that in fact it was possible to be Orthodox and gay, something which had not even been conceivable to many of them before.

These leaders shared their personal stories of self-realization and coming out in the Orthodox communities in which they were raised, and their vision for change in both the Orthodox world and in Israeli society as a whole. People were moved by the authentic and genuine way the speakers shared their experiences, which reflected so many of the challenges faced by LGBT Orthodox Israelis.

Asaf shared his difficult journey from realizing he was gay, through attempts to push him into “reparative therapy,” to finding more supportive voices among Orthodox rabbis, family members and friends, and ultimately to his decision to make a place for himself in the Orthodox world and to help others going through struggles similar to his.

Zehorit described years of denying or explaining away her feelings of attraction for other women, during which time she married a man and became the mother of two children. It was not until she met her now partner Limor that she chose to be honest with herself and ultimately with those close to her.   Once she connected with other Orthodox lesbians through Bat Kol – which she described as “coming home” –she began a journey that led her to become one of the co-founders of the Pride Minyan. There, at their first services on Yom Kippur in 2009 at Tel Aviv’s LGBT Center, people were shocked to find not the 30 they knew they could count on, nor the 100 they hoped for, but some 300 LGBT Israelis – Orthodox and secular – coming together with the shared need for a place to pray that unequivocally welcomed them.

Eyal brought a somewhat different perspective to the panel, as he no longer observes many of the Orthodox practices of Judaism. Yet he remains identified with the Orthodox community and is committed to help make it a better place for LGBT people, a task by which he feels personally compelled. As he put it, “You can take the boy out of the Yeshiva, but you can’t take the Yeshiva out of the boy.”

What all their moving personal narratives have in common is that they represent those who have had the courage to come out, to be visible, to serve as role models for others, and to insist that they want both to be part of their religious communities and lead lives that express their LGBT identities. Their stories compellingly illustrated the remarkable change that has begun to alter Israeli Orthodox society in just the last few years, giving hope for LGBTQ Jews both there and here in the U.S., and for a more tolerant, inclusive Israel and Jewish world for everyone.

The response of people that heard our speakers in all of these places was overwhelming and enthusiastic. It gave hope to many of those in attendance to learn about this new movement that has grown exponentially in the last few years and transformed “Orthodox and gay” from an oxymoron that forced young Israelis to abandon one or the other integral part of themselves, to a real possibility. Many felt enriched by the unique ways in which the stories of these Israelis both resonate with and contrast with their own lives. It was also enriching to see some of the history of our Gay Rights Movement here in the US – and in the American Jewish community – reflected in the progression of these leaders’ movement, and to see ways in which they are forging new paths that we can learn from.

This visit helped to widen many bridges: between the LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel; between Jews in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements; between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ Jews; and between the religious and secular Jewish communities.

The response to this tour and the connections it has already catalyzed show that there is an unmet need for people here to connect with Israeli society around LGBTQ issues and identity. This tour was just the beginning of A Wider Bridge’s efforts to meet this need. In the near future we will be launching programs including social and cultural gatherings, educational forums, campus outreach, connections to trips to Israel, and more speaking tours. With these efforts, we hope to help more LGBTQ Jews, along with families friends and allies, to get connected to Israel and to build stronger relationships between the LGBTQ communities in Israel and America.  And through those connections and relationships, more of us can join in the work of making Israel a better place.

The amazing success of this tour would not have been possible without the help of many partner organizations. A Wider Bridge extends a heartfelt thanks to all our co-sponsors:
In Los Angeles: Temple Beth Am; Beth Chayim Chadashim; Congregation Kol Ami; IKAR; JQ International; and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, HUC-JIR
In San Francisco: Congregation Sha’ar Zahav; The LGBT Alliance of the Jewish Community Federation; Congregation Beth Sholom; Congregation Sherith Israel; Congregation Beth Am; and the Israel Education Initiative
In New York City: JQYouth; The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan; Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; Eshel; Nehirim; GLYDSA; and Tirtzah

The tour got great coverage in J. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, LA’s Jewish Journal (http://www.jewishjournal.com/oy_gay/item/israeli_orthodox_and_gay_-_a_recap_20101116/), and the Orthodox blog Frum Satire (http://www.frumsatire.net/2010/11/07/orthodox-gays-struggling-to-establish-community-in-israel/#more-7523).