What I Learned Talking Sexual Identity With Orthodox Educators

Gay Tel Aviv Council member Etai Pinkas was asked to speak about sexual identity at a formally organized conference of the Ministry of Education’s national religious education department.

For too many years, the LGBT movement in Israel and the Orthodox religious institutions were considered to be rivals in a battle over the nature of the Israeli society. The thriving Israeli LGBT community, which I have been privileged to be part of for the past two decades and lead for several years, has never affronted Judaism as a whole or its Orthodox institutions in particular. However, leading figures from these institutions (and in many cases these institutions themselves) have decided to outcast the members of our community, renouncing us and causing severe hardships for religious LGBT persons. For me, as a grandson of Orthodox grandparents, a Jew who was raised very close to the Jewish Orthodox tradition from my very first day on earth, this unneeded rivalry always felt redundant and out of place. But for many of my friends who consider themselves religious, this conflict has sabotaged their very existence.

Just try to imagine how one must feel while sitting in his Yeshiva studies, listening to his rabbi refer to LGBT people as lepers and distorted sick people — or worse. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a young man or woman who has been forced by their family to go through “conversion therapy” — a debunked psychological treatment meant to “cure” people who were born with a different sexual orientation or identity. These conflicts and tribulations are daily happenings which take place today in Israel — the country we all love to describe as the only democracy in the Middle East.

This is why last week, for the first time in my life, I was truly moved by a very special and unique gathering I was asked to speak in as the chairperson of the first LGBT Municipal Community Center ever to be initiated (in 1920), built and managed by the local government. The meeting was a government-funded and a formally organized conference of the Ministry of Education’s national religious education department. This is the state’s entity which leads the nation’s entire national Orthodoxs education system. The conference was consisted by 50 men and women who are all leaders of their community’s education systems. We are talking about heads of Yeshivas, Ulpanots (religious schools for girls), principals of high schools etc. All, by definition, were Orthodox religious individuals who are highly respected in their communities.

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