The founder of Havruta, the Israeli Gay Orthodox group, writes about his recent experience at an Eshel Retreat in Michigan
When Rabbi Steve Greenberg called me to invite me to an “orthodox GLBTQ retreat” in the Midwest, I was skeptical. I was skeptical because as an Israeli I indeed knew that there are Orthodox GLBTQs in the states, but it was hard for me to believe that they will have a real orthodox – congregation style retreat, and especially, of all places on earth- in the Midwest.
I was surprised to see how smooth it was for me and my partner to become part of this happy community. As an Israeli, I felt like a foreigner in the beautiful evergreen Michigan forest. But although the lodge in which the retreat took place looked strange to me with all the wood made cabins, the kitchen looked very familiar: It was all covered with big stickers of “Milchik”, “Flashik”, “Parve” and detailed instructions of what can we cut, with what knife, and where. It felt just like my mother’s kitchen.
It felt even more familiar when we started the davening – it sounded just the same as in our congregation in Tel Aviv. After the Shabbat dinner we had a panel of speakers in which three of the guests spoke of their experience with creating more accepting Jewish congregations. I told the story of “Havruta”- the orthodox Israeli gay organization that was basically established in our living room in Jerusalem back then in 2007. I told our story- how a group of friends felt rejected from the orthodox world and created for themselves their own orthodox gay group. How we started as in-closet group and later on we established a real NGO organization that participates in both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Gay pride parades.
I told our story, people asked questions, and during the conversation that was created I understood how close we actually are. Someone told me that her greatest fear is that her son will stand alone in shul in his Bar Mitzvah, because he has two mothers. That fear immediately reminded me of a conversation with my friend Zehorit, from Tel Aviv. She was made unwelcome in her orthodox Suhl in a very unkind way after she married her spouse. As a response, she established the Pride Minyan in Tel Aviv. When she recruited me to the Minyan. She explained to me that her main reason for establishing the Minyan was the very same fear- what will happen on her son’s Bar Mitzvah, will he stand alone in shul because he has two mothers. The more I spoke withEshel members in the retreat the more I understood: the Israeli and the American orthodox Jewish GLBTQ communities share the same life experience and the same values: We grew up in very similar families; attend the same style of Jewish educational institutions and similar orthodox congregations. But more important than that- we share the same values: we both believe that it’s our job to fight for more accepting schools, congregations and shuls. We both believe that this is our “Tikkun Olam”; because we both believe that a more accepting world is by definition a better world.
During this wonderful retreat we had the opportunity to tell our Israeli gay-orthodox story, to get to know may wonderful people, to take part in the workshops, to speak, learn, daven, and to be part of this beautiful community. We thank you all.
While a graduate student in Israel, Benny Elbaz established Havruta (the Orthodox Gay Organization) and was the first board member. Later, when people started to join the organization and pay membership fees, he started to deposit Havruta’s money in his sock drawer, so he was probably the first treasurer as well. Today Benny is a post doctoral scholar at the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago. Currently his research focuses on diseases of the white matter of the brain, such as multiple sclerosis. He is married to Nir, his partner for the last 10 years (kenehora). And Havruta is now an established NGO in Israel with several hundred participants.
A Wider Bridge helped to sponsor Benny and Nir’s participation at the Eshel retreat.