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One of 13 siblings raised in a Chabad family, Toron kept his sexuality a secret through years of religious camps and schooling, including a stint in a rabbinical seminary. He finally came out to his family four years ago, and still maintains some religious practices – keeping a full beard, covering his head and learning Tanya – though he doesn’t associate with communal institutions.
He does attend a new synagogue, however: Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, or CAY, led by Rabbi Chezzie Denebeim, a 27-year-old Californian, and his wife, Sima, who pride themselves on creating an environment open to everyone.
Compared to a typical Chabad synagogue, CAY is revolutionary. Board members are mostly women, who are permitted to lecture and sing along during services, and there is no dress code. Social events are coed, without a mechitzah gender partition.
The synagogue has been around for two years and recently purchased its own space, despite occasional opposition and criticism from the community.
“Our shul breaks the black and white in this community. It comes with color,” Denebeim said. “I can’t say that we have an agenda, I just want each person to embark on their own personal journey at our shul. And if they don’t and just come for the music, that’s fine, too.”
The community around CAY has become something of a magnet for the wayward children of Chabad families from across the country. Aviva Bogart, the 21-year-old daughter of a Chabad rabbi in Massachusetts with a partially shaven head, says more misfits have been moving to the area.
“This feels like the first time there’s in-reach within the community, instead of sending efforts to help those in the outside world,” Bogart said, referring to the global outreach corps of Chabad emissaries. “I think Chabad is beginning to realize how many people are getting lost and losing their religion, and how much of a change they really need. We’re not all completely lost, just because we don’t keep everything.”
When Toron first came out as gay, his mother cried incessantly and begged him to go to reparative therapy, fearful of the ostracized life he would live. Today, Toron has a boyfriend and says he is happier than ever.
“When I first realized I was gay, I wanted to toss the whole thing,” Toron said. “I felt like an abomination, I was so ashamed. And it’s terrifying, but I’m still trying to figure out where I stand, with my religion and my sexuality. I’m constantly living with one foot in and one foot out, but a part of me knows I can’t let go.”
Not surprisingly, not everyone in Crown Heights is embracing the new arrivals.
Last week, Bogart said a stranger approached her while she was walking to synagogue and demanded that she pull down her skirt. Bogart said there is an old-school mentality within the community, but she thinks it will change as CAY grows.
“Sure, I’m afraid to mix the pot and change things up, but there’s no other option,” Denebeim said. “Everyone here is status quo and that is a very dangerous thing.
“We needed something else because what we have is not working. You have to remember that the rebbe was revolutionary, too, and he taught us to be leaders, not followers.”