Gay students often have a particularly difficult time in Orthodox schools. One young gay man to whom the Forward spoke — he asked to be identified simply as Chaim, since he is not out of the closet to most of his friends and family — recalled his experiences at a yeshiva in New York. The school’s rabbi, he said, used to pepper his lectures with homophobic tidbits. When Chaim was a sophomore, a student in the grade below him was expelled — and homosexuality was rumored to be the reason for his dismissal. But as Chaim came to grips with his own sexual identity, he took a risk and came out to a few close friends, one of whom gave him a surprising reply.
“The third person that I came out to came out to me right afterward,” Chaim said. “He then told me there were lots more people. The prevalence is a lot higher than people suspect.”
Chaim, currently a New York-area college student, is now part of Jewish Queer Youth, a 150-member strong organization based in Manhattan for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people under 30 who come from observant Jewish backgrounds. The group holds monthly meetings and maintains an online forum (www.jqyouth.org). Over the next few months, the group plans to dispatch members to several New York-area yeshivas (including Chaim’s alma mater) to initiate discussion of gay issues with school officials.
The subject of “corrective therapy” will be broached; Chaim hopes that the rabbis will come to reject the practice as misguided. He also hopes that school rabbis will change the sort of advice they sometimes offer to students or to alumni. “Some of them are really nice and not homophobic but give bad advice — to ignore the urges and get married anyway,” he said.
Educators’ attitudes in Orthodox schools often prevent gay students from coming out — but coming out is not always the answer, particularly in an environment in which school officials are ill prepared to handle the issue.
“I often urge [students] to resist the temptation to come out early,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox man who counsels Jewish teens struggling with their sexual orientation. Currently a senior teaching fellow at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Greenberg made waves when he came out well into his adult life. For young people unsure of their own identity, coming out too soon can cause its own problems, he said: “You have to be incredibly mature. Parents go through their mourning process when their kids come out. To say, ‘Hello, I’m gay and I’m not sure I’m going to be all right,’ particularly to Orthodox parents,” is not a good proposition.
“Orthodoxy is so much about community,” said Chaim. “When the community doesn’t have a place for you, you feel that you have nothing to do with Orthodoxy.”