Tel Aviv Councilman: What I Learned Talking Sexual Identity With Orthodox Educators
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.
The conference had the very direct headline of “Sexual identity,” and the invitation quoted Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazy’s famous saying that “the other is also a creation of the same almighty creator.” Their main aim was to listen to personal stories of those who are struggling with a different sexual identity within the Orthodox religious society. They heard heartbreaking life events from amazing friends who shared the challenges their society placed upon them, adding to the still overwhelming challenge of “coming out of the closet” in front of your family and friends.
The group has conducted open discussions with rabbis and instructors about the way the religious community deals with this different sexual identity and also heard me tell my personal life story and my call to end this rooted confrontation between Judaism and the LGBT movement.
Clearly, this special day was not about reaching a consensus of minds about all matters of life choices, the public sphere and legislation. This was never the goal. But the fact that this conference actually took place, the actions that these important leaders of communities have decided to take by openly agreeing to share a dialogue, the atmosphere of this entire day which was absolutely respectful, caring and honest — these were signs of a small history in the making. I admit, never in my life have I felt so moved by a public-speaking engagement as I felt in this conference.
The Orthodox religious society in Israel is going through some well-noted transformations when it comes to how individuals and families treat their LGBT loved ones. Today, you can actually see more and more gay religious families raising kids and maintaining a religious lifestyle. Many of them convey a sense of acceptance by their religious communities. However, as said, this is not the case within the institutionalized parts of the Orthodox religious society, nor the position of their outspoken leaders. This is why this first-of-its kind conference was so meaningful. This is why it is so promising.
I don’t expect those who practice an Orthodox lifestyle to disregard anything that was mentioned in the bible or halacha (Jewish law), but like in other issues, they surely can’t disregard modern times and the current human diversity within the Jewish society. As much as they stop trying to force Shabbat practices on the entire Jewish landscape in Israel, they can’t force any of us to stop being who we are, and deprive any of us from being connected to his or her Jewish identity. While optimistic steps such as this conference may be considered as inevitable in 2017, they are hardly taken for granted. We should all encourage more such steps taken by each side of this unnecessary rivalry. Judaism and LGBT are not two opposite sides.