Like so many newly religious American immigrants to Israel, 20-year-old Sarah Weil immersed herself in Torah studies and the intricacies of Jewish law, learning intently with the strictest chasidic rebbetzins in various Jerusalem seminaries.
“I desperately wanted to keep Torah and mitzvot and be in the Orthodox world,” said Weil, who made aliyah in 2005.
There was only one problem — no matter how many times she tried to talk herself out of it, Weil, now 26, knew that she was gay, and that homosexuality is considered an abomination in the eyes of many in the Orthodox community.
“I would pray every single day that God would make me ‘normal’ and would direct my attraction toward men,” she told The Jewish Week. Being gay and being religious seemed to Weil like two lines that would never intersect. Being in a secret relationship with another American olah, Talya Lev, only complicated things.
As the two struggled in the closet, they found, seemingly out of the blue, a lifeline. Through a friend, they discovered a fledgling organization called Bat Kol, the only group in Israel devoted to the needs of religious lesbians.
Weil and Lev dove into volunteer work for Bat Kol (Hebrew for “Daughter of a Voice” or “Small Voice”), doing everything from lobbying for gay rights to partaking in the group’s many social and support structures. Eventually they began to play lead roles at the organization.
Now, with the help of a grant from a major Jewish incubator, Weil and Levy are preparing to launch an English version of the Bat Kol website, which up to now has only been in Hebrew. When it is completed in the next few months, the new site will enable religious lesbians here and around the world to tap into Bat Kol’s rich body of resources — a kind of comforting shoulder to lean on in cyberspace — as they struggle for acceptance and try to negotiate two vastly different worlds.
For religious lesbians, Weil said, the new English site will be what she calls a “life-net,” a cross between a lifeline and a safety net.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader at New York’s LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, said that Bat Kol would’ve been “enormously helpful” when she was growing up as an Orthodox — yet gay — teenager at The Frisch School in Bergen County in the late ’70s.
“The plague for Jewish lesbians is invisibility,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said. “Bat Kol is a wonderful organization. I have known of them for many years. I myself counsel many people who are struggling with issues of Jewish religious identity and being gay. It’s essential that there be a visible presence of organizations like Bat Kol. Visibility is the most important thing to combat the loneliness that so many Jewish lesbians feel.”
The current Hebrew website includes a wide range of information and support, such as lessons of tolerance from the parshas, personal stories and struggles from religious lesbians, and commentary about how homosexuality can fit into Judaism — what’s forbidden and what’s allowed. Recaps of the latest LGBT-related news stories and Knesset sessions touching on issues of interest to the gay community also appear on the page, as well as links to other helpful organizations and sites.
In addition to details of all upcoming Bat Kol events and related projects, visitors can find details and contact information for all of the organization’s subgroups — different clusters for youth, older women and mothers of religious lesbians, for example.
All of this is expected to be in place on the English version of the site in a few months as Lev awaits the $10,000 grant she received from ROI (“Return on Investment”), a social entrepreneurship venture of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“We were looking for projects that support the same values that the foundation supports — whether it’s about Jerusalem or inclusiveness or diversity,” said No’a Gorlin, grants manager for ROI. “So we were very careful to support projects of interfaith and Jews of color and among them also projects supporting gays and lesbians.” This year, the first year of ROI grants, Bat Kol was the only LGBT organization to receive funding, she confirmed.
The English version of the Bat Kol site appears as the Orthodox community is grappling with a response to those in its ranks who are observant and homosexual. The signals have been torturously mixed.
Just last month, a group of Orthodox scientists seemed to give tacit approval to an organization whose aim is to “cure” homosexuals of their same-sex orientation. The same week, dozens of Modern Orthodox rabbis, educators and mental health professionals signed onto a “statement of principles,” drafted by New York Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, which calls for immediate welcome of homosexuals into synagogues and community schools, despite the fact that the signatories view heterosexual marriage as the “sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.”
All of this follows a panel discussion about issues of Orthodoxy and homosexuality earlier this year at, of all places, Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution; it drew a reported 500 to 700 people.
Bat Kol began under the leadership of Avigail Sperber, 36, who first attracted media attention in 2004 when she wrote a screenplay about an Orthodox lesbian and for the first time went public with her identity.
“That was the thing that started what became Bat Kol,” said Sperber, who now has a 2-year-old son with her live-in partner.
What began as a group of 10 cautious women meeting monthly in 2004 has now grown to approximately 400 members, some of them out, some closeted.
“For many women it [exposure to Bat Kol] was the first time they met any lesbian face to face, religious, of course,” Sperber said. “All of the women said, ‘I’m not lesbian; I just love my girlfriend.’ There was a lot of self-homophobia.”
Unlike most of the women in the group, Sperber, whose father, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is a black-hat religious leader at Bar Ilan University, benefited from her family’s gradual support. Her mother started a support group for the mothers of religious lesbians, which eventually merged with a larger group called Tehila, an organization for parents of gay children.
“We have a religious role here and we can make a change,” Sperber said. “It’s not just about accepting lesbians. It’s about changing something in the religious world and teaching the religious world to accept others — all kinds of others, not only gays but all kinds of people that are not Jewish or not religious — all kinds of things that are not exactly by the book.”
While Bat Kol members believe that their sexual preferences are within the bounds of Jewish law — a position that runs counter to the view expressed in most Orthodox circles — they have not yet publicly addressed the halachic details.
“We deal with mystery; there is no halachic response,” Weil said. “We’re dealing with homophobia within the Orthodox society that is not even based in a real halachic reason but is based in hatred and fear. … We haven’t even gotten to the point where our rabbis [the group has a number of rabbinic advisers] have even been able to address the halachic issue.”
The organization, which until the ROI grant had not received any formal funding, has thus far survived solely on the efforts of volunteers who offer social activities, numerous support groups and educational tools, Lev explained. Bat Kol also worked with the Orthodox gay male group Havruta to establish Shoval, a group that educates teachers about Israel’s LGBT community and promotes tolerance.
“You can’t imagine how incredibly reassuring it is to know that Bat Kol is there,” Lev said. “There is an organization operating for my right to live a full life.”
The English site is likely to increase the organization’s reach, specifically to new arrivals to Israel.
“I know that many women outside of Israel need the same thing we have,” Sperber said. “There were many times that, because of the language barrier, we couldn’t give women who came here to learn for a year or women who are olot [female immigrants] the support they needed.”
Weil, who arrived in Israel with little knowledge of Hebrew, said having Bat Kol’s resources available in English would have made her transition to Israel much smoother. In addition to making Bat Kol’s support networks more widely available, she stresses the importance of relaying to the world “the incredible steps that are happening within the Orthodox community.” Weil points to the mere fact that organizations like Bat Kol and Havruta are forcing rabbis to begin confronting the issue of Orthodox LGBTs, as they show up openly for services and Jewish community activities.
“Girls sitting home in the states or Europe or wherever, they have no idea that [a Hebrew newspaper] interview [about Bat Kol initiatives] happened,” Lev said. “They have no access to the information to show them that there is actually a presence in the media, that there’s dialogue happening about it.”
One such girl, 23-year-old Hayley Goldstein, benefited from attending meetings at smaller New York groups, such as Tirtzah, a predominantly online forum with occasional in-person meetings for frum gay women, and Ma’agal: The Nehirim Women’s Circle, which caters to a Renewal audience and meets monthly at the JCC in Manhattan.
“For a long time I felt like I couldn’t reconcile [my gay and religious identities]. I thought, either I’ll marry a guy or not be religious anymore,” said Goldstein, who now lives in Boulder, Colo. “But I think being in New York and going to these different meetings was so nice to see that other people are struggling with this.”
Goldstein said that there are few resources for Orthodox lesbians comparable to those at Bat Kol, and having access to its materials and activities would benefit so many young English-speakers struggling with these issues.
For better or for worse, Weil and Lev’s romantic relationship ended about eight months ago. But in terms of Bat Kol — their association with the group eventually led the couple to go public with their relationship — and the fight for Orthodox lesbians, their partnership remains quite strong.
Reflecting on their relationship, Weil said, “We couldn’t express who we really were. It was like living a double life and at some point the pressure of that and the stress, I think, creates a psychological illness. Being gay is not a psychological illness.
“We separated,” she continued, “but because this project was so important, we realized we had to work together to make it happen.”
Lev added, “[Bat Kol] is bigger than us — it’s about people’s lives.”