The “mazal tov” in the shul bulletin was unremarkable. It was the second of seven such congratulations in the Nov. 3, 2017 issue of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s Bayit Bulletin, sandwiched between one to the parents and grandparents of a bar mitzvah boy, and one to the parents of a new son (and to the newborn’s big sister). It was the same point size and type face as all the others, and there was no rainbow flag next to it.
After my boyfriend Avidan and I got engaged at the end of October, our friends and family — both our given and chosen families — congratulated and applauded this milestone. They were celebrating our happiness and how much this means to us. We had a small engagement party and we were wished a mazal tov by all who came. As with most lifecycle events, a note was sent to Avidan’s parents’ synagogue for the bulletin so that our community could celebrate in the happy news, too. The word “engagement” was used, as we were going to take the next step to be legally married, but the words “kiddushin” or “erusin” (concepts of halachic marriage) were never mentioned. Nothing felt out of the ordinary; in fact, even those who disagreed with our “lifestyle” were polite enough to offer congratulations for our happiness.
The happiness didn’t last. Ten days later, in response to the synagogue’s printed well-wishes, came an online post by someone named CB Frommer on Matzav.com (an ultra-Orthodox website). In order to bring attention to the synagogue’s action, the website targeted me and my fiancé. My first reaction was to laugh. The post, entitled “Open Orthodox Congregation Wishes Mazel Tov On “Marriage” of Two Men,” was placed under the “Breaking News” category. It was neither “breaking” or “newsworthy.” It seemed more like an attempt by the writer to create a scandal where none existed.
The post seemed nothing more than an attempt to publicly shame me, my family and HIR, which is considered a liberal Modern Orthodox synagogue (hence the headline’s use of the term “Open Orthodox”). In fact, instead of using an image of the fairly subtle wording in the synagogue bulletin, Matzav.com disingenuously published a photo of a Facebook post and photo from JQY — an LGBTQ organization — and tried to pass it off as the synagogue’s announcement. In today’s terminology, Matzav.com was reporting fake news.
Even worse, the post included a photo of me and my fiancé along with our names, which put my fiancé, myself and our families right in the line of fire. This is the kind of personal targeting that is common in homophobic newspapers, hoping to turn a community against specific LGBTQ individuals and their families. How sad that this tactic is now used in the Orthodox world.
The comments to the post, perhaps not surprisingly, were mostly anonymous, given their hatefulness. And there were dozens of them.
“Sick people” with “psychological issues” who “won’t be able to celebrate their 50th anniversary with their kids”: You get the picture. While I didn’t expect to have solely positive reactions when I got engaged, I didn’t expect the reactions to be that cruel. I’m having a hard time comprehending the animosity from so many people who don’t know the first thing about me, other than the fact that I’m a gay Jew. I’m having an even harder time understanding why larger Orthodox institutions, rather than publicly coming to our defense, seem to be fanning this hatred.
When the Orthodox Union (OU) got wind of the mazal tov, HIR (an OU-affiliated synagogue) apparently was pressured to no longer announce the weddings of its LGBT members in its newsletters, in accordance with OU policy. (The synagogue had been announcing same-sex marriages in the shul bulletin since earlier in 2016, according to JTA.) Showing “support for, or celebration of, halachically proscribed conduct is fundamentally inappropriate,” the policy states. Reading into that, it appears that support for the families of LGBT people is prohibited too, because the synagogue’s bulletin didn’t wish either of us a “mazal tov,” it wished Avidan’s parents and grandmother congratulations.
So now we cannot even congratulate a parent for their pride in their children? Where does that leave LGBTQ Jews and their families in the Orthodox community? Do we simply not fit within the OU’s world? Can we be a part of the community we came from, and still want to belong to, even though God made us differently? Is there nothing about my happiness that is worthwhile for my friends, family and community to support?
I grew up being taught that the Jewish nation is the “light unto the nations.” I’m confused as to how we can allow homophobia and intolerance to fester unchallenged in our homes, schools and shuls?
My fiancé and I are trying, against all odds, to live Jewish lives. If that is not worth a mazal tov, then I don’t know what is.
My fiancé and I both know how painful it can be to be gay in the Jewish community, but we also know how much love and acceptance there is. Would “committing” to each other mean we were now a toevah (abomination)? Perhaps according to some. To me, I knew that I found my person, and together we would live our lives connected to Judaism and the community in our own way. What we do in private, is just that: private. Our engagement is not an pronouncement of our intimate behavior; it’s a declaration of our love, happiness and commitment.
So what now?
My request is this: Do not judge me until you put yourself in my shoes. If you are not sure where people like me fit into the Orthodox world, that’s OK; I’m still figuring that out, too. However, if you admit that you don’t know the answers, at least have the humility to meet people like me before you get involved in further taking away the love and support of my family’s community. Perhaps now is the time to listen and learn, not the time to dictate and exert pressure. Connect to the LGBTQ Orthodox community — we are people just like you. Support organizations like JQY, which runs life-saving programming for at-risk LGBTQ teens in the Orthodox world. And overall, just be a nice, kind, welcoming person and love your fellow human being.
And on behalf of my fiancé, myself and our families, thanks for all the continued congratulations and well-wishes. It means more than you know.