For years, Jewish Queer Youth (or JQY as its fondly known) has been running support services and social events for LGBTQ teens and young adults in Manhattan. On Sunday night, it reached an important milestone: hosting a “straight-friendly” LGBTQ party for close to 400 people.
Ten years after its first Chanukah party in 2007, JQY held its first benefit concert and dinner in what the organization hopes will become an annual tradition.
It was the first fundraising event for the organization, which recently installed a new board as it evolves from a grassroots organization into an established institution in the Jewish nonprofit community.
“In many ways this is JQY’s coming out party,” said Mordy Walfish, chair of the JQY board. “We’ve been kind of under the radar for a while doing phenomenal work but as a very scrappy, small nonprofit. We feel like the time is now right to come out and show the world what we’re made of.”
The night was unusual for a JQY event, with both members and straight allies alike mingling over latkes and jelly donuts. Most JQY events, including its weekly drop-in center as well as its social events, are geared exclusively towards the LGBTQ community. The organization primarily works with teens from Orthodox, Chasidic, and Sephardic backgrounds who face additional challenges coming from religious families and communities. The organization runs a weekly drop-in center in which teens can participate in support groups or check in with social workers as well as a hotline where teens and young adults can speak with social workers.
“LGBT people are part of the community as we have been forever,” said Hannah Simpson, one of the event hosts. ”We go to all of the mainstream events and now it’s great to see people in the mainstream community coming to support us, because we’ve been there all along.”
The event drew a cross section of the Orthodox community, with performances by Eli Schwebel, Neshama Carlebach, and Matisyahu. Schwebel, who has a large following in the Orthodox and Chasidic communities, faced criticism from some of his religious fans for participating in the event but felt the cause was too important to ignore.
“When I saw the reality, I said I have to do something,” said Schwebel, referring to the fact that 70% of LGBTQ teens coming to JQY from an Orthodox background are or have been suicidal. “I think everybody who knows me knows that I’m here as a heart and a voice, as a person that cares about people.”
While Orthodox communities have been growing more accepting of LGBTQ Jews in recent years, that progress has not been without setbacks. Earlier this month, a liberal Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx said it would end its practice of congratulating same-sex couples on their marriages after receiving a complaint from the Orthodox Union. Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of JQY, mentioned the OU incident at the dinner, encouraging the crowd “to say Mazel Tov even more!”
“I have many friends who are members of the LGBTQ community who now volunteer with JQY and I know would have really benefited from an organization like this when they were younger,” said Adina Poupko, program officer at Natan Fund, one of JQY’s sponsors since 2016. “So it’s just really exciting to see what a new generation of LGBTQ Jews will have access to.”
The dinner, which raised $30,000, honored Sandi DuBowski, the director of the film “Trembling Before G-d.” The film, which followed the lives of several LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, helped start a public conversation about being LGBTQ in an Orthodox community and to the founding of JQY.
“Sandi, with that movie, really began something,” said Levovitz. “We made a decision, our lives cannot be like that. With our lives, you shouldn’t be able to make a movie like “Trembling Before G-d.” Because we’re going to be dancing, not trembling.”