Orthodox Shuls Host LGBT Event, Amid Row
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Orthodox Shuls Host LGBT Event, Amid Row

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

An organization that hosts events and weekend retreats for Orthodox LGBT Jews went forward with programming in downtown Manhattan last weekend, despite pushback from several prominent Orthodox rabbis.

A letter signed and circulated by 12 community leaders, including Rabbi Yeshaya Siff of the Young Israel of Manhattan and Rabbi Zvi Dovid Romm of the Bialystoker Synagogue, threatened to denounce as not Orthodox the two synagogues hosting the Shabbat retreat — the historic Stanton Street Shul and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue — for choosing to align with Eshel, an organization that aims to create inclusive spaces for LGBT Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.

“We are saddened that the Stanton Street Shul and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue have unilaterally chosen to associate our community with an organization which we cannot consider to be Orthodox, one whose stated aims are at odds with the verses of the Torah itself,” states the flier, manually distributed and hung up in several synagogues across Manhattan. “No Jewish institution that allies itself with such a group can rightfully claim to be Orthodox.” (Orthodox Judaism considers homosexuality to be a sin.)

“We call upon Stanton Street Shul and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue to publicly distance themselves from Eshel and its decidedly non-Orthodox worldview,” the letter demanded.

Despite the letter, the event continued as planned, and attracted an “amazing” turnout, with over 100 attendees on Shabbat day, according to the rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, Rabbi Aviad Bodner.

“The rabbis who made the statement do not have the monopoly over Orthodoxy or the Torah,” Rabbi Bodner told The Jewish Week. “Disagreements are healthy and welcome, but they must be voiced with respect. Decisions about what is best for each shul will rightfully differ, but they should be left to the synagogue leadership, and no one should be subject to public shaming.”

Eshel has since circulated a letter online in support of Rabbi Bodner and Rabbi Gavriel Bellino of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, thanking them for not backing out of the program. The letter has received nearly 500 signatures.

According to Eshel’s executive director, Miryam Kabakov, it was not the pushback that made the weekend noteworthy (though the synagogue requested a police officer for the entrance of the building where events were held — “we were worried,” Kabakov said). Rather, it was the synagogue rabbis’ response that made the weekend stand out.

“This was one of the first times the Orthodox rabbis really refused to back down in any way, despite the strong response,” Kabakov said. In other communities, Eshel has had to change plans at the last minute because of unforeseen resistance; in Washington Heights, a member of the board at the synagogue where the group was planning to hold services said he would lock the doors if the group showed up. They quickly switched venues to meet in a Reform Temple in the neighborhood. In an out-of-town congregation (which Kabakov preferred not to name) the local board of rabbis heard about the weekend program and the told the rabbi of the synagogue where events were set to take place that they wouldn’t allow him to have the eruv (halachic enclosure that allows carrying on the Sabbath, in accordance with Orthodox law) he needed for his community if the gathering took place.

“It’s a hard-learned lesson: gaining entrance into Orthodox communities is tough,” said Kabakov. ”

Despite the struggle, Eshel intends to keep pushing for entry into Orthodox communities. “That’s part of our mission,” said Kabakov. “And plus — we don’t have the door slammed in our face everywhere we go.”

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