When Sean Herzfeld, an openly gay Orthodox teenager from Westchester County, heard about Shira Banki, the 16-year-old who was stabbed and killed by a charedi protestor at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, he felt scared.
“I was sad, I was disappointed, but mostly I was really frightened,” said the rising junior at a local yeshiva high school. “It could have been me, or any one of my ally friends.”
Herzfeld spoke last Thursday night to a crowd of 300 at a memorial and solidarity rally for Banki at the LGBT Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Though there were only 150 seats, people flowed into the auditorium and stood pressed closely together, many wiping away tears as Herzfeld spoke. The crowd was diverse, with kippot, traditional women’s head coverings and rainbow flags sprinkling the crowd.
Herzfeld, an active member of JQY, a nonprofit organization that supports Orthodox LGBT Jews, recalled marching with his peers in the Salute to Israel Parade just two months earlier, waving a rainbow flag.
“Three days after the Israeli Day parade, I’d already resumed my usual teenage schedule including participating in school activities, extracurriculars and hanging out with friends,” he said. “Three days after participating in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, Shira Banki succumbed to her wounds on her hospital bed.”
The emotional memorial service brought together representatives from organizations representing a wide swath of the Jewish community, including Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBT synagogue, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, co-director of Eshel, an organization working towards the integration of LGBT Jews, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), America’s largest body of Orthodox rabbis.
Rabbi Dratch’s appearance, which marked the first time an RCA member spoke at a LGBT Center event, was considered a “historic” moment by many, especially in lieu of the RCA’s public statement of concern following the Supreme Court verdict on gay marriage in June. In the statement, the RCA rejected the court’s “redefinition of marriage” and cited it as a threat to Orthodox religious freedom.
Rabbi Dratch said he was “embarrassed” that his appearance at the ceremony was considered something special. Standing behind a podium draped with a rainbow flag, he spoke for five minutes denouncing the cultural influences that produce violent extremists and pointing to elements of communal responsibility for the tragedy.
“There are sins of commission and sins of omission,” he said, citing failure to “speak up” against pejorative or mocking comments as part of the problem. “Our community has been much too silent for much too long.”
He added that while the act of extreme violence might have been an aberration, it “festered in a community whose culture is too often pervaded by insensitivity, disrespect, vulgarity and intolerance.”
One attendant, who preferred to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said it “blew her mind” that Rabbi Dratch was standing behind a rainbow flag.
Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of JQY and one of the event’s organizers, said that Rabbi Dratch’s remarks “more than rose to the occasion.” While he had spoken alongside Rabbi Dratch at a mental health conference in April, this was the first time he was officially representing the RCA, according to Levovitz.
“In the past, he was careful to say he was coming as an individual, and not necessarily to represent the organizations,” said Levovitz. “This time, we didn’t give organizations that option.”
A representative from the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University President Richard Joel both said they would have liked to attend, but were traveling, according to Levovitz.
“There can be positive repercussions from this tragedy — the Orthodox world is beginning to understand the impact of negative messaging coming from the rabbinate,” he said. “It’s just not so simple to keep pushing away an already ostracized minority.”
Dr. Jack Dresher, a psychiatrist who has written extensively on gender and LGBT issues, said that those with severe mental illnesses do make use of the belief systems around them. “Racism, sexism and homophobia are all themes they could pick up on,” he said. Repeated moral condemnations can lead to anti-homosexual biases, heterosexism, and even anti-gay violence. “It becomes increasingly difficult for members of these groups to distinguish between the ‘sinner’ and the ‘sin’,” he said.
The attack at the Jerusalem parade has alerted people to the “unintended consequences” of hateful words and actions. He referred to the memorial service as an “amazing moment of dialogue.”
“What we saw on Thursday did not spring up overnight — it is the culmination of brave efforts to engage in dialogue for the past 10 years,” he said.
In Israel, several prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern and Rabbi Benny Lau, strongly condemned the violence and pointed to the communal factors that may have contributed.
“It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” said Rabbi Lau, standing in Zion Square before hundreds of rainbow flags at a memorial rally for Banki and the Palestinian toddler killed in the West Bank. “Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”
Miriam Wopenoff, a middle-aged chasidic woman from Crown Heights, stood in the crowd on Thursday night, a wad of tissues in her hand. She wore a long black skirt and a traditional black head covering. “I’m here to support friends from my community,” she said. “Many of them couldn’t be here.”
Zach B., who asked that we not use his full name for privacy reasons, just graduated high school and will be studying at a prominent Orthodox yeshiva in Israel in the fall. He attended the memorial service on Thursday night not knowing what to expect. Still, the weight of communal responsibility propelled him to go.
“It would be easier if we could just say ‘this guy was a nut job’ and be done with it,” he said, wearing a kipa, dark pants and button down shirt. “But we can’t wash our hands of what happened, until we try and make it better.”
Editorial intern Talia Lakritz contributed to this report.