“Do you have any resources for a 15-year-old gay yeshiva high school student?”
It was 2011, and I could hardly believe my ears. I apologized to this desperate mother and offered the small consolation that her son can attend the JQY adult meetings when he graduates high school. (JQY is the largest national non-profit supporting LGBTQ youth and their families in the Orthodox community.) As I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel very good, so I could only imagine how she and her son felt. This was just months after a string of high-profile LGBTQ teen suicides, and the It Gets Better Project had been launched to give LGBTQ youth a message of hope for the future. JQY even created its own "It Gets Better" video for Orthodox gay youth. While the project was well-intentioned, the It Gets Better message tells a drowning child that a raft is coming. Some teens simply cannot stay afloat. It was time to build more rafts.
To put this issue into perspective, according to a 2012 New York Times analysis of the UJA Jewish Community Study, 74 percent of New York City’s Jewish youth are Orthodox. Since there is no reason to think there are different rates of homosexuality or gender variation in the Orthodox community, it follows that 74 percent of New York City's LGBTQ Jewish youth are living in Orthodox homes. This is a staggering statistic considering the amount of homophobia and rejection of LGBTQ people in Orthodox communities. According to The Family Acceptance Project, LGBTQ youth from rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide. Thus, thousands of LGBTQ Orthodox teenagers in New York City are at particularly high-risk and yet have the fewest resources targeting their needs. At JQY we realized that we must step up to provide support to this extremely vulnerable population.
Establishing a support group for LGBTQ Orthodox teens would prove to be very tricky. Even after navigating the political and financial obstacles, JQY was left with the seemingly impossible task of advertising a program to an unidentifiable and hidden population. When the JQY teen support group was launched in 2012, a few high schoolers nervously shuffled into our meeting space, each one more uncomfortable than the next.
Little by little, the group grew. I am proud to report that last Sunday's meeting had 14 teens in attendance, and many more are part of our virtual social support networks. But it wasn’t the quantitative growth so much as the qualitative. Whereas back in 2012 the first teens were afraid of their own shadow, those present this month were radiating with pride, comfort and love. When I found myself slipping into my teacher voice to quiet down the garrulous youths, I knew we were on the right track.
At the conclusion of the meeting, one young man said, “It was amazing seeing everyone who comes every month, but even more amazing getting to meet our new members of the JQY family.” Family. I had to hold back tears.
The vast majority of JQY teens view the group as their sole outlet to express their true selves, and they refuse to contain this liberating feeling of being “whole persons” to two hours per month. The members have created a texting group so that they can support each other at any time. When a group member in an Orthodox yeshiva was bombarded with anti-gay language in class, he turned to his virtual support community / “new family members” to pick him up and remind him of how amazing and special he is. On the texting group we have a rule that every homophobic slur heard in school will be met with a text that says something nice about the person; the word “homo” never before elicited so much positive self-esteem and love.
JQY teens are creating innovative new ways to support each other, such as these texting groups, virtual safe spaces, and internal referral systems. This month a nineteen-year-old graduate of a prominent gap-year Israel yeshiva helped launch the newest JQY teen resource for Orthodox high school students looking for safe and welcoming post-high school yeshivas in Israel. It is called The JQY Yeshiva Inclusion Project (YIP). Through researching and collecting the experiences of recent gay yeshiva students and the policies of different Israel yeshivas, YIP will be an invaluable tool for gay high school seniors and their parents seeking the best possible choice of yeshiva program in Israel.
Last year I wrote in the Jewish Week that I felt frustrated and discouraged by the lack of supports available to LGBTQ teens in the Orthodox world:
"LGBTQ youth who leave Orthodoxy are not going off the derech. There never was a derech for them in the first place.”
Upon reflection, this statement is lacking. Yes, most of my teens struggle with issues of acceptance in their families, schools, and communities. And yes, many of them don't see a clear-cut "derech" for themselves in Judaism. But that's not stopping them. They're not waiting for Orthodox institutions to create a derech for them. As I marveled at the JQY family these teens have created, I realized something incredible – they are creating their own derech. We just need to follow their lead.
We must urge Jewish communal institutions and federations to empower Jewish queer youth, especially those from the Orthodox community. We need to focus our efforts on being a value-add to the local support initiatives, crisis lifelines, and Orthodox school & mental health trainings that are already taking place throughout the year. We are making unprecedented progress. Yet it is our goal to expand and cultivate JQY teen programming in every Jewish community where rejection is unfortunately an everyday reality.
One of our newest group members summed up her experience: “I’m leaving this meeting with so much hope and happiness in my heart, and this is the first time I ever had an experience like this.” At JQY, we will always continue to provide support and social services so that LGBTQ Orthodox youth experience these amazing feelings every day of the year. That's a task from which we cannot stray.
To learn more about JQY or to make a tax-deductible donation to our teen program visit our website.
Justin Spiro, LCSW received his Masters in Social Work from New York University, with a strong focus on clinical work with adolescents and older teenagers. Justin has worked with teenagers in New York City public schools for the past six years. He is the teen program director for JQY, a non-profit organization that supports LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community. Justin has spoken on multiple panels as part of the JQY Speakers Bureau and regularly engages with Orthodox Rabbis and other community leaders. He facilitates the JQY Long Island Teen Group, a safe space for Orthodox LGBTQ teens, and coordinates outreach to Orthodox LGBTQ teens across the country. For more information, visit JQYouth.org, email Justin at Justin.Spiro@gmail.com, or contact our JQY Hope-Line at (551) JQY-HOPE.