It’s been one year since an opinion piece I wrote for The Jewish Week received a great deal of attention (Is Our Happiness Not Worth a ‘Mazal Tov’?). I was responding to the negative reaction from the Orthodox Union (OU) and others after a shul bulletin offered congratulations on my engagement to a man who is now my husband.
At the time I didn’t think our engagement was a big deal. Now I feel otherwise. For people like me, who were raised to believe that being gay was an abomination, punishable by death, there was a glimpse of hope. I felt our engagement could be a model for another couple’s hopes or future. My husband and I became outspoken representatives of gay Jews from Modern Orthodox backgrounds, whether we wanted to be or not.
In our first six months as a happily married couple, we’ve had a normal life. We have Shabbat meals with friends — including meals with Modern Orthodox hosts and guests — or visiting our families. We are treated like any traditional couple, and we have the same discussions that are had at any other Shabbat meal on the Upper West Side. When we visit my husband’s hometown shul for Shabbat — the one that wished us the “Mazal Tov heard round the world” — we are welcomed with hugs and hellos.
But we’ve had our struggles. We’ve been to Shabbat meals where people have argued that homosexuality is wrong. We also avoid my hometown synagogue, where I wouldn’t expect the rabbi and congregation to accept a same-sex couple. The OU-affiliated rabbi who stood next to me as I became a bar mitzvah can’t acknowledge my wedding.
When the father of my childhood best friend heard that I was gay, he said, “If my son told me he was gay, I’d have taken a baseball bat to his head.” It’s tragic on so many levels. It will have repercussions for anyone in his family who isn’t “man” enough, and for the people who know his family who will need to act and speak a certain way to be accepted by him.
Nowhere in the Torah does it say that a person who is born LGBTQ is an abomination. Why did I, like so many others, have to grow up thinking that genuine happiness wasn’t something I’d ever have in my life? Someone who is LGBTQ should not feel they’re a mistake, a sinner, or a bad person. As Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of Jewish Queer Youth, put it, “The number one priority should be for people to know that being gay (lesbian, transsexual, bisexual…) is not wrong.”
Children in school need to know this. The fact is, it is believed that 4 to 6 percent of all people identify as LGBTQ. Whether yeshivot and synagogues want them or not, there are LGBTQ people in the classroom and in the pews. And no doubt in pulpits as well.
The sooner we internalize this, the sooner we can move on to what’s most important: making sure all people — especially children and young adults — have the care and concern they need. V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha” (“Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself”) applies to all people.
It starts with the way homosexuality is talked about in some parts of the Jewish community, especially the Orthodox world. It’s treated as a sin or a hindrance, if not just completely ignored. I was taught that as a fourth grader, and I suffered silently for years afterward. For many LGBTQ teens from rejecting communities, it’s no less than a matter of life and death. LGBTQ kids from those communities are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, had a yeshiva day school education, spent two years at a yeshiva in Israel and was in a dual beit midrash/college program. Whatever they taught about lashon hara — derogatory speech about another — it didn’t stop the rebbeim from calling a boy a feygele (homosexual) if he seemed less than the stereotypical “man.”
Part of the problem is that school principals and teachers are part of the reason that LGBTQ teens think about taking their own lives. As someone who was called out by my principal for looking gay in front of my classmates, suicidal thoughts were simply part of my reality.
Yeshiva day schools, high schools and synagogues need to find a way to accept and welcome Jewish LGBTQ students without question. To caricature children, call them names, and make them a target of ridicule by their peers is condemning them to a life of shame, loneliness and despair.
Even ignoring the signs, or avoiding the subject, has serious consequences. As Rachael Fried, deputy director of JQY, put it, “Silence is perceived rejection.” Some Jewish organizations, synagogues and schools are accepting and supportive of LGBTQ people — but only when asked in private and directly by an LGBTQ person. There is very little outspoken support. And there are plenty of organizations, schools, and synagogues that are willfully oppressive, both in private and in public.
Within the Jewish community, 75 percent of teens who have visited the JQY Drop-In Center — a weekly support group for LGBTQ Jewish teens and young adults — have reported thoughts of suicide. These are your children, your students, your congregants.
In the 12 years since I graduated high school, the Jewish community has made some progress in LGBTQ acceptance. There are community panels and initiatives at some schools. But there are still teens in high schools today who feel afraid and alone. Can’t kids be told that they are accepted and loved, and that if they do come out, that they won’t lose their friends, family and community?
Thankfully, my husband and I are happily married, accepted and loved, with a future in the Jewish community. I just wish that this message could reach the teen crying in their room now, praying for help.
What can you do? Take time to listen and learn. Speak up against hate and ignorance and cruelty and show your support. Connect to the LGBTQ Jewish community — we are people just like you. And overall, just be a welcoming person and love your fellow human being.
Ari Shane Weitz works at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center and is a part-time teen outreach coordinator at JQY (Jewish Queer Youth). For more information on JQY and the Drop-In Center, visit jqyouth.org.