Hannah Simpson, 31, a transgender woman, waits at the entrance of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York’s oldest gay congregation, on Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings, prepared to greet teen visitors with a smile and words of encouragement.
She’s a volunteer at the newly opened JQY Drop-In Center, a resource and counseling facility for Orthodox LGBT youth.
“It can be intimidating to come into a space that otherwise functions as a synagogue,” said Simpson. “A smiling face immediately makes things easier.”
The drop-in center, modeled after similar centers around New York City that serve at-risk teenagers, is intended to reach “those most at risk,” through such programs as support groups and suicide intervention, said JQY executive director Mordechai Levovitz —JQY is an nonprofit organization that supports Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families.
JQY staff and volunteers lead activities at the drop in center.
The center, made possible by a $12,000 pilot grant from the Natan Fund, became a reality when CBST moved into their first permanent home in February, located at 130 West 30th Street. JQY immediately approached the congregation with the initiative. (The seed funding for the project is projected to last through the summer, after which JQY aims to raise funding to continue.) The congregation, which has been in a succession of temporary spaces since its founding in 1977, agreed to host the project.
“We wanted our new space to be a resource for the broader community from the start,” said CBST Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who will be a visiting guest at the drop-in center. “We know there’s a need, and we know what it feels like to need.”
In the wake of the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub early Sunday morning that killed 49 people and left 53 injured — the deadliest attack in U.S. history, according to authorities — the importance of creating a “sanctuary” for LGBT youth is only heightened, said drop-in center coordinator Rachael Fried.
“Those who cannot come out in their communities are feeling afraid, vulnerable and alone,” she said. “There needs to be a place where they can find support and mourn a tragedy of this magnitude.”
On Thursday night, the drop-in center will host a memorial for the victims of the Orlando shooting followed by a pride celebration, open to all members of the JQY community and its allies, said Fried. Social workers will be present for individual check-ins and additional “processing.” Additional security will be present, according to a synagogue representative.
Shonna Levin, an active member of JQY who frequents the drop-in center, posted on Facebook about the importance of promoting safe spaces for LGBT Jews following such an attack.
“A gay club is not just a place to grind. We can’t always hold hands in the street like you [straight people] can without fear of attack. To be who we are with who we love, without fear of judgment, persecution or attack, we need the LGBTQ community. We need sanctuary. JQY is my sanctuary, where I first went to see what it would feel like to be safe one day. I couldn’t be myself in the light of the sun, speak my own name without fear. Being gay in the Orthodox community, we don’t feel like we belong. We pretend to be different than who we are to protect ourselves.”
The new center, which opened for weekend and evening hours at the end of April, provides counseling, kosher food, and even arranges housing accommodations for teenagers and young adults between the ages of 13 and 23 who don’t feel they can safely return home. Drop-ins come from a broad range of religious backgrounds, said Levovitz — “We’ve seen chasidic teens from Williamsburg still wearing bekishes (long coats traditionally worn by chasidic Jews), Sephardim, and Modern Orthodox kids from New Jersey who have been in day school their whole life.” Some drop-ins are already married; some already have children, he said. For many of those who stop in, it is the first space where they openly identify as LGBT. “Many of those who have come are still completely closeted in their families and communities,” said Levovitz.
“There isn’t really another place in my community where I just feel so completely accepted, comfortable and safe,” said one 15-year-old student from a Modern Orthodox community who preferred to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. “I’m out to some of my friends and family, but many aspects of my school and community can be very alienating.”
Visiting the drop-in center, which the teen found out about through Facebook, provides her with hope and a sense of normalcy. “It’s such an amazing and unique thing to be around people from so many different backgrounds all coming together as a family. Not only have I met people my own age who can relate to my current situation, but through the older people I’ve met, I’ve seen the kind of future I could have.”
Fried, a licensed social worker, described the need for the resource as a “quiet emergency.”
“I anticipated people who were at risk would come, but I did not anticipate this level of need,” she said. Thus far, she has dealt with cases of self-harm, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. “The level of vulnerability can’t be underestimated,” she said.
What surprised her most is the number of center visitors who do not have an adult emergency contact to put down when filling out preliminary paperwork. “Fifty percent of the teens I’ve worked with have no one they can write down,” she said. “There is no adult in their life who can know they set foot in a JQY space.”
Yehuda, a 19-year-old from the chasidic community of Borough Park who preferred to only use his first name for privacy reasons, said that while he is out to his parents, he remains closeted in his community for fear of being ostracized.
“If I were to come out in my community I would be socially ‘cut off’ from everyone else,” he told The Jewish Week via email. “I would lose my trust, I would lose my respected status, I would lose my jobs, I would lose contact with some close friends and family. I would be looked down upon, and indirectly forced to live as a second-class citizen.”
In its few weeks of operation, the drop-in center has become a “highlight” of his week, he said.
“It gives me a space to just talk freely about sexuality and discuss different concerns. It gives me a space where I can talk to a social worker if need be. … It’s something that I can’t really experience within my own community. I’m very happy something like it exists.”
When teens first arrive at the drop-in center, they are greeted and sent for an initial intake session with a licensed social worker on premises. For returnees, there is a room to “just hang out and relax,” as well as facilitated activities that vary from week to week, said Fried. Aside from group conversations (one, for example, dealt with how to come out to family members) there are fun activities such as cupcake decorating.
“We strive for a balance of serious support conversations and just providing a space where people can come for social support,” said Fried.
Sima Lichtschein, the social worker primarily responsible for doing intake sessions with new visitors, said that many who come are “shaking.”
“Coming into an LGBT affirmative space for the first time is terrifying,” she said. “They’re admitting, even if it’s just to themselves, that this is real and they need support.”
Though an intake session is slotted to last about 15 minutes, in which time the social worker aims to “assess the level of risk and, if necessary, create a safety plan,” Lichtschein said every session so far has run overtime. “This is often the first time they are opening up to anyone — there’s a major weight that comes with carrying a secret for so long.” Though most of the visitors struggle with varying degrees of anxiety and low self-esteem, for higher risk patients — those experimenting with substance abuse or entertaining thoughts of suicide — she creates a “crisis plan,” including other resources they can contact in case of an emergency.
“We discuss coping mechanisms they can employ in the case of crisis,” she said. “Overall, these are incredibly resilient youth. We teach them how to use their inner strengths to get through the rough moments.”
The hardest part is getting the word out about the center to “those who need it most,” said Levovitz. In the more sheltered Orthodox communities, where access to Internet is limited and many individuals are still closeted, informing youth of this and other resources is tricky, he said. So far, JQY uses secret Facebook groups, targeted social media ads, word-of-mouth and referrals from other LGBT youth centers (none of which are specifically Jewish).
Still, there are always ways to reach further, he said. Recently, he met with Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, a leading rabbinic authority and well renowned rabbi in the sprawling charedi community of Lakewood, N.J. According to Levovitz, the meeting went “really well.”
“I just wanted him to know there’s a resource available, if the situation comes up where someone needs help,” he said. “They should know we exist.”