Reading about New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino’s homophobic turn in front of an ultra-Orthodox audience last Sunday, my thoughts drifted back to painful memories of my middle school years.
The first time I contemplated suicide was at a charedi middle school in Manhattan. I felt out of place there, and though I didn’t have a name for my depression, my parents were aware enough of my state that I spent three years seeing a psychologist. With that help, I found some happiness in my solitude. Then I was sent away for high school to a right-wing Orthodox yeshiva boarding school in Westchester.
In ninth grade I developed a crush on a boy in the eleventh grade. He was handsome, funny, and he took a reciprocal interest in me, arranging for me to switch to sharing a room with him. Our first kiss, initiated by him, was when he drove me home from a Purim party at a yeshiva in Flatbush.
But when we returned to boarding school, he pushed me away. The thoughts of doom returned. Without a protective older "brother," I became the victim of a bully at school, an older boy with problems of his own. But I was younger, and I was odd, and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis ignored the situation. Thoughts of suicide returned, and throughout 10th and 11th grade, I sometimes would imagine the varieties of ultimate solutions to the isolation and sense of difference I felt.
In 11th grade I ran away, determined to be done with it all, to put an end once and for all to the isolation. Yet after a night on the run, I was unable to bring myself to do the final deed. Instead, I walked up to a police station in Washington, DC, where I ended up in a halfway home.
After a week, I came home and was allowed to return to New York City and to a new school — Orthodox, but with opportunities to enjoy the city of the mid-’80s, while having a public, appropriately Modern Orthodox and chaste dating friendship with a girl. In return, I agreed to go to Israel after high school, again to a charedi yeshiva. There, passion for classmates was unacceptable, and isolation from women and options outside the Orthodox world were strictly enforced.
Isolation and a sense of displacement returned. There seemed no way to reconcile the gap between my growing consciousness of who I was and my desire to be part of all that I loved and found satisfying in a traditional Jewish life: the sense of caring and responsibility for others, the powerful experience of relating to God and one another through communal prayer, the urgent message of essential human dignity in our ancient texts.
I left that life and spent my 20s struggling to reconcile my worlds. I knew in my heart that I was gay. Yet in my head I believed that if I could find that one perfect woman, I could have the Jewish family that I was taught was the only choice imaginable. It took a long series of unhealthy relationships with women, finding a mentor who himself only came out at work after leaving a job as a Jewish communal professional, and the release of the film, "Trembling Before God," before, entering my 30s, I finally came out to my family and at the Jewish agency where I worked a decade ago.
Life does get better, and the world has changed for the better. I am happy with life, reconciled with a public, honest existence, including at the Jewish organization where I work, along with a fulfilling Jewish community. I’ve taken on a leadership role in an independent minyan, Darkhei Noam, where men and women lead in partnership and halachic collaboration, and where gay and lesbian families are welcome. I have a mother and some other family who, once I accepted myself, embraced me as I am.
But much as life gets better eventually for most LGBT teens, as the Trevor Project’s current YouTube campaign conveys, the Paladino speech is a reminder of how awful it is right now in a lot of places. Most of the media cut off the tape after his most outrageous comments, but if you keep watching, it’s the next moment, when the crowd of chasidic men applauds, that sends the most toxic message, particularly to struggling young men and women in the ultra-Orthodox community.
It’s telling that of all places, it was among charedi Jews that Paladino chose to deliver his remarks, expecting and receiving a positive response. Because this community, the community I grew up in, fosters a culture of conformity, one where the message to youth is that "there is only one way to live, and it is our way." The implication drawn, implicitly and explicitly, is that if you will not live "our way" then you might as well not live. And that message was heard loudly and clearly among the charedi youth once again this weekend.
Truth be told, we don’t often work on issues of rights and inclusion (at least explicitly) at Jewish Funds for Justice, where I work. And as someone who works to create social change informed by a Jewish perspective, more often than not it is easy for me to ignore the ultra-Orthodox world.
But at times like these, when our attention must be given to the tide of teen suicides by LGBT youth in this country, not to mention violent attacks, I feel ashamed to ignore the charedim. Ashamed not for who they are nor from a desire to go back to that world, but for their (and in a real sense our) children, all the boys and girls who, like myself once upon a time, are struggling to reconcile who they are with the world they know.
At times like this, we desperately need efforts like the "Do Not Stand Idly By" initiative launched this past week by Keshet (whose board I’m on), to encourage all of the Jewish community to end homophobic bullying in our schools and synagogues. It is profoundly heartening that more than 430 organizations signed the pledge in its first week – including JFSJ — and it will make a real difference for thousands of kids across the Jewish community and beyond. Yet it is also humbling that few of those voices will be heard in the haredi world. We have so much more to do if we are to reach these kids and save them from the impossible and tragic choices they are weighing right now.
For as the rabbis of the ancient Mishnah taught us, "whoever saves a single life … it is as if they have saved the entire world."
Carl Paladino has expressed regret for his remarks, which at least says something about the state of acceptable political discourse in New York. From the decision of Rabbi Levin to then withdraw his endorsement of the candidate, and the silence of many others in the Orthodox community, together with the applause of Carl Paladino’s audience this week, we are reminded: those children need saving from those around them who claim to love them, but only for who they "ought" to be, and not for who they are.
This is our task, and it is all of our responsibility.
Jeremy Burton is senior vice president of philanthropic initiatives at the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ.)