In many ways, Rivkah Procaccia appears much the same as other young Orthodox women in Crown Heights. Living in the heart of the Chabad Lubavitch chasidic enclave, the 26-year-old observes a modest code of dress, only dines at kosher restaurants and strictly observes the Sabbath.
But from a young age she felt different from her Chabad peers. Procaccia identifies as queer.
“I struggled growing up in a community that doesn’t acknowledge queer people,” Procaccia said. “Still, I’m here: observant, religious and queer.”
Now, a new underground movement is seeking to unite individuals like Procaccia who grew up in the Chabad community and identity as LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer — and give them sanctuary.
Chaim Levin (who recently made headlines for testifying against the Orthodox “reparative” organization JONAH in a lawsuit that resulted in its closure) started the group last month as a “secret” Facebook group, which is more private than a “closed” group in that the public cannot see its members and the group doesn’t come up in online searches.
Since launching on Dec. 23, Levin has seen the Facebook group grow to nearly 100 members and has added a public “LGBTQ Chabad and Allies” group where individuals outside the group can show support.
Members differ widely in age, orientation and religious observance; while some remain in the community, others are no longer religious. Still, all members grew up Chabad, and many still feel deeply connected to their religious upbringing. The group, which receives partial funding from JQY, aka Jewish Queer Youth, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ Jews from Orthodox homes, held its first in-person meet-and-greet last Saturday night in Crown Heights at the home of a group member. About 20 members attended; according to Levin, the gathering will be the first of many.
“Like every Chabad house, we have an open door policy, and that includes closet doors,” reads one post on the LGBTQ Allies Facebook page.
“The group is growing more quickly than I ever imagined,” said Levin, 26, who said he grew up in a “heimishe” Chabad family in Crown Heights and still feels strongly connected to his Chabad roots, though he no longer practices Orthodoxy. “If our community didn’t need this, the group wouldn’t be progressing at this pace.”
Over the past several years, LGBTQ awareness within the Orthodox community has been increasing, though slowly, given the stance of Jewish law toward homosexuality. JQY, founded in 2001 to promote understanding for young gay Jews, today serves over 600 LGBTQ Orthodox young adults across New York. Language sensitivity training and “safe space” seminars for Orthodox gay students and allies are spreading on college campuses, guided by Eshel, a nonprofit founded in 2013 to support gay Orthodox adults and their families.
Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist in private practice here who has written extensively on LGBTQ issues, said that similar underground groups are bound to emerge in other chasidic communities.
“The members of this group believe they have no choice,” said Drescher, an expert in “closet psychology.” “The message from the larger community is that they are unacceptable. As part of a marginalized minority, they will eventually seek out others for support. There is no putting this genie back in the bottle.”
Even conservative Christian groups can no longer evade the issue. In November, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received harsh backlash from Mormons upset about a new policy barring children of same-sex couples from being baptized.
Still, in chasidic circles the topic is still largely taboo, and homophobia remains rampant, Levin said.
“There’s tons of intolerance toward gay people in Chabad circles,” said Levin, who said he was relentlessly bullied while a 15-year-old student at a prominent Chabad yeshiva in France. After coming out to one of his close friends, he was rapidly shunned by his classmates and teachers and eventually kicked out of the yeshiva. “I was humiliated, rejected, and blacklisted,” he said, and called such names as a “faggot, sick, ill, a danger and a pedophile.”
Creating a system of support for individuals struggling against homophobia in the Chabad community is essential, he said.
“I really don’t think we can expect it to get better if we remain invisible.”
Though no Chabad rabbis have taken action against his group, pushback online has been aggressive and persistent, Levin said. In order to monitor the public allies page for hateful and offensive posts, the group has five moderators. Still, hate has slipped through. One user compared the group to a “mechalel Shabbos” group, or desecration of the Sabbath.
A Chabad spokesman declined to comment.
In the private group, keeping identities secure is of the utmost concern and Levin admitted that he is very scared of “potential infiltrators.” Many members of the group have not come out to their families or communities and have taken a significant risk by joining the group, he said.
One such member is a student at a Chabad yeshiva in Florida. At 15, he chose to stop learning secular studies so he could focus exclusively on Talmud and chasidic texts. Today, in his early twenties, he sports a black hat, black pants and a white button-down shirt, and, as is traditional among Chabad young men, he has never shaved or clipped his beard.
At age 13, he found himself attracted to one of his classmates in yeshiva.
“I didn’t realize what I was feeling at first, partially because I didn’t want to accept the truth,” he said.
Speaking by phone to The Jewish Week, his voice was jittery and he was careful with his words, often backtracking to convey just the right meaning. Still, he felt it was important for others to know that one can remain fully within the Chabad fold and be gay, as long as one doesn’t act on it.
“Even though being this way has forced me to struggle with my beliefs, I’ve ended up in the same place as everyone else — I’m still a 100 percent believer,” he said.
His “very conservative views” have sparked controversy within the secret group itself, he said. In one post, he expressed that being gay was “not normal, and clearly not the ideal.” Other members of the group requested the post be removed; instead, Levin added a qualifier saying that opinions voiced by members of the group did not reflect any official stance.
“If I could take a pill that would make me straight, I’d take it without a question,” the yeshiva student said.
Still, despite his unwavering dedication to an observant Chabad lifestyle, the 21-year-old admitted that it does “hurt” when his peers and even rabbis express homophobic views or use offensive language, like faggot.
“I hope people in my same situation — gay people in the Chabad community — don’t feel like misfits or freaks. They should know there are others like them,” he said.
For many in the group, the recent ex-chasidic memoir “Uncovered,” written by Leah Lax, who is a lesbian, was a turning point in the conversation. Lax describes her journey out of the community’s insular fold as she learns to accept her lesbian identity.
“For me personally, the national recognition of ‘Uncovered’ is nice, but this evolving story in Crown Heights is what has my heart,” Lax wrote to The Jewish Week in an email.
Lax, 59, has become an active member of the online group. She described the range of the group members this way: “frum and not frum, young and old, and [of] every orientation imaginable that is not heterosexual.” While some members “left the fold years ago but felt forever cut off from ‘family,’” others in the group are “current bachurim in yeshivas, or girls living at home struggling with the pressure for shidduchim,” referring to beginning the matchmaking process. The group’s diversity, combined with the shared Chabad roots, makes the dynamic “electrifying,” Lax said.
Goldie Goldbloom, a professor of creative writing at the University of Chicago and a successful novelist, is also a member of the secret online group. Today, the 51-year-old, divorced mother of eight and former Chabad shlucha (emissary) identifies as Lubavitch, observant, and queer (an umbrella term for people in the LGBTQ community).
“I chose to be involved because this is what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years, but under the radar — working with mostly Chabad people who are mostly not out as LGBTQ in the Midwest area,” Goldbloom wrote to The Jewish Week in an email. “I’m really glad that Chaim set up the page because it offers a place where we can all see that we aren’t alone, that there are hundreds of other Chabadniks in similar circumstances.”
Goldbloom described a particular dynamic within the Chabad community, where there exist two “internal groups”: one faction of the community is focused on outreach and tends to be far more accepting, while the other faction, which in large part is made up of people whose families have been in the Chabad fold for generations, is “focused inwards.” The latter group is “far less open to outside influences and — in particular — to LGBTQ individuals,” she wrote. Most members of the online community belong to this second group.
“When they came out, they were met with fierce rejection from their families and communities and most often, left Chabad and everything they had grown up with,” she wrote. “Those people struggled with depression, alienation, isolation.” Others choose to stay in the fold and “live closeted within the community, afraid to come out … these people also have difficult, fear-filled lives that impact their families, without their families knowing what is wrong.”
Another member of the group, Samantha Katz, originally from Phoenix, also finds the group ethos invigorating. Though Katz, 26, is no longer religious, she became deeply involved in Chabad while an undergraduate student at Arizona State University. At 19, she got engaged to a Chabad yeshiva student whom she met through mutual friends. After suppressing fears about the match for two years, she broke it off — just three months before the wedding.
Today, she and her wife of several months are seeking a way to re-engage with Judaism. The Chabad community is where she feels most at home; still, the community’s unwavering coldness toward her “life choices” and a staunch “unwillingness to acknowledge that LGBTQ people exist” leave her unsure of where to turn.
“It’s painful to see other couples celebrated as they start their lives together, and to realize that my choices and my future family will never be celebrated in this community,” she said, a heavy note of sadness in her voice.
Still, the new online community has given her fresh hope. One of the original members, she gains strength from the constant online chatter and the exposure to “others just like me.”
“For many, I think the group is finally a chance to be openly gay. It’s funny, for me, it feels almost like the opposite,” she said, with a quick laugh. “For me, this group is finally a place where I can be Chabad again. It feels right.”