My friend and colleague, Justin Spiro, wrote eloquently about the need to call on Orthodox institutions after returning home from staffing Keshet & Hazon Jewish LGBTQ Teen + Ally Shabbaton earlier this month. He called upon flagship Modern Orthodox institutions like Yeshiva University to begin having discussions of how we can support our LGBTQ siblings within religious communities.
Since then, there have been several articles that try to tackle the issue that LGBTQ people — particularly, young LGBTQ people — face in the Orthodox world. One such article even promoted celibacy for queer Orthodox teenagers. Many statements and articles, however, fall into two distinct groups: those which are self-congratulatory, and those which call on Orthodoxy to change. However, none of these have proposed concrete steps that Modern Orthodox educators and leaders can take to create more inclusive schools, synagogues, and communal spaces for their LGBTQ constituents.
The first thing we can do in the Modern Orthodox world is to shatter the whitewashed image we have of “gay congregants” and “gay people.” For better or for worse, the LGBTQ community is too wide to generalize, and the Modern Orthodox world needs to stop thinking of the LGBTQ community as “gay people.” Our community includes those who identify as transgender or outside of the gender binary completely, and those members of our community who identify as lesbian, bisexual (a group that gets routinely marginalized in the LGBQ community to begin with, and is only marginalized further still in the Modern Orthodox world), and queer. Additionally, these identities encompass much more than just what we do with our significant others in the bedroom. Discussions of our private sex lives are not productive and ultimately do not work toward our inclusion in the Jewish community.
The second step that Modern Orthodox communities can take is creating constructive dialogue within synagogues, schools, and communal gatherings on how to actively offer resources to members of the LGBTQ community. For high schools specifically, this includes a safe space for discussions of gender and sexuality, topics which are usually discussed behind closed doors. Schools like Ramaz, where I co-founded the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, can provide a model for creating a safe space for dialogue about topics that are often glossed over or ignored completely. Schools must be willing to hold anti-bullying and sensitivity trainings for teachers and staff that include providing resources for guidance counselors about programming in cities around them for students who come out of the closet, and to provide resources for students who are seeking active LGBTQ communities on college campuses.
The other thing that must be done within the Modern Orthodox community is to shift the focus away from simply focusing on a “seat in the synagogue.” When I enter a synagogue and sit down, I am not looking merely for a seat: I am looking for a community that will treat me as an equal. If I get married (and I do hope to, one day) and have children, I want my marriage to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of everyone around me. I want my children to be seen legitimately as my own. I want a space wherein I do not feel othered because the people to whom I attracted are on my side of the mehitzah, not on the other side. As a queer man, I defy, break, and do not exist within the gendered framework of traditional Jewish communities. I might never be able to change that (and it has been, in the past, one of the reasons I have sought out egalitarian prayer spaces) about Orthodox prayer spaces, but that does not mean that I, as a queer man, should be treated as a second-class citizen. To do this, however, we must be able to recognize that the LGBTQ community, as we perceive it today, does not necessarily exist in “classical” halakhah, and Modern Orthodoxy must find a way to incorporate the LGBTQ community by innovating within halakhah.
We, as active members within the traditionally observant LGBTQ community, need to not merely call out Modern Orthodoxy on the Internet or in the newspaper. Those of us who grew up in the Modern Orthodox world will continue to leave not just because the conversation isn’t happening, but because the conversations that need to happen aren’t. I am no longer content to just be tolerated in the synagogue. That is not an effective derekh to pave for us young LGBTQ Jews who want a community which is committed equally to our rich tradition and to our contemporary values of equality.
The change we need will happen not from the top down, but will, instead, happen by one synagogue, one school, one person, stepping forward and taking the next step beyond just mere tolerance and toward a more sincere acceptance. It falls upon us to empower those entities and to provide the resources necessary enable our allies in the Orthodox world to make that necessary step.
This might mean that Modern Orthodoxy needs to critically reexamine what it stands for, and how, as a movement, it will actively engage with previously disenfranchised members of the community. This reexamination should — and must — be encouraged. This has the potential to be, and perhaps ought to be, the point at which Modern Orthodoxy finally asserts itself as a distinct movement. This issue cannot be resolved by self-congratulations and a seat for me in the synagogue. I can’t be content to just sit in the synagogue and pretend that, at the core, I am still a second-class citizen who will never be married according to Jewish law, and will never be seen as fully equal.
I cannot be expected to check my sexual orientation at the door when I enter the synagogue on Shabbat morning. There are allies to the LGBTQ community within Modern Orthodoxy — I know that there are — and now is the time to begin the conversation, not about how we can tolerate LGBTQ Modern Orthodox Jews, but how we can work to incorporate them into our communities so that they are truly equal. Simply giving us a seat in the synagogue and sweeping the other issues under the rug are not enough for me or my LGBTQ siblings. Otherwise, our derekh will continue to lead us away from our communities and away from observance.