This, Too, is the Face of Jerusalem: Serving the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community

Among my friends and colleagues, I am occasionally chided for being a centrist. I am neither a leftist nor a partisan of the right, and I like to think that being open to the best thinking of all sides to an argument is the surest road to growth and wisdom.

And so it tends to be with me on social issues as well. Having been raised in the Orthodox world and only well into my college years gradually finding my way to Conservative Judaism, I was hardly the first to champion equality for women in Jewish ritual (although now I enthusiastically do), nor have I been on the barricades with regard to struggle for gays and lesbians to gain acceptance and equality within the Jewish world. I have come a very long way on that path; my thinking has changed significantly, particularly over the almost three decades of my rabbinate.

While in Jerusalem last week for the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, a few friends encouraged me to attend a program at a place called the Jerusalem Open House. Not my first instinct, I am obliged to admit, for what to do with my very limited time in Jerusalem. So many places to go, so little time… Ultimately, though, as is so often the case, personal friendships with some of the people involved with the project brought me there, and I am equally obliged to admit that I am so glad I went-

Now into its eleventh year, the JOH, as it’s referred to, is a safe space for members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) in Jerusalem to meet and share time. It runs a full array of programs including cultural events, courses, sports clubs, interest groups, religious services, and an open clinic that provides free testing for HIV and all appropriate counseling. It is not, in its essence, different in style and substance from so many similar kinds of places here in the States and particularly in New York, which has such a large GLBT presence.

What is different, of course, is that it is in Jerusalem.

Those of us who visit Jerusalem regularly and know it well can easily sing its glories. It is, at once, the epicenter of Jewish religious and spiritual history, and home to a vibrant, pulsating religious vitality today. But those of us who know Jerusalem well can also attest to the fact that, far too often, it is the arena in which religious intolerance and sin’at hinam- senseless hatred- play themselves out against a contemporary backdrop.

As an observant, non-Orthodox Jew- not to mention a rabbi- I blend easily into the crowd of so many who wear the kippah s’rugah that signifies- to Israelis- modern Orthodoxy. Whatever my differences are with the religious establishment in Israel- and they are many- I am rarely a moving target for the slings and arrows of those who differ with my religious life. But I am always aware of those differences, and when I choose to keep them to myself, it is a conscious choice that at most is an inconvenience. It may govern where I daven on a given Shabbat morning, or how much of myself I choose to share in casual conversations with people. But it doesn’t govern my life.

Living an out-of-the-closet life as a gay person does govern your life, no matter where you are. And in Jerusalem, where everyone wears religion on his/her sleeve, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to find a comfortable space within which to allow one’s spiritual and gender identities to live in harmony. It’s probably infantilizing of me to say this, and it’s the last sentiment I would want to convey on the subject, but I was moved and impressed by what I saw at the JOH. If you’re interested in what they do, you can check them out here. They, too, are the face of Jerusalem.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.