Twenty-two years ago, my best friend from high school came out. We both grew up in Modern Orthodox homes, went to yeshiva together and are children of Holocaust survivors. He was not the first yeshiva colleague that I knew to come out but he was by far the closest one to me. The immediate instinct of my wife and I was to embrace him and offer to be there for him with whatever struggles he now faced.
While today coming out, as homosexual both in the Orthodox world and the rest of the world seems almost uneventful, 22 years ago it was as difficult as standing nude in Macy’s window at Christmas time during rush hour. The reactions from his family were predictable with members of his circle believing there were doctors that could cure him of his predilections. My friend is the strongest most resilient person I know and created a life and career for himself and found a wonderful partner, despite the enormous mental and emotional pressures put on him by the community he grew up in and lived in.
People with lesser gravitas might have taken out frustration and perhaps anger on the community and religion he was brought up in. But my friend is the most spiritual Jew I know and the most ardent Zionist. His new outward identity did not force him to leave his other one. If Orthodoxy would not welcome him with open arms he would find a Jewish community that would and for the past 20 years he has been an active member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) known as New York’s gay synagogue. For the past 10 years or so, years that I myself have been searching for a post-Orthodox identity, he has asked me to join him on Yom Kippur at New York’s Javits Center where CBST holds its services for upwards of 3,000 people, free of charge incidentally. He promised me that it would be the most spiritual Yom Kippur I ever experienced, especially the Neilah service which takes place as the sun sets on the Hudson River, the wall to ceiling glass reflecting the multi colored end of day, the lights are dimmed and the choir, rabbi and cantor serenade a congregation seeking to be lifted to the highest of plains. For nine of the last 10 years I found or had excuses to pass on the experience; this year I finally, enthusiastically attended.
In my 50-plus years, most of them spent as a practicing Orthodox Jew, my exposure to services of other denominations was limited, but not uncommon. However, let’s be honest here, the Orthodox, at least a large many of them do not consider non-Orthodox movements Jewish at all and I can personally attest to many rabbis and teachers from schools and synagogues I attended even ridiculing non-Orthodox practice. Even with my limited exposure to Conservative and Reform services, in the deep recesses of my imagination they always seemed formal, cold, dispassionate and unspiritual. Thankfully, I have educated myself out of that notion.
Kol Nidre night was so powerfully moving I had tears in my eyes as Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum explained how this particular prayer was written around the time of the Spanish inquisition when Jews who had been openly living as Christians while secretly living as Jews disavowed the promises they made to the church in order to save their lives. How relevant in a community where so many had to live secret lives from their own families for years. Now was the time to disavow those lies forced on them by homophobia, ignorance and intolerance. That was a Yom Kippur message that resonated with me.
At the Yizkor service, I was moved when the rabbi mentioned that many in the crowd were about to memorialize family members perhaps even a parent who never accepted them as they are and left the world with open wounds in their relationships. Yet here we were praying for their souls despite pain and unresolved conflict. That was a Yom Kippur message that resonated with me.
I was flabbergasted that the service with its cantors, choir and musical instruments was not at all alien to me and resembled much of the liturgy chanted in an Orthodox service. And the congregational participation in the singing of traditional melodies put my old Orthodox shul to shame. And on this most somber day, the rabbis conducting the service managed to incorporate humor and the multi-dimensional beliefs of the congregation.
Judaism, real Judaism is one that is inclusive, one that welcomes the stranger and one that cares about the world outside of the community. This Yom Kippur, rather than count how many pages were left until the end of the service or wonder how long it will be until I could eat and drink, I soaked in love and caring and spirit — and I likely will never forget how moved I was.