Tag Archives: LGBT

The Jew With Two “Beards”

By Steven Philp

To their neighbors they look like every other Orthodox Jewish couple, a man and woman married for five years with two children in tow. Even the fact that their marriage is a product of convenience rather than love is not unusual, yet the particular reason for their union is unique: the man is gay, and the woman is lesbian. Their marriage owes its genesis to Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living on the West Bank; over the past six years, he has paired thirteen Orthodox gay and lesbian couples. For Harel it is a simple solution to a more complex problem: these are men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex, yet desire to remain in good standing with their communities by acquiring the familiar roles of Orthodox adulthood—a traditional family of one man and one woman.  Are the members of these couples simply “beards,” a slang term that usually describes a woman who marries or dates a gay man to “prove” his heterosexuality?

According to Time, Harel has been quietly pairing gay and lesbian couples for years. It was not until this past spring, when he mentioned his service at a Jerusalem-based panel on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights that other communities became aware of these couples. Not surprisingly, he has met criticism from both fronts. LGBT organizations cite his pairings as disingenuous, leading to loveless—perhaps unfaithful—marriages. On the other hand, several of his peers believe that Harel should do more to discourage their attraction to people of the same sex. They look to the controversial practice of “reparative” therapy, which claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through counseling and aversion treatments. However, prominent health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have questioned the efficacy of “reparative” therapy, citing evidence that its methods can cause lasting negative psychological effects. Although Harel believes that many men and woman can change their sexual attraction, he concedes that some individuals cannot—hence the necessity of pairing the men and women who continue to desire a traditional Orthodox marriage despite their homosexuality. “This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within halakhah,” Harel explained to Time. “This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s kind of a solution.”

After his project went public, Harel found an increased demand for his services. He revealed plans to launch an online matchmaking service—Anachnu, Hebrew for “We” —for Orthodox gay and lesbian individuals who desire similar pairings. At the moment there will be five matchmakers on staff, all heterosexual. Harel will oversee operations as a consultant. Membership for the site will be $42, although if successful pairing is made both the bride and groom will pay $430 each.

When Harel began pairing gay and lesbian couples in 2005 there were no LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel. Currently there are five, including one that is working closely with Harel to promote his matchmaking service. Kamoha—Hebrew for “Like You” —announced its intent to host a link to Anachnu. The founder of Kamoha, a closeted Orthodox man who has adopted the pseudonym Amit, explained the reasoning behind their decision to support Harel. Although many gay and lesbian individuals want total acceptance within the Orthodox community, there are some whose desire for a quiet, normative lifestyle outweighs their sexual attraction. “We’re not pushing this on people,” explained Amit to Time. “This is for people who want this because Jewish law says this is the normal way and because it’s the easiest way to have children.” As for himself, Amit explained that he has not desire to utilize Anachnu; after many years of therapy, he came to the conclusion that he is “100% gay.”

However, not all LGBT Orthodox groups are comfortable with the implicit support that Kamoha has lended Harel. Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man living in Jerusalem and spokesperson for the pro-LGBT organization Havruta, explained that the matchmaking service will lead to unhealthy relationships. “I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it’s about caring, loving, and sharing,” Jonas told Time. “This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don’t love each other, the kids will feel it. It’s not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this.” Concerns have been raised about the fidelity of these marriages, a problem that Harel acknowledges and addresses with the potential gay and lesbian couples. In an interview with the Associated Press, Harel pointed to his belief that having children will provide a substantial foundation for the pairing to build a genuine relationship. “Their love is based on parenthood,” Harel said. “Parenthood is the glue and it’s strong.”

Still the efficacy of these relationships is called in to question. In an interview with one of the men paired by Harel—who chose the pseudonym Josh—Time revealed that even the presence of children is not a foolproof safeguard against infidelity. Josh, a 30-year-old Orthodox gay man, admitted to cheating on his wife at least three times over the three years of their marriage—most recently in February of this year. They have an 11-month-old son. “I haven’t told my wife, but I think she knows,” Josh said. “She can see it in my face when I come home.” Yet he explains that their mutual struggle with same sex attraction has provided space for an intimate, if unorthodox, partnership. “But she give me space,” Josh concluded. “I really love her because she understands me.”

Singing a New Song

By Steven Philp

It goes without saying that these are trying times. Yet it is in the face of crisis that humankind produces its best music, art, and literature; while grappling with adversity, men and women exercise their creative abilities to express anger, sadness, and—above all—hope that is both genuine and deeply felt. Perhaps it is the celebration of this latter sentiment that prompted MTV to add a new category to its annual Video Music Awards: “Best Video With A Message.” According to Reuters this award was created to “honor artists and music videos that featured a positive message or raised awareness of key social issues facing today’s youth.” Despite chart-topping performances by Pink, Katy Perry, Eminem, Rise Against, and Taylor Swift—whose songs addressed issues ranging from social isolation to domestic violence—it was Lady Gaga’s pro-diversity opus “Born This Way” that clinched the honor. And regardless of what one thinks about the quality of her music, that at the height of her career she would craft a song celebrating the spectrum of human expression—including an explicit nod to the embattled gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community—deserves recognition.

Unfortunately the spirit of tolerance embodied by the new award category was belied by MTV’s nomination of up-and-comer Tyler the Creator, who was recognized as this year’s “Best New Artist.” As a press release from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation makes note, his lauded sophomore album Goblin is a celebration of homophobia and misogyny—including 213 occurrences of the word “faggot” and its variations. Instead of sending a message of hope, his lyrics promote violence and normalize discrimination against some of the most marginalized people in our society. In the end, the VMAs is testimony to the state of American music: while there are enough songs to cobble together a new award category that features “positive messages,” our “Best New Artist”—which is selected by popular vote—is actively contributing to the adversity felt by minority communities.

So where can we look for songs of hope, when the pop charts so often lend themselves to the dissemination of bigotry? Just this month, Jewish hip-hop sensation Matisyahu uploaded a new single that serves as a reminder that the most profound inspiration can manifest in the most unexpected places. Rabbi Yonah posted a story on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, detailing the history behind the song. It started with an unlikely friendship, between Matisyahu and a young boy named Elijah. Although the boy was battling cancer, his indefatigable spirit inspired the hip-hop artist prompting several years of after-concert visits and phone exchanges. When Matisyahu was on tour this year, Elijah came to his concert in Florida and asked if they could record a song together. The next morning the boy was admitted to intensive care. With his acoustic accompanist and recording equipment in tow, Matisyahu showed up at the hospital that evening. The result was “Elijah’s Song.” According to Matisyahu, most of the words and many of the lyrical decisions were made by the young boy.

Unfortunately Elijah passed away that night. Inspired by the boy’s courage, Matisyahu has made the song available online. The song can also be downloaded for a minimum donation of $1, with proceeds going to the Elijah Memorial Fund. Rabbi Yonah makes note that one would expect a song composed by a dying child would be “sad and full of regret,” but the lyrics point to the opposite: that in the face of adversity, hope can be found. Just as artists like Tyler the Creator showcase the damaging power of words, Elijah reminds us that in every creative act is the potential for redemption. In his own words:

Never know what tomorrow brings,
Don’t have the answers to tell you.
Take it one step at a time,
See where G-d will lead you.

Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and now Kate Bornstein

By Bonnie Rosenbaum

My introduction to Jewish heroes can be traced back to one amazing Barbie doll.

It was 1986, I was in 7th grade, and my Sunday school class at Temple Sinai had started a unit on “Great Jews.” Carrie Horrowitz marched to the front of the classroom, launched the blond statuette into the air, and began her oral report: “Hannah Senesh was a brave woman who parachuted into Yugoslavia to save the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Barbie quickly crashed to the floor and my classmates and I tried to stifle our laughs. Thus began our lesson on Jewish heroes.

As a 12-year-old girl who spent her lunch hour playing football with the boys, Hannah defined awesomeness through her parachute alone. Only years later did I learn the full story of her life, her poetry, her defiance.

When it came time for my presentation, my friend and I staged an interview between a journalist and Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel and the world’s third female to hold this title. Another kick-ass woman who flaunted gender roles and came out ahead. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion even called her “the best man in his cabinet.” Golda soared to the top of my personal list of Jewish heroes. (I wish I could say that I played Golda, but I was too shy. Plus my friend’s father was a real Israeli, so I reasoned that she had a more legitimate claim to the star role.)

The other Great Jew who made a mark on my consciousness was Sandy Koufax, the award-winning pitcher for the Dodgers who refused to play the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Even then, I understood the public nature of his private decision and joined his legion of admirers.

Now, in June 2011 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Pride Month, I’m marveling at a new roster of Jewish heroes recognized by many and selected by our staff at Keshet to inspire a new generation of 7th graders. We took three LGBT Jewish changemakers who transformed our world—Harvey Milk, Kate Bornstein, and Lesléa Newman—and put their beautiful faces on bold, modern, 18×24 posters for the LGBT Jewish Heroes Poster series. We celebrate their amazing accomplishments and their dual identity as Jews and queer people. And being 2011, we also created a small website to showcase them.

I’m working up the courage to call the rabbi at my old synagogue to ask him to buy these posters for the Hebrew and Sunday school classrooms. Hang them up for the cool athlete who never mentions his uncle has a boyfriend, for the quiet girl who doesn’t feel right in her own body, and for their classmate who is worried what it will be like when both her moms are called to the bima for her bat mitzvah. Hang them up for the teacher who shows up to services with a handsome friend he calls his roommate. And hang them up because we know all too well the feeling of being outsiders, strangers, and a people who need visible role models.

Our deepest hope is that these LGBT Jews find their rightful place alongside Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and Sandy Koufax in classrooms, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, camps, Federations, Hillels, and Jewish organizations everywhere—as educational tools to spark conversation, dialogue, learning, and reflection.

And pride.

Bonnie Rosenbaum is the Deputy Director of Communications and Planning for Keshet

G-d Comes Out on the Side of Equality

by Steven Philp

In the national debate concerning equal rights for the LGBT community, the opposition has consistently claimed that they have G-d on their side. Only this week, the anti-equality group National Organization for Marriage held a rally in the Bronx featuring several prominent clergymen and women from local congregations, all of whom advocated for a definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. According to a video posted on Good as You, religious leaders like Reverend Ariel Torres Ortega of Radio Visión Cristiana – citing the Bible as witness – stressed that LGBT people are “worthy of death.” The same blog snapped a picture of Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a prominent Orthodox community leader who – according to a media release posted on the Christian Broadcast Network – has blamed the LGBT community for causing the September 11th terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, among other catastrophic events. Although there are strong advocates of LGBT rights within the faith community, such as the Right Reverend Gene Robinson of the New Hampshire Episcopate, many are LGBT-identified themselves. And even so, the perception has been created that allies within congregations are few and far between.

Yet in early May the Empire State Pride Agenda, an LGBT civil rights and advocacy group, issued a press release that gives cause for a little faith. The announcement names 727 clergymen and women from across New York State who have come out in support of marriage equality legislation, currently heading to the state Senate and Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly stressed the importance of LGBT rights under his administration; this particular bill is “among his top priorities to achieve before the current legislative sessions ends in June.”

The listed names and their respective congregations represent a wide range of faith traditions, although the vast majority of the signatories are Christian. But among the clergy included in the press release are a number of Jewish leaders. “Jewish tradition prizes family as the basic building block of a community and we know that the stability of the family is enhanced when the family unit enjoys legal protections,” said Rabbi Debora S. Gordon of Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, New York. “It is in accord with very important Jewish values to recognize and protect the bonds between loving couples, irrespective of the gender of those two adults.”

Not surprisingly, all of the rabbis quoted in the press release – in addition to the vast majority of rabbis listed among the signatories – are members of the Reform movement. In fact, only one rabbi unassociated with a congregation listed his affiliation with the Conservative movement; all others were labeled as Reform or Reconstructionist. “The Reform Jewish Movement has long held that all loving, committed couples deserve the opportunity to celebrate their relationships and have them recognized in the eyes of the law,” explained Honey Heller and Donald C. Cutler to the Empire State Pride Agenda, co-chairs of the Reform Jewish Voice of New York State. “Too often we see opponents of marriage equality using faith as their shield. However we believe that faith demands of us that we treat all couples equally.”

What is striking about these statements is that each of the clergymen and women attributes their attitude toward LGBT equality to their faith. The Jewish leaders who listed their names among the signatories did not do so because they felt it was the politically expedient thing to do, but rather because they were motivated by their engagement with the Jewish community. “As a rabbi, I am honored when families invite me to share in their lives, in the daily routine as well as times that are very special,” explained Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, Director of the Concerned Clergy for Choice. “My pastoral experience demonstrates the value and sanctity of marriage, and the importance of extending the protections and responsibilities of legal marriage to same gender couples.

As we wait for the marriage equality bill to weather the State Assembly and Senate, it is important to identify allies in our respective communities. For many Jews, this includes our individual temples, shuls, and synagogues. And whether or not this particular legislation is successful, at least we know one thing: according to 727 clergymen and women, G-d is on our side.

Homophobia Is Not Kosher

By Steven Philp

On Thursday LGBT-interest blog Queerty posted an article outlining the newest addition to the Kosher.com affiliates program: the anti-gay group JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Kosher.com advertises itself as the largest online kosher supermarket, offering door-to-door delivery of several thousand kosher products including meat, dairy, wine and frozen foods. The affiliates program allows customers to select a non-profit organization—including synagogues and schools—to receive 5% of their online purchase; in return, Kosher.com benefits from increased traffic from that organization’s constituent population. JONAH has come under fire for their prescription of “reparative” therapy for LGBT Jews, which has been shown by all major American health organizations—including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatry Association, and the American Psychology Association—to be ineffective; in fact, as outlined in a 2007 article by The New York Times, the majority of certified health professionals hold that “reparative” therapy can damage self-esteem, increase depression and promote suicidal behavior.

Queerty was alerted to the partnership between Kosher.com and JONAH by Jayson Littman, a survivor of “reparative” therapy. Littman had held membership in JONAH for five years, before coming out and starting a “gay Jewish events outfit” in New York. Littman expressed his misgivings in an e-mail to Kosher.com, explaining that their association with JONAH sends “a message to [LGBT Jews] of where you stand on this issue and what your beliefs are.” Kosher.com replied to Littman, outlining their acceptance of any and all organizations in to their affiliates program. Unsatisfied, Littman responded: “I am sure that non-profit organizations that spread hateful messages about Jewish people wouldn’t be considered for the Kosher.com affiliate program.” The following Friday, Truth Wins Out—a pro-LGBT organization that sheds light on the harmful effects of “reparative” therapy—started a petition on Change.org against the partnership of Kosher.com and JONAH. According to an article posted on their site, within 90 minutes they had gathered one thousand signatures. Shortly after, Kosher.com responded to the petition with the following:

Firstly we wish to apologize if any action taken by any member of our company offended anyone. Our affiliate program…was not something that we had monitored but considering the current reaction regarding jonahweb.org’s decision to send their members our affiliate offerings, we have decided to discontinue that affiliation and our management will review our affiliate programs guidelines going forward.

The swiftness with which online organizing produced results is heartening. The article on Queerty coupled with Truth Wins Out’s petition is an example of quick and effective online advocacy. Although we are called to respect—if not cultivate—a plurality of opinion within the Jewish community, supporting an organization that actively discriminates against other Jews is decidedly not kosher.

Is Gay the New Black?

By Steven Philp

Voicing an opinion that is shared among conservative leadership, Reverend Keith Ratliff, Sr.—president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP—complained that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement has “hijacked” the civil rights debate. According to the De Moines Register, Rev. Ratliff addressed an anti-marriage equality rally outside the Iowa state capitol on Tuesday, stating that “there is no parallel” between LGBT rights and the 1960’s movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He emphasized that Dr. King would not have supported same sex marriage, explaining that he was a “Bible-believing Baptist preacher.” To argue contrariwise is “an insult to the civil rights movement.”

But whose civil rights movement is it, anyways? This past January, in honor of the late Dr. King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. delivered a rousing sermon at Conservative Chicago synagogue Anshe Emet. Despite moments of tension between our communities—several of which found their origin in his history of anti-Semitism—Rev. Jackson called upon Jewish and African American leaders to remember our common purpose: to secure civil rights, as traditionally oppressed minorities, for ourselves and for each other. He recalled the important role that Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel played in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, meeting with Black activists and marching with them in Salem and Birmingham. In fact, Jews were one of the most actively involved non-Black groups in securing equality for the African American community.

Yet the Civil Rights movement derived less strength from Jewish manpower—however important—than from the Jewish narrative; we are a people who have experienced oppression, fought against it, and achieved freedom.  The liberation theology that fueled the impassioned sermons of Dr. King and Rev. Jackson derived many of its images from Exodus. It is easy to see the parallels between the emancipation of African American slaves and our journey from bondage in Egypt, making the latter narrative a powerful proof text for the former: liberation is the historically attested will of G-d. Yet, this where Rev. Ratliff has it wrong: the fight for LGBT equality is an appropriate parallel to the Civil Rights movement, just as the Civil Rights movement followed our path to freedom. The story of liberation does not belong to anyone, because liberty—as enshrined in the Constitution—is universal. It is continually informed by each of our narratives, whether Jews, Blacks, the LGBT community or other minority groups. The experience of emancipation gives us the space to empathize with other oppressed communities, to add another stepping stone to the path toward equal opportunity. To be liberated makes it imperative that one fights for the liberation of others.

This past week, former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins lent their voices to the Human Rights Campaign’s video series for marriage equality. In his 30-second spot, Dinkins—the first and only African American elected to the office—says, “I know that we are a diverse people who believe in fairness and equality.” In response Koch—an outspoken and proud Jew—explains that “Right now, our state is not doing so well when is comes to fairness.” Yet the one-time Democratic rivals agree on one thing: They are compelled by the narrative of their respective communities to stand on the side of equality for LGBT Americans.

The Ah-Hah Moment

By Steven Philp

Matt Goldman was not like the other six-year-old boys in his Cub Scout Den. First, he was Jewish. Second, he was gay.  He recalls one Cub Scout meeting at the local Baptist church in his hometown of Virginia Beach. Sitting in a circle with fifteen or so boys, they shared what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was his turn, Matt was honest: “My husband is going to be a policeman, and I’ll be living in a three-bedroom house, with flowers and a beagle – and I’ll make the best ice cream in the world.” This upset the other boys and resulted in his banishment to the front steps of the church for the duration of the meeting. When his mom found out what happened – like all good Jewish mothers – she spent several terse hours on the phone with the Scout Master and his superiors demanding to know why she found her son sitting alone in front of the church. After she hung up, Matt remembers her giving him a hug and telling him that “we didn’t need those people.”

Matt’s story is one of several hundred submitted to Born This Way!, a photo and essay project for members of the LGBT community to share snapshots from their childhood – focusing on those ah-hah moments when they discovered that they were a little different from their peers. The site was launched last year by Los Angeles-native Paul V. in response to the series of LGBT teen suicides that plagued our communities; it is his hope that the “struggling [gay] kids of today can see themselves in the faces and stories of the gay kids of yesterday, to live to create their own memories.” The response has been overwhelming; Paul has been forced to close submissions for periods of time so that he can sort through his inbox.

Many members of the Jewish community can empathize with the sense of otherness carried in the stories on Born This Way!. Like Matt, we have had our own ah-hah moments through which we realize that we are not like all of our peers, whether it’s Christmas tree envy or matzo sandwiches during Passover. As children we looked to adults in our schools and synagogues – our parents, rabbis, and teachers – for the reassurance that we weren’t alone. Unfortunately, many questioning youth lack positive LGBT role models in their communities. Although there is an increased visibility of LGBT characters in television programs and movies, they are inaccessible in their fiction; they are left wanting for someone in our own lives, someone tangible, who is also stands out from the pack.

Paul emphasizes that this project is not about stereotypes. He points out that “some of the [pictures] here feature gay boys with feminine traits, and some gay girls with masculine traits. And even more gay kids with none of those traits.” He continues, stating that within the LGBT community people express myriad combinations of masculine and feminine traits. What is important is that every story is unique, and as a result we can find pieces of ourselves in each of them. You may not be Matt Goldman, but perhaps you understand what it is like to be gay and Jewish. And maybe you too dream of a handsome husband in the civil service, a white picket fence, and petunias – and the best ice cream in the world.