Sunday, February 12, 2012

Survivng a year away in a foreign yeshiva (religious school) after being outed at the age of 16

When I was 16 in 2005, I was sent away to boarding school in a small suburb near Paris called Brunoy. For anyone who grew up in my Orthodox community, if you went to the yeshiva in Brunoy, you were truly a righteous hero and were truly a "god fearing" (yiras shmayaim) student. The school’s legacy is based on the fact that its physical conditions make prison look like hotels. The idea is that as servants of god we’re not supposed to care about the physical world, our appearance or our living conditions. So, for my year spent in Paris, I wasn’t on vacation touring the most famous sites in the world, I wasn’t eating fabulous French cheese, and I definitely wasn’t touring the great museums like the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay. I lived in a fairly small room with four other people and had to shower in a room with 13 showerheads with close to three hundred other people. At 7:15, the water was turned off by an automatic timer, and, if you still had soap on your hair or body, you needed to go into the mikvah, the waters of which were changed once every two months and the amount of people that used it during that time is unknown. All I can say was that the water usually looked black. At 7:30 in the morning, the dormitory would be locked from the outside so, if you were late to seder (study session), you were locked inside the dorm and had to wait until someone from the admin with a key would open the door. You might be wondering about the fire hazard that posed, and so did I  especially when I was locked in the dorm with the fire escapes were blocked off and locked shut. We were allowed to go Paris on Fridays only to do “outreach” work by putting on Tefilin (Jewish Phylactirys) and reminding people that there was a god in this world and that we must do everything we can to bring messiah closer. Internet cafes were off limits; although I won’t lie, I used to sneak in and spend hours on the internet. Often, it was my only connection to the outside world. I spent 8 months in isolation, misery and loneliness because, two months into the school year, a friend told someone that I was gay, and this person took it upon himself to inform the entire school about what an awful person I was.

It was around December 15th, 2006, a chabad holiday was being celebrated. In chabad circles, especially on such “auspicious” occasions, many fargrengens (gatherings) were happening where much alcohol was consumed by both the students and the staff. I don’t remember how it happened exactly, but, during all these gatherings around the school premises, I was confronted by the rabbi who was in charge of me, my mashgiach. He said that there are rumors spreading around the school that I had done something sexually with another boy in the school. I felt my world crashing down as he said those words to me; I knew that I was up shit’s creek, and there was a 95 percent chance that I’d be shipped home the next day. Right after this rabbi confronted me, I was approached by four different students my age who were in "shock and horror" about the stories, unable understand how I was able to do “such a disgusting, low and immoral thing”.

The next morning, I was told that the whole school knew and that many people wanted to hurt me because they were so disgusted by me. I remember walking into the grand study hall while everyone was sitting at their respective tables. Suddenly, all the attention in the room shifted towards me as I walked past the glaring eyes of about 400 people. Over the next six months, I was subject to harassment by many of my schoolmates, both in private and in public. I was called "faggot", "disease" and "heretic", in Hebrew, French and English. As I write this today, I can’t imagine how I survived those dreadful, seemingly endless months, an ocean away from home in a foreign country with no money at the age of 16 in a strict religious school, surrounded by people who hated me for who I was.

I chose to write about this today because I know that many others have experienced similar treatment by their schools and peers inside Orthodox communities because they are gay. It scares me that some rabbis like Rabbi Cowen from Australia and Rabbi Levin can simply ignore the endless pain being caused to their own students, relatives and friends inside the orthodox community. Rabbi Cowen claims in his "research" that raising awareness against bullying of gay people is part of an “agenda” to “teach” homosexuality in our schools to young children. He claims that the real problem is anti-aemitism, and the gay agenda is covering it up with the great conspiracy that gay teens are bullied to the point of suicide. I’m sure many of my readers are familiar with Rabbi Levin at this point. In response to my article in the Jewish Press, he compared gay youth to amalek (the enemy of the Jewish people) and said homosexuality is like a cancer that must be cured with chemicals. I don't’ understand how self-proclaimed Orthodox Jews can be so ignorant not to realize that gay people exist everywhere and that, by making such harsh, insensitive generalizations about gay people, they are waging a silent holocaust upon thousands of gay youth in EVERY community, especially our very own Orthodox ones.
While I’m somewhat content with the fact that dialogue is finally happening inside these communities, the people who make such statements made in the name of “god” and the “torah” are reckless and dangerous. Every time gay teens or even adults hear such harsh words about themselves  statements that lead to the kind of taunting and torment I endured throughout an entire year in yeshiva  those who are suffering in this great plight are pushed farther away. These reckless leaders are sending a message to those who already feel lost and without hope that their well being as people, as Jews and as Orthodox Jews is not only unimportant but a fabricated “conspiracy” by gay activists. It is time people wake up and realize how serious this problem is and that, by simply ignoring these people and their hateful messages, we do only more damage to the innocent people that hear these awful things about themselves from the very people who claim to love and care for them.

Although some people have apologized for the way that they treated me that year in yeshiva, their actions were not right or tolerable to me or the rest of the world. That is why I wrote this, and that is why I will continue to write my experiences while growing up frum and gay. I would consider it a success, if my story helps just one person, gives them comfort or even strength in knowing that they are not alone.

6 comments:

  1. Although I'm not gay, I feel your pain from my own bullying in school. But I do have a couple of questions (perhaps you've answered them before). Why didn't your family take you out of the school when it was such a prison for you? The other question is more personal. Since you knew what the damage would be, why did you just deny it (if you were even "guilty" at all)? I realize you have made the conscious decision to come out. However, at the time, from what I've read, you had not yet at that point. So why put yourself through the torture then?

    Of course, it's easy for me to say and I do not mean to demean your horror. I do feel that the lesson you are trying convey is more universal than just a matter of being gay. Hopefully, this will strengthen more abused kids to come forward.

    Best of luck!

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    1. My parents were equally angry and disappointed at me because of the "rumors". I had to do everything I can to stay in that school or my parents weren't gonna be happy and I would be out of the schooling system.

      Simply denying it, something I did a lot during that year, didn't stop people from assuming the worst about me and my "grave transgressions"

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    3. Thanks for the response. Again, I can only imagine the pain. I had a roommate in Yeshiva who, although closeted, was assumed gay and terrorize repeatedly. His denial was so deep that he eventually married and had a child. But by the time he hit 30, he couldn't live the lie any longer and came out. Sadly, I'm the only one from the Yeshiva he still talks to (I never cared whether he was gay or straight, he was just a good friend). But B'H, he's somewhat frum today, married a nice fella in San Francisco and - this is the best part - is a republican (I couldn't be prouder). All the best to you and be well.

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  2. I have yet to understand how *absolutely every other commandment* is about *actions* ("Don't desecrate Shabbos," "Don't eat treif", "You must be sniusdich") & yet ONLY when it comes to *homosexuality* do these rabbis THEN say it's about a "state of being". As if *heterosexuality* should *also* be condemned because people feel driven to behave in *heterosexual* ways that are ALSO FORBIDDEN! (Okay, I'll stop yelling) But, seriously, don't they see the inherent contradiction at work here?? I've had people talk down to me & try to dismiss my question, but no one has ever actually answered it!

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  3. Rabbi Cowen from Australia.
    Rabbi Levin from New York.

    (Not so clear in article).

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