This question has been knocking on my door for the past couple of months.
Some journalists have identified me as an Orthodox Jew, while others have described me as no longer religious as in today’s Washington Post article. I have tried to be clear I identify as simply “Jewish”. I am Jewish, and I’m proud of it. I’m connected to this identity, and I always will be. This why I choose to wear a yarmulke in public or during interviews. I wear a yarmulke as symbol of religious pride, not to suggest affiliation with any sect or movement. I’m Jewish and I’m gay; I am equally proud of both.
I am reluctant to talk about my current religious beliefs and levels of observance. I believe ones religious convictions and practices are between them and God. More importantly, my current religious beliefs and practices would not negate what I experienced growing up Chassidic in Crown Heights attending the best Lubavitch yeshivas (schools). It would not bear on the seemingly hopeless conundrum that gay youth face in Orthodox communities. It would not diminish the problem nor efforts to give hope.
Nonetheless, “Well, you’re not Orthodox anymore, so why should people take example from you or listen to you?” is often the first question I hear from people in the community I grew up in. While such questions are based on faulty premises, the answer is simple. What I experienced growing up gay in the Orthodox community is just one story of many. The communities’ children still face abuse, bullying, isolation, depression and risk of suicide, and are still being told that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured through reparative “therapy”, despite its having been denounced by the American Psychiatric, Psychological and Medical Associations. Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that such practices are ineffective and harmful. A 2002 study, for example, revealed that, out of 202 participants in an ex-gay program, only 8 described themselves as being cured, 7 of whom were employed as counselors for the program. The program itself classified 176 as “failures”. Of the 202 participants, 155 reported significant, long-term harm as a result, including depression and suicidal thoughts, deteriorating relationships with family and friends, and complete loss of religious faith. Out of a misguided understanding of faith and complete disregard for science, this is what is still being recommended to gay Orthodox youth who are already vulnerable.
I do believe one can identify as both gay and Orthodox. Personally, I can no longer label myself as Lubavitch, Chassidic or even Orthodox. With the Lubavitch understanding I grew up with, I do not consider myself Orthodox today — mainly because I don’t practice Judaism the way that I used to. But, at the end of the day, no one keeps all 613 commandments given to us by the Torah (if you know someone that does, please do send them my way because I’d love to learn from them) — not even the self-appointed promoters of the Torah, who would hate, oppress, embarrass, insult and harm fellow Jews for being gay, give pernicious advice to those already vulnerable and stand idly by while lives are in danger. I do still however identify with the Lubavitch Chassidic Orthodox community. It is the community I grew up in, and I hope it can be more welcoming to its gay members. I hope that my bringing awareness to the problems can help remedy them.
I survived abuse and bullying as Lubavitch boy in Crown Heights. I underwent dangerous “ex-gay” therapy because I thought changing my orientation was possible and would be the only way to reconcile myself as Jewish person. I had never encountered a gay Orthodox Jew, or even anyone who was just Jewish and gay. Until I was 21, I was degraded just because I am gay, even though I was on a hopeless mission of trying to change my orientation.
I have never attacked anyone’s religious beliefs or values, nor advocated for changing halacha. I have simply asked that people open their eyes to what is happening and realize that gay people exist and are being harmed in Orthodox communities.
Orthodox Judaism is my home, my roots; it is where I come from. The camp song we used to sing every Shabbos when I was a kid said “No matter where you may roam, you can always come back home”. Home to me is my parents’ house in Crown Heights, the place where my journey started.
I try to serve God in the best way that I can. I believe my efforts are consistent with Torah values. I am advocating that people who want to remain religious should be encouraged to do so. Whether they remain as observant, however, they should not lose their families and hope.
There is hope. By bringing awareness to the problem and sharing my story, I want to offer more hope to gay youth and their families, irrespective of their personal level of religious observance.