Friday, April 27, 2012

On 40,000 hits and my upcoming 23rd brithday

While my blog has been somewhat silent over the past couple of weeks, the numbers and comments have been speaking for themselves. I'm fairly confident that within an hour after this post will be up, my blog will pass the 40,000 number, a monumental moment for me since I started this blog just a few short months ago.

I've been undergoing some very personal things and therefore have not been able to write as much as I'd like to, but I am working on some things that will hopefully give my dear readers something to talk about :).

My 23rd birthday is coming up on May 13th, this year in particular my birthday is significant for many reasons, most importantly, the incredible success that I've seen and felt over the past 12 months.

As I reflect on these events, both past and future, I am thankful to you, my dear readers, for giving me the ability and believing in my potential to go from "strength to strength" and take Harvey Milk's quote on giving people hope and turn it into a reality.

With much love,

Chaim Levin

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Huffington Post: Jewish Queer Youth Speak Out at Yale

April 23rd, 2012
Chaim Levin

The academic world, especially a campus as elaborate as Yale's, fills me with awe -- the libraries, buildings devoted to different subject areas and, above all, the energy of the thousands of students studying day and night toward various degrees that offer a brighter future. That world is something I had once thought I would never have the opportunity to experience. This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to get another glimpse of it as part of the warmly received Orthodox Jewish LGBT panel hosted by the Slifka center at Yale.
Two years earlier, I had spoken on a similar panel at the University of Pennsylvania; that was the first time I had spoken in front of an audience about my experience with issues of orientation and Orthodox Judaism. It was also the first time I had set foot on a college campus. Until then, the only thing I had known about college campuses was through TV and movies. I resolved that day that I would experience college first-hand.
As the time for the Yale panel drew closer, the room became crowded with people standing along the walls. This panel consisted of three others and myself, representing Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), and was moderated by Erez Harari, a Yale doctoral student and co-director of JQY. Sharing personal experiences of being part of the Orthodox community and being gay, we told about our journeys to acceptance of our orientations and reconciliation with our faith. Michael Rabinowitz began the panel by providing background on growing up in a "black hat" Orthodox community and discussing the pressure he faced by family and friends to get married to a woman; he was taught that his grandparents survived the Holocaust in order for him to carry on his family name by getting married and having kids -- a norm in many Orthodox communities. Justin Sprio spoke about growing up as Conservative Jew, finding his place in Orthodox movement and reconciling the seemingly incompatible gay and Orthodox identities. I spoke about my personal experience growing up as an Orthodox Jew, my failed attempts at "ex gay" reparative "therapy" and finally coming out and becoming an activist. Mordechai Leibovitz, the executive director of JQY, closed the discussion with how he and 10 others had formed JQY 10 years ago and the monumental progress being made in the Jewish world toward more tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people.
I started my talk on the panel with my experiences growing up in a community and school that does not teach basic, academic subjects, such as English language, math, literature, science or history -- the very foundation for higher education and indeed requirement for most jobs. Until the age of 17, when I was kicked out of yeshiva for being identified as gay, I had studied only the Torah and never had any substantial exposure to formal academic subjects.
Everytime I discuss going through reparative "therapy" to change my orientation because I believed I could not be gay and Jewish, I continue to be surprised by the shock of the audience. Some are shocked by painful and disturbing experiences of clients in programs like Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) and People Can Change, which offer "therapy" and programs geared towards "the reduction and healing of same sex attraction." Many people are shocked to learn that such programs still exist. Others ask how I did not know about the potential dangers of such programs and how they have been proven to be ineffective.
This is part of the reason I discuss my educational background when telling my story. I grew up believing that any desire can be overcome with sufficient work and focus and that "forbidden desires" must be overcome by any means possible; I was taught that for a man to be attracted to another man was at worst sinful and at best an illness which must be overcome. This was more than enough ammunition against my young self. I felt hopeless. I desperately wanted to overcome my "problem" and be observant. When I was 18 years old, the director of JONAH confidently assured that after doing the "work" supervised by the "experts" (unlicensed practitioners known as life coaches), I would surely be able to move on to living a heterosexual life. He claimed that "thousands" had passed through JONAH's doors and have been "successful."
The utterly irresponsible and reckless position of groups like JONAH and People Can Change and religious leaders who recommend these practices, which have been condemned by the American Psychiatric and Medical Associations, serve only to bring more trauma to LGBT people by offering false hope and the dangerous, misleading and scientifically refuted notion being LGBT is inherently "pathological, harmful and destructive" and that LGBT can to "change."
But I had no way of knowing any of this at the time. My nearly two years of struggles at changing my orientation ended with me in a locked room naked fondling my genitalia as instructed and observed by my JONAH life coach, himself "ex gay." He insisted that removing my clothing and touching myself was part of the "healing" process necessary for me to become straight. I did not become straight, and my experience with JONAH were anything but therapeutic.
The reality that I faced in the hands of "experts" recommended by my insular community's leaders and without any pragmatic education is an experience that still plagues many young people today, both LGBT and straight. Sharing our stories with energetic Yale students, stoked my hope to overcome my educational handicap and attend college soon. Sharing my story, I hope dangerous practices that people are shocked to learn still occur can be stopped before others are harmed. Sharing our stories, the panel demonstrated real hope that LGBT people can find acceptance and reconciliation even within seemingly contrary, indeed, hostile religious communities.

Haven't gone AWOL - I'm still here :)

Hey Dear Readers,

I know it's been a while since my last post, but I just wanted to reassure everyone that I'm still alive and kicking (as you might have seen in other places) and hope to have a new post up soon.

We are on the brink of hitting 40,000 views, which is astounding to me, so let's just keep talking about how much you gottagivemhope and I promise to do my part and post something very soon.

With much love,

Chaim Levin

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sharing Stories With Deborah Feldman

Discussing plans for our futures, finding the humor in our similar and traumatic pasts and enjoying uncommon empathy, Deborah Feldman and I had coffee on the Upper East Side on a bright Friday morning. My time with her was a refreshing pleasure and an honor. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. Deborah helped me with something that I’ve been trying to navigate lately. Deborah reminded that I’m not an ex gay survivor, an ex Chabad, a gay man, a Jew, an activist, etc.; she told me that who I am is just Chaim Levin who just also happens to have an interesting story to share and an opportunity to inspire change. She insisted that we all have our own lives and personalities that we must care for, cultivate and celebrate.

Deborah had entered mainstream media a few months ago with her fascinating memoir. I haven’t had a chance to finish reading her book yet; in fact, I just started the other day. But with every page, I feel more and more drawn into this incredible story of bravery, courage and survival. She recounts the struggles she endured while growing up within the insular Satmar community in Williamsburg and her decision to leave. Her writing is brilliant, genuine and accessible. Her entire life came under scrutiny when she went public, and some of the things that people have written about her were nothing short of repugnant. I believe Deborah Feldman is a hero.

I had been shocked at how many people were ready to go so far to question her motives or the validity and truth of her experiences, including people who were themselves victims of these communities and who had also left but were nevertheless still critical. I had heard more bad than good about this woman who was experiencing sudden fame, or infamy. There were some allegations that some of her experiences were inaccurate. Some people saw her memoir as a direct attack against their culture because she shared her personal memories of the abuse she faced in a community with great gender inequality and her decision to leave her community with her son and make a better future for her and her son.

I had been interested in Deborah but was hesitant to write about her. In general, I like to know someone person I'm writing about. I had felt deep sense of pride and resonation with her for what she did. She made the decision that her story the story of someone who was raised within a deeply controlling community which disrespects women needed to be shared, and she bravely decided to tell it all honestly without holding back.

As someone from a similar community and who has been attacked for exposing problems in it, I deeply related to her desire to shed light on these dark and dangerous realities that harmed her in the past, but more importantly, continue to harm people until this day. I have gotten into quite a bit of hot water recently for writing about the Chabad education I received in the Huffington Post an education system that handicaps its students because the curriculum does include any “secular”, academic studies. I've been criticized because I took these story to the "outside" world, with the hope of inspiring change by raising awareness. My other work in the It Gets Better project and writing about LGBTQ problems, abuse and reparative “therapy” within the Orthodox community had also resulted in venomous attacks. But, it is worth it because discussions are starting and change is occurring. I empathized with Deborah for the nasty, baseless criticism she received, applauded her courage despite it all and hoped to meet her someday.

Everytime I meet a "celebrity" (a term Deborah despises), I get a little excited and farklempt; that moment when I get to tell them how much I admire them for their work is always kickass. When I finally saw Deborah, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of honor honor to meet so monumentally accomplished already by the age of 25. It's not just that she is young; it's the fact that, like myself, she had no tools or preparation for the "real world". With limited education, no resources or family support, she managed to stay sane (which is big for starters), raise her son and write her first book, and continues doing what she is passionate about, writing.

The past six months for me especially have been non-stop activism and promotion. I am amazed at how much I have been able to accomplish just by telling people about me and just sharing my authentic self with them. At certain points, I felt like the activism and promotion was taking over my life, but I continued my work and talking to others about it because it is my passion and I hope I can do my part to help others. At the same time though, Deborah is right, I was starting to lose part of my personality and authentic self because of the attention, criticism and not having enough time for me. I plan to heed Deborah’s advice.

I learned many things from Deborah. She is a hero of mine despite and maybe even because of what many other people think or say about her. People have attacked me and what I’ve written, especially the ones who know that my stories are true, like those who glibly acknowledged “[...]true[,] teachers hit the students[...]” and “[...]I find it really funny, I used to have my fingers hit with a rule from Rabbi E. [....] ive seen some major beatings [at the school....]” but criticized me for mentioning child abuse at Oholei Torah, the school I went to. I do not think I will ever be able to understand why it is those who know the stories are true are often the harshest critics. Whatever the case is, I think we all owe thanks to Deborah for helping to pave the way for bringing awareness to problems that are ignored and for proving that it is indeed possible to succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Whether it is visible right now or not, Deborah has gotten a conversation started by sharing her story.

Our stories belong to us, and it is our right to find in them sadness and inspiration and even humor. I encourage those who do not want stories of harm shared to do everything to make sure that harm does not occur and there are no longer any such stories to share. Until that time, it is not only our inherent right to share our stories, it is our obligation to share otherwise ignored stories of harm to bring awareness so that there can be change and others can find hope and might be spared.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Huffington Post: The Education I Never Had, and Why No One Is Doing a Thing About It

April 10th, 2012

Chaim Levin

The school I attended while growing up as a Chabad Orthodox Jew in Crown Heights, Brooklyn did not teach any formal, academic subjects -- no reading, writing, literature, math, science or history. I cannot say that I was all too surprised by the many people trying to defend this broken system or even by the criticism of me. Still, it is painful to realize that my peers and fellow victims of the same system are so willing to defend handicapping thousands of young people by not teaching kids fundamental, academic subjects.
Some chose to interpret my article as attack on the Chabad movement: "While it is true that secular studies aren't taught at Oholei Torah, the same can be said of almost all ultra-Orthodox schools around the world, so bashing Chabad alone isn't fair," as if the educational failings of Chabad -- the only aspect of Chabad I criticized -- are minimized by those other communities around the world. The same people even claimed that Jewish "holy studies" were enough alone because they produce smarter brains. Many responses were racist, and some, downright rude, simply because I chose to blow the whistle on a reality that still haunts me and others who are striving to attain higher education despite being denied the basic foundation for that.
Some attacked my character and my intentions, others lambasted me as the shtut meshugener(town crazy person) and even impugned my family. Another, an English professor no less, dared to claim that the students of these schools in Crown Heights that do not teach academic subjects are better off than "the black kid in Bed St[u]y" (Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Brooklyn) -- as if all Jewish children are too privileged as a class to be disadvantaged by a lack of education, as if it is a competition and white Jews can therefore ignore the problems in their communities.
At the end of Chabad yeshivah (high school), I knew no more than how to solve simple fractions, no science, no history and was far from able to formulate just one paragraph in English, let alone a whole essay. I had learned very basic reading and writing in English and math from a private tutor that my parents had hired for one hour a week after school. The curriculum of the school focused solely on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the spoken language was Yiddish. Science, history, math and (non-hermeneutic) reasoning were not part of my knowledge base. Tutoring one hour a week for all academic subjects was clearly insufficient to make up for the complete lack of coverage of these fundamental skills in school. And aside from that, I was lucky enough to have parents who were able to afford a private tutor, as opposed to most others who didn't have that opportunity.

At the age of 17, I had a formal education more comparable to a third grader. Without a solid formal education, I lacked the opportunity to function as an informed, educated young adult. I managed to pass a GED test after great difficulty at the age of 18 out of my own initiative; going to college and pursuing a higher education had been presented as almost heretical by the educators in my school. I do hope to go to college, but my early lack of education has caused great difficulty. I was well versed on things like the Talmud or Bible, but thinking in English, understanding the country that I lived in and its history and knowing the basic formulae of math, let alone understanding them, were out of my reach. We did have some minor training in Yiddish writing and spelling, but the courses were never demanding enough that one would be able to formulate a full essay even in Yiddish, which was a second language to most of us, who spoke English at home.
Bringing awareness and trying prevent social injustices from occurring within Orthodox Jewish communities, both to LGBT people and youth generally, has led to vicious attacks. It seems the most scrutiny comes from Orthodox people who would defend a broken system that harms the lives of many. Unwilling to admit that there really is a problem with the schooling system which people are afraid to challenge because, as many have told me, "there are no other schools in Crown Heights to send our children to."
Some have dared to try to blame those of us who were harmed mostly by this system and to place the entire burden of success on our shoulders, saying things like "Well, you can blame your background all you want, but it's up to you to do something about it." Some point to the success of few people in Crown Heights who have become CEOs or owners of large businesses and are considered wealthy, but they once again fail to recognize the vast majority of people who have seen only difficulty and no success because of their educational background. Success in academia and the ability to pursue a career and a higher education does not start when one is 18 years old, and certainly not without any background in academic subjects. Compulsory education starts at 5 years old, when one would ideally be learning the ABCs and counting, the foundation to literacy and mathematics. People are indeed entitled to ensure their children have a Jewish, religious and Hebrew education, and there are so many schools who offer both Hebrew religious studies and full formal academics as required by the state and board of education.
There is a deep, sinking pit in my stomach when I think about the years of academic study I missed that most people take for granted. I smile sadly when I hear kids complaining about going to school; I would gladly go in their place. While I certainly hope I can, one cannot easily overcome missing out on 13 years of academic study and a corrupt system.
The corruption at Oholei Torah has provoked a frustrating, painful memory, which I had not planned on mentioning. In third grade, my classmates and I watched our teacher brutally beat one of the students for what seemed like at least a half an hour. To this day, my friends and I remember that event vividly. It is something no one can ever forget. This teacher was not held accountable, let alone disciplined. More recently, I questioned the school's dean about this event and why it wasn't dealt with; I had also inquired about some other disturbing allegations from former students that Oholei Torah covered up and refused to report sexual abuse that former students had brought to the attention of the school seeking help.The response I got was glib: I was told that these stories are not true (even though I witnessed one and heard the accounts of sexual abuse from the victims themselves). A former social worker, and hence a legally mandated reporter, employed by this institution told me that he was told by the dean of the school that if he were to ever report a crime to the authorities, he would immediately be fired.
My appeals to the community on the problems of the educational system had all fallen on deaf ears. I had to seek an outside forum to open a dialogue. People are discussing the problems now. I had spoken to the school administration many times about these problems, as well as my objection to the current curriculum being taught in the school. The only response that I got and continue to get from the principal and other chief operating officers within the school is: "This is the Rebbe's institution, and this is how he wanted it and we won't ever try to change that. It's pure chutzpah to try and challenge something the Rebbe believed in, and even worse to try and bring shame to the Rebbe's institution by talking about these things publicly."
It is time that people stop blaming the whistleblowers for the problems of their community -- a community that is doing nothing to fix the problem. Instead of coming together to figure out how to keep our children safe and do what is in their best interests and how we can build a more tolerant, welcoming and educated future generation, we are concerned that people who bring awareness to problems that no one is willing to address are committing a great chilul hashem(desecration, or shaming of the community). However, only abuse and failure to educate makes Chabad look bad, and each day that Chabad does not address the problem, it only looks worse. It is my sincere hope that Chabad can be the great and admirable movement it is in so many other ways.
Parents, while you may want to send your kids to such a school understanding that it is your right to limit your children's education strictly to religious studies, there is a very real chance that it may harm your children. One day, your child may very well demand to understand why you denied them a basic education; one day, your children may be outraged at being denied their right to a basic education and the resultant opportunities to find a decent job, secure a promotion or provide for their own families. My parents have indicated that sending me and my siblings to Oholei Torah was a mistake and would not make the same choice now. Ironically, many people have left the community because of the failings of schools which would cultivate only yiddishkeit(Jewishness and observance). Parents want the best for their children and want them to go far in life.
As Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem "On Children," parents are the bow from which children as living arrows are sent forth. Children need a solid bow in order to fly. Children need an education to succeed in life.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Passover, Freedom and Triumph

Between celebrating the new babies in my family, attending a delightful Nehirim retreat and preparing myself for Passover and lending a hand to my parents for Pesach, I haven’t had much time to sit at my computer. In meantime, Gotta Give ‘em Hope received over 30,000 views the Friday before last in just under two months! I continue to be amazed and humbled by the response, and I am thankful to all the readers and supporters.

The weekend before last, I had the great pleasure of attending a retreat hosted by Nehirim. Nehirim is an organization that fosters environments that allow for LGBT Jewish people to enjoy and explore spiritual and social community. The retreat was in the very comfortable setting of the mountains of Connecticut at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. I spent a lot of time talking to the many interesting and beautiful souls who are part of the wonder LGBT Jewish community, and I also  spent time on my own just relaxing and reflecting over my life.

When I was still deeply in the closet and undergoing “reparative therapy” to become straight, I attended a few weekend retreats that also involved meeting other gay people, but in a very different context. We weren’t celebrating our identities; we wanted to change who we are. Those weekends were 48 hours of non-stop, planned programing. While I won’t delve into those details of those weekends, which ripe for movies on their own, I will say here that they definitely left a traumatic impression on me of “weekends” and “retreats”. On any weekend retreat now, part of me is always a little nervous of being reminded me of those 48 hour periods of absolute hell and false hopes that I had desperately wanted to be true.

After the Nehirim retreat however, I am happy to remember those two blissful days full of hope and acceptance. I was left with a strong sense of peace, joy and contentment for having been able to meet such incredible people celebrating who we are as gay Jews and our beautiful and thriving community, which is growing stronger and more vibrant and radiant through the work of Nehirim. I feel absolutely blessed and proud to be a part of it.

The Nehirim retreat served as a great reminder to me of the importance of community and great preparation for Passover, the holiday that celebrates Jewish freedom and justice. For me, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate personal freedom. This Passover has been going really well. I had spent large parts of last week and the previous helping my parents with various tasks in hard work of preparing for this holiday. I think I had a lot more preparing to do while growing up as Orthodox in my parents’ home. Now the preparation is over, and I am able to celebrate freedom with my friends and family.

I have enjoyed the wonderful company of my growing family, as well as two wonderful seders with my dear friends, the Balkany Family. I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the meaningful things I’ve done in the past few months, the cathartic experience they’ve taken me on and the wonderful, touching feedback, emails, facebook messages and acknowledgments I have received from many people. I could have never dreamed that I would get this far in such a short time.

While I feel grateful for many things, this Passover particularly I also feel free. I have enjoyed the freedom to tell the truth to those who will listen and to offer hope to those who may feel there is none and to live freely and contentedly with who I am a feeling that many of us are lucky have and celebrate in our lives. Diversity is what makes this world vibrant and beautiful.

I hope that everyone reading this can embrace the freedom that is our right. It might be just one click away a phone call, or a community or family event that can change your lives; wherever your freedom is, it is most certainly there waiting for you. And, when you find it, you will feel the sweetness of nothing but acceptance, appreciation and love.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Anthem for LGBT Youth - The Jewish Daily Forward

An Anthem for LGBT Youth

Putting 'It Gets Better' in Jewish Context

Making ‘It Get Better: After a rash of LGBT suicides galvanized the nation, the ‘It Gets Better’ project and book are letting vulnerable youth know they’re not alone.
Making ‘It Get Better: After a rash of LGBT suicides galvanized the nation, the ‘It Gets Better’ project and book are letting vulnerable youth know they’re not alone.

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 08, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.

A New Jersey jury recently convicted 20-year-old Dharun Ravi of hate crimes for using a webcam to watch as his college roommate kissed another man. Days after the incident, the subject of the video stream, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi’s tragic death was one of a recent spate of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender suicides that drew attention to the consequences of homophobia and bullying.
In response to the events, sex advice columnist and journalist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, founded the “It Gets Better” project, a series of videos designed to remind vulnerable kids — especially LGBT ones — that life does indeed get better, and to encourage them to hang on. Now comes the “It Gets Better” book, a compendium of essays (many transcribed from the web project) with the same purpose.
In honor of the publication, the Forward asked three young people from Nehirim, the national community of LGBT Jews that I founded in 2004, to share their own “It gets better” stories. These three very different individuals show how Jewishness and LGBT identity intersect, how each can enrich the other, and how the deepest values of our religious tradition are upheld precisely when we hear those voices that have been excluded in the past. Although the rate of LGBT teen suicide has not decreased, hopefully these voices can inspire us to make it get better, for all our sakes.

Chaim Levin
Chaim Levin
Gotta give ’em hope
Chaim Levin, 22
I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a deeply religious Orthodox Jew, and attended some of my community’s greatest yeshivot, or Orthodox religious secondary schools. Yet, dealing with daily bullying and alienation for being gay, and subsequently going through reparative “therapy,” I felt hopeless and alone. Before I came out three years ago, I was deeply ashamed of myself. I believed that I was never going to be someone. I let the bullies, naysayers and those who would have me either stay in the closet or change get the better of me.
I was fortunate to meet people in the Jewish gay and lesbian community who had learned to reconcile themselves as both gay and as Jewish. I started accepting who I am. And it has gotten better and better for me every day. I never thought I would see my friends and family accept me as they do today. There have been ups and downs, but everyone in my life has come a very long way, just as I have, in finding not only peace, but also pride in who I am. I used to think that there was no future for me, but now I cannot wait for the richness and fullness that I know tomorrow will bring.
Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, said: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…. And you…. And you…. Gotta give ’em hope.” This quote has guided me to let everyone know how much they have to live for and how they are worthy, loved and beautiful.
In the past year, I’ve tried to spread this message as best I can. I participated in an “It Gets Better” video by and for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, which sent a very powerful message to Jewish LGBT youth. I talked about my experiences in reparative “therapy,” and I played a role in persuading Orthodox rabbis to reconsider their support for it. And in March I launched a blog called Gotta Give ’em Hope (, which has received an incredible response and generated much discussion.
Most important, I have grown and learned more about myself through the love and support of thousands of people who are motivated by the challenges young gay people face today. I am deeply humbled and honored to be part of the great fight for equality for all people. I hope that I can continue being an activist and an inspiration to those out there who feel hopeless and who need reassurance. I want them to know that it really does get better.

Kayla Higgins
Kayla Higgins
Jewish Enough
Kayla Higgins, 22
‘It gets better” applies not just to LGBT people, but also to all of us who are marginalized. One of my greatest anxieties growing up in New York with a Jewish mother and an Irish-Protestant father was that my Jewish peers would not consider me “Jewish enough.” At the sleep-away camp I attended for six summers as a preteen, the Jewish girls said that I could not possibly be Jewish because of my skinny nose and red hair. I didn’t look “Jewish enough.” Then, several years later, at the post-bat mitzvah Hebrew school I attended, I was socially exiled for claiming one day at bagel break that my celebrity crush was Leonardo DiCaprio — a statement met with awkward silence and then a bewildered exclamation from one girl: “But he’s not Jewish!” I was left to wonder what she would have said if I had mentioned that my second-biggest celebrity crush was Keira Knightley.
After that experience, I almost gave up on ever feeling “Jewish enough.” It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I decided to tap into my Jewish identity again, by going on a Taglit-Birthright-Israel trip during winter break. I found myself surrounded by a lot of students who, like me, came from interfaith and progressive Jewish backgrounds; however, my newfound comfort evaporated during one bus ride, when I got into a heated argument with an Orthodox Jewish student over his claim that if one did not believe that “Jews were God’s chosen people,” one was not truly Jewish. I argued with him vehemently that the belief that Jews were holier than non-Jews contradicted Jewish beliefs about the equal value of all people, and that it was not so different to say that Jews were holier than non-Jews than it was to say that straight people were holier than gay men and lesbians!
The passion that arose inside me as I said those words made me realize that this was a conviction I had been carrying inside me for years, along with the knowledge that I was queer and for that reason also might never be considered “Jewish enough.” These two beliefs, I realized, were linked: My experience as a queer Jew enabled me to see the wrongness of deciding who is Jewish enough in other cases.
Gradually, it did get better. I learned in college that I was not alone in my convictions; that many progressive and even some Conservative Jews had subtler understandings of the “chosen people,” and that all movements except Orthodoxy have lifted rabbinic prohibitions on homosexual conduct. While the benchmarks for what is “Jewish enough” may vary, they all claim that there is some single standard of what it means to be Jewish. But what I know now is that the concept of kavod habriyot, respect for all living creatures, makes this benchmarking of “Jewish enough” irrelevant, because Judaism ultimately upholds the dignity of all human beings, even bisexual redheaded half-Jews like me.

Rafi Daugherty
Rafi Daugherty
Live Authentically
Rafi Daugherty, 29
If you had told me in high school that “it gets better,” I wouldn’t have believed you.
My name is Rafi. I am 29 years old and I live in Denver. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew in the Midwest. I was born female, was raised female and, due to my religion, very segregated from boys. I went to school and camp with all girls, and yet I knew from a young age that I didn’t feel like a girl: I wanted to be a boy. At some point, I gave up thinking that God would transform me into a boy, and I tried to be the best girl I could. But I had painful pangs inside, especially around the holidays and in situations where I felt out of place. I used food and eventually alcohol and drugs to cover up my depression and to push away my anxiety. I thought about suicide on a regular basis, and even when I was having a good time, I never felt truly happy.
I managed to survive high school, thanks to some very loving friends and teachers. I feel lucky that I was appreciated for my masculine traits in an all-girl school. Some of my peers even thought it was cool that I was a tomboy. When I was finally living on my own in New York in 2002, and had gotten and stayed sober, I “came out” as queer and started living more authentically. I cut my hair short and started wearing pants, which helped me feel much more comfortable in my skin. Although I was attracted mainly to boys, I dated girls because it validated my masculine appearance.
I met transgender people, but felt that my religious beliefs prevented me from transitioning myself, although the reality was that I had slowly stopped observing Orthodox Judaism already. In 2007, I finally realized that I was the only one holding myself back from transitioning to male. And so I did it: I moved forward with the transition and started testosterone in July of that year. I have never looked back. I feel more comfortable in my skin today than I ever have. I have more friends than ever. And I feel that I am living honestly and authentically at all times. I don’t regret my past, and I don’t ignore the fact that I was raised female. I love being male, but value the life I had prior to transition, as it helped me become the kind, loving, intelligent man that I am today. It really does get better when you can make your own choices and start to live as the person you really are.

Read more:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Huffington Post: National Education Day and the Education I Never Had

The focus of my blog is to give hope to people, particularly those who suffered because they were different, were raised in an environment that made the future of their lives more difficult or survived of abuse  people who may feel like they have no voice. 

I hope that this website can spread awareness, spur discussion and motivate real change on issues that are hardly discussed at this time in many communities, particularly more insular ones. My personal story involves my journey growing up an Orthodox gay Jew. Thankfully, dialogue on LGBT issues is taking place even within Orthodox communities.

Personally, the issue of education is profoundly important to me. I wasn't raised with any formal, academic education at all. I believe it necessary that we acknowledge other equally important issues facing youth today, including education, which is so fundamental to our lives and livelihoods. I recently wrote about education in the Huffington Post:

April 4th, 2012
Chaim Levin

Yesterday was proclaimed "National Education and Sharing Day, USA" in tribute to the late Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Schneerson's birthday. President Obama wrote: 
For centuries, the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of character have driven American progress and enriched our national life. On Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A., we renew our commitment to these timeless aspirations, and we rededicate ourselves to fostering in our sons and daughters inquiring minds and compassionate hearts.
In a global economy where more than half of new jobs will demand higher education or advanced training, we must do everything we can to equip our children with the tools for success. Their journey begins early, and it demands stewardship from throughout the community -- from parents and caregivers who inspire a love of learning to teachers and mentors who guide our children along the path to achievement. Our Nation's prosperity grows with theirs, and by ensuring every child has access to a world class education, we reach for a brighter future for all Americans...

Reading the President's proclamation deeply saddened me as I thought about the education I missed out on in the Chabad school Oholei Torah (Educational Institute Oholei Menachem) in Crown Heights. Basic reading, writing, spelling, math, science and history were not part of the curriculum at any of the Chabad schools I attended. My classmates and I did not have access to a world class education.
I have profound respect for the late Rebbe and his legacy. However, I remember very clearly those talks that he gave -- the ones we studied every year in elementary school about the unimportance of "secular" (non-religious, formal) education, and the great importance of only studying limmudei kodesh (holy studies). As a result of this attitude, thousands of students were not taught anything other than the Bible throughout our years attending Chabad institutions.
Until this day, Oholei Torah and many other Chabad schools -- particularly schools for boys and a few for girls in Crown Heights and in some other places -- do not provide basic formal education. It pains me to think of all the the doctors, lawyers and other professionals and leaders that could have come out of these institutions. These institutions have cultivated the character, compassion, cooperation and goodwill the President also speaks of, producing thousands of shluchim(emissaries) for Chabad all over the world. However, that is the goal of such schools; if you do not become an emissary, you fell through the cracks and are not prepared for anything else. The mantra of Oholei Torah, what most people say when asked why they send their kids to such a school is: "That's what the school wants for their students, and that's what their parents want; they hope for their kids to become emissaries of the Rebbe."
The big question remains unanswered though: What happens to all of us whose futures do not involve becoming emissaries? The majority of students do not go on to become emissaries and lack even a basic formal education, and, hence, the brighter future the President refers to is difficult to reach. As I attempt to make up for a lack of education in anything other than the Bible and a language not relevant to the workplace, I have more and more questions about how such a harmfully unbalanced educational system still exists.
Four and half thousand people have become emissaries, a few people have managed to go on to college and a few Chabad schools do include formal non-religious curricula. Many people within the community of Crown Heights still rigorously defend Oholei Torah, excusing the failings of the school by pointing to the "many success stories." Yet, they fail to notice the largest crowd, those of us who have been ignored, who miss and always will miss the basic education that the President extols.
In honor of National Education and Sharing Day, we should examine whether we are doing everything we can to equip our children for success. Failure to provide basic formal education cripples children within Chabad communities. We cannot ignore the harm done, and I refuse to remain silent. By opening discussion on education, we risk only improving the Chabad community and honoring the Rebbe's humanitarian legacy as an advocate for youth.

On National Education and Sharing Day, I hope we all reach for a brighter future for everyone and strive for schools that cultivate not only character, compassion, cooperation and goodwill, but basic education and tools for success. As we celebrate Passover and overcoming the chains that held us back, I hope we reflect also on things things that keep us from personal freedom today.

Update on Tuvia Perlman

On Tuesday, I published a Facebook post about a man named Tuvia Perlman, who worked as a teacher and a choir director in Milwaukee after mo...