Orthodox LGBT conference at Penn opens communal doors
After spending four years at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, Matt Feczko realized his dream on the final Shabbat of his undergraduate career: speaking in front of the Orthodox community as an openly gay Jewish student.
“When I came to Penn, I was afraid and didn’t get involved in the Orthodox community,” said Feczko, who has served as president of J-BaGeL, the Jewish LGBT organization on campus. “I never spoke at all. This was what I finally wanted to do and it happened.”
While Feczko was involved in many facets of Jewish life in college, he was not sure how the Orthodox students would react to his sexual orientation. But his uncertainty vanished on April 24 when the Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) hosted a Shabbaton—or Shabbat conference—with Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), a New York-based organization for observant Jewish LGBT young adults. The goal of the Shabbaton was for students to discuss the challenges of being gay in the Orthodox community. Alongside three other JQY members, Feczko spoke on a Friday night panel about being observant and queer. He said that students were welcoming and receptive to his ideas.
“Coming out to the Orthodox community made me feel more welcome than I ever had before. I never really thought they were open,” he said. “It’s more than accepting. It’s completely integrated. There really isn’t any antagonism. The OCP before this weekend felt disconnected from that.”
The Shabbaton is the latest event in a new surge of activity from JQY. Founded in 2001 as a discussion group for queer Orthodox Jews to talk about challenges with each other, in recent years the organization has hosted a number of panels at Orthodox institutions in the northeast, all focused on how to better involve LGBT members in the observant community.
“We wanted our stories to be part of the general Jewish experience,” said Mordechai Levovitz, a co-founder of JQY. “We felt abused and misunderstood. There still are a lot of closeted people in our community. We can be their voice.
JQY’s mission gained much of the Orthodox community’s attention after Yeshiva University’s Tolerance Club—whose mission is similar to JQY’s—hosted a panel in December 2009 about being gay at the school. The Tolerance Club event attracted hundreds of students and others and catalyzed the effort for the Shabbaton at Penn.
The Shabbaton continued on Saturday as several JQY members—in addition to OCP students—gave seminars and led discussions about issues that affect LGBT Orthodox Jews. Several panels dealt with big-picture issues, such as what language the community uses to talk about LGBT members. Others focused on Jewish legal issues that arise from being queer in the Orthodox community, though the prohibition of homosexual acts itself was not addressed. Levovitz noted that because none of JQY’s members are rabbis, discussing the prohibition would not have been productive.
“Just because people are gay does not mean we should change the way we learn,” Levovitz said. “We’re not halakhic experts. We’re just gay people who happened to grow up Orthodox.”
Several seminars, however, focused on homosexuality in halakha—including a session led by OCP Rabbi Mordy Friedman. Friedman’s talk aimed to go “beyond the biblical verse” by exploring how various rabbinic authorities over the past several decades have dealt with homosexuality in Jewish law. Another speaker, Chasiah Haberman, addressed queer Jews’ observance of other halakhot. Haberman cofounded Tirtzah, an organization for queer Orthodox women that provides those women with an all-female forum to discuss common issues.
“One of the steps that we need to take as Orthodox Jews faced with this question is fully understand what questions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews are bringing up,” Haberman said. “What’s the reality for a family whose daughter just came out as a lesbian? Should a lesbian couple observe [laws of] sexual purity?”
Haberman stressed, though, that the queer Orthodox struggle is universal in that every Orthodox Jew deals with questions of faith and communal belonging. While queer Orthodox Jews also struggle with the place of homosexuality in Judaism, Haberman said that their challenges are similar to those of every observant Jew.
“People imagine a person whose only reality is questions of being a homosexual, and we’ve moved past that a lot,” she said. “It was heartening to see that the Orthodox community was able to think past the stereotypical questions and see that there are human beings dealing with this.”
Levovitz added that the queer Orthodox struggle is relevant to every observant Jew and should be not be limited to the observant LGBT community.
“People deal with questions of faith, questions of contradictions they feel, and that’s what fuels us all to make our community better,” he said. “We’re not satisfied with the status quo. We can have a greater synthesis between our moral sensibilities and halakha.”
Friedman, the OCP’s rabbi, said that he expects that communitywide engagement to happen as these students leave college and become leaders of the wider Orthodox community.
“One thing I’ve been finding over and over is that the campus community mirrors what will be on the outside world,” Friedman said. “This is giving us a glimpse of what will be in the next ten years. The Torah has something to say to the gay Jew.”
Along with the obstacles they face integrating into normative Orthodox life, observant queer Jews say that they find themselves drawn toward two groups with often-divergent values: the Orthodox Jewish world and the national LGBT community. JQY members say, however, that despite their challenges they identify more with the Orthodox community than with the queer one.
“It’s very hard for gay people who are not religious to understand the sensibilities of Orthodoxy,” Levovitz said. “A lot of times they see all prohibitions as evil. That does fit into an Orthodox schema of thinking. We don’t look at the Bible as prejudiced. We look at the Bible as the word of God. Home is the Orthodox world.”