I wrote last week about how I grew up in the Modern Orthodox world, but now feel that, in terms of practice, I identify as part of the vast, grey area between Modern Orthodoxy and Traditional Conservatism, and how I, along with peers from both my religious right and left, can build upon that vast, grey area.
I left one crucial part out: the ultimate reason why I have left the Modern Orthodox world. And that is because I’m queer.
Now, I still relate to Modern Orthodox philosophy — that is, trying to strike a balance between modernity and traditional values, and exploring how those two can complement each other — but I feel that I’ve also moved to the left, and found answers to questions that Modern Orthodoxy has posed to me (How can I find that balance? Where do I draw that line?) that have landed me outside of Modern Orthodoxy. And part of the reason for this was that when I was coming out of the closet in my Modern Orthodox high school, I craved queer Jewish peers that, at the time, I could not find. And, knowing that I wouldn’t find acceptance or relatable peers within the right-wing community in which I grew up, I looked leftward.
At the time, I realized that I needed to be able to leave my community to find other people who were like me, and who were going through the same challenges that I was: they, too, were queer, Jewish, and, most importantly, teenagers. They were high school students, and they understood the trials and tribulations that high school brought.
Around the same time that my internal dialogue was churning, I attended a retreat for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews. It was there that I saw that my identities as an Orthodox person (or a Jew committed to traditional observance) and a queer person were not completely incongruous. While that was reaffirming and I learned a lot from the people I met, there was still something missing: the teenager aspect. I was the baby, the youngest one by far. And while others might not have seen it that way, I did.
Later on that summer, I had the opportunity to meet other queer Jewish teens, at another retreat where I was the only Orthodox participant. To me, however, that didn’t matter: I was with my age group, and that mattered more to me than being with those who shared my religious beliefs. I realized that I’d found a community in which I was finally treated the way I wanted to be: as a teenager. And I’d been craving that setting ever since I’d come out a year-and-a-half prior; at the same time, the realization that I didn’t really find anyone else there who was Orthodox was indescribably frightening. Yet, I still didn’t feel alone. I was surrounded by my peers, who understood the trials and tribulations of high school.
Now that I found a peer group of queer teens who value their Judaism, I tried to find my way back to my Orthodox roots. But herein lies the problem: I’m not sure I can. While I love the closeness that Orthodox communities perpetuate (by virtue of the fact that, since everyone must live within walking distance of the synagogue, everyone must also live within reasonable walking distance of each other), I’ve also realized that means I’d have to sacrifice finding other queer Jewish teens and college students, and, in many ways, Jewish teens and college students who are not queer, but to whom I can relate better than those who attended more right-wing high schools. I’ve realized that in my journey leftward on the religious spectrum, I actually have more in common with my non-Orthodox friends than I do with my Orthodox friends. Right now, the idea of going back into the Orthodox world and feeling alone like I had before is even scarier than leaving the world in which I grew up, and leaving a world that I know shares my ideology and my practices. And that means I might have to sacrifice not only living in a community close to my co-religionists, but also a community that I know will share my values and my traditional observance. I know that, in retrospect, it’s perhaps because of this that I want so badly to build on that vast, grey area, where I know I can live in a community steeped in tradition and value internally, but committed to inclusivity and pluralism externally.
That’s not to say that I’m still not committed to Modern Orthodoxy as a philosophy or that I’m necessarily opposed to living in Orthodox communities. It also does not mean that I’ve promptly dropped traditional observance or have abandoned Modern Orthodoxy as an ideology, but that does mean that I’m going to do what I can to find a community of people who are similar to me. That might be narcissistic, but it’s true, and, ultimately, I think that is what everyone is looking for in a community. Because even if there are times when I am the only queer person in the room — and I feel completely comfortable being that only queer person in the room — there is going to come a time when I need other peers to whom I can relate. And I’ve realized that, right now, that is more important to me than living in an Orthodox community.
In the battle of ideology versus community, community won. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. In the meantime, I find myself torn between the need for peers and the need for shared ideology, and it is that tension that fuels my need to continue working: as a queer man, as a Jewish self-described pre-twentysomething, and as a traditionally observant Jew and, at the same time, a pluralistic Jew. To me, trying to bridge the gap between Modern Orthodoxy and Traditional Conservatism will create a safer space for those who, like me, are looking for both peers and a space for Jewish expression.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.