Last Shabbat afternoon, our shul hosted a unique panel of three Orthodox Jews who are gay or lesbian. All three have partners and children. All three continue to live Orthodox lives. The purpose of our panel was not to advocate for a reassessment of Halacha, or to question God’s justice. There was none of that at all. The purpose was simply to pull our heads out of the sand. To acknowledge that there are Orthodox gays and lesbians in our extended families and that they are part of our shul communities. And to realize that they need our understanding in order to live the lives of Torah and Mitzvot that their souls desire. We came together last Shabbat in order to begin seeing this not as a political issue, but as a human issue.
All three panelists simply shared their own experiences of struggling with their identities, finally coming out, and then struggling again, to find a place for themselves in the religious community they love. It was a powerful afternoon in front of a standing-room-only crowd. If you’d like to do a similar panel discussion in your shul, please feel free to contact me, or to be in touch with the organization Eshel, at email@example.com
Below is an excerpt from one of the personal stories:
by Aviva Buck-Yael
....I once went to an ultra-orthodox shule and once loved being a part of that community. I loved knowing that I was a valued member of my community and that I had a place where I belonged. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was a lesbian and that if my community ever knew this about me, there would be no place for me. I struggled with my identity. I spent a very long time trying desperately to be who I wasn’t. I tried to do that which I knew my community would wish me to do had they known they had a lesbian in their midst. I ignored, denied, and suppressed this piece of myself. I married a man, created a home, and established myself in the community. But I always felt like a fraud. I felt like a fraud to myself, to my community, and to the man I married.
Sure I told him when I married him that I was a lesbian, but I always felt that I was not capable of bringing the best of myself to the relationship no matter how hard I tried. And G-d knows I tried. I tried to be a thoughtful and giving partner. I tried to be a responsible and capable home maker. I did all the things that wives are expected to do. I would cook and clean and have Shabbos guests by the dozens. But what kind of wife was I when I could never desire him as he needed to be desired, when I always wished deep down he could be something that he was not.
You see, what I discovered was that it wasn’t possible to suppress individual parts of my emotional self. To shut down this piece of myself meant to shut down the rest of my emotions as well. When I suppressed this part of myself, I suppressed my ability to love, to feel and to connect with those around me. This suppressing and disconnecting left me… in the end… feeling like a miserable example of a human being. Eventually, after 11 years of marriage, I came to a point in my life where I couldn’t continue as I was.
I have been divorced now for 5 years. A lot of people have asked me why I finally left. Others ask me why I stayed so long. In the end, the only thing I do know for sure was that it wasn’t until I had my children that I allowed myself to take a good long look at myself. I looked deep inside and I saw nothing but a shell of a person. I remembered once having been a fully fleshed out person filled with light and love and joy. I remembered liking who I was. Now I looked at myself and saw nothing inside. When my son was born I felt like I was given the most precious gift that life could bestow. I didn’t want him learning from the hollow example of my marriage, what it meant to love someone. I wanted him to be someone who lived life to the fullest. I wanted him to see his world and connect with it and all the people in it. How could I do that with the example I was giving him?
But, I felt that if I was no longer a married woman in my community there would be no place for me in the Orthodox world. I felt that if I was honest about who I was I’d have no community. Surely I’d be tossed out, shunned, no longer a trusted and beloved member of the community. I saw others like me that when faced with this dilemma simply left Judaism entirely. I tried to imagine what it would be like to leave Judaism to allow myself room to be true to my emotional self. Forget all that religious baggage. But how could I go through life giving up on spirituality and connection to G-d? How can a Jew survive without Torah and community and not be left feeling empty? And what I wanted more than anything to finally be whole.
As I prepared to leave the community I had been connected with for so long, I found that HaKadosh Baruch Hu was watching out for me. I found out there was a little known community in on the other side of town that I hadn’t even heard of previously… and there I found a community that was deeply committed to loving Hashem, learning Torah, practicing halacha in accordance with Orthodox principals AND making the morality that comes from all these things a part of their everyday lives. For them it meant truly embracing the notion of love your neighbor as yourself. It meant embracing the notion that we are all B’tzelem Elokim and as such we all need to be treated as holy beings. It meant taking responsibility for everyone’s Jewish journey and making certain that there was room enough for every Jew who wished to be shomer mitzvot to have a place in their community. For me, it meant finding a community capable of welcoming me and fully embracing me, a queer Jew, into their community. It meant that I was able to find a Rav for myself that I could talk to, to bring my self - my whole self and my religious struggles that come with being my whole self - to, and ask for guidance. It meant that I had a community to share Shabbos and simchos with. It meant that I had a place where I could be treated with love and respect for exactly who I was. As we all ought to be.