Contrary to popular belief?
By BARRY DAVIS
In an ideal world, sexuality should be a private matter, says Bat Kol’s press officer Talya Lev. But to alleviate the hostility religious lesbians face, the group provides support.
The religious-secular divide in this country is well documented and continues to be a painful, and sometimes violent, flashpoint for many Jews in Israel and, to an extent, in the Diaspora. But there are also some deep rifts within the religious community that many find irreconcilable.
Out religious lesbians may sound like a contradiction in terms, but according to 27-year-old, American-born Talya Lev, there are hundreds of Orthodox women who have come out of the closet and many more who have yet to come out and are afraid to do so. Lev has been a member of the Bat Kol religious lesbian organization, founded in 2005, for two years and now acts as its press officer. The English language information on the organization’s Web site (www.bat-kol.org) declares that Bat Kol was established “to allow women to fulfill both their religious and lesbian identity; to make it possible for women to live in loving relationships, to raise children without deception but nevertheless stay committed to their religion.”
“Bat Kol is an amazing organization,” says Lev. “Its mission is to create a supportive community and a framework of mutual trust so that religious lesbians and their families can live fulfilling lives without having to compromise either their religious identity or their sexual identity.”
That, of course, is generally easier said than done. Ask most conventional religious Jews about their opinion of same-sex relationships, let alone families where both parents are women, and their response would include some eyebrow raising and total objection to even discussing the matter. A couple of years ago Channel 1 ran a report about lesbians in the haredi community, which talked about threats by husbands and other members of the family and violent opposition within the community.
Lev is, of course, aware of the fierce objection to lesbianism among religious Jews but says she does not see any contradiction between her sexual preference and her faith. “This is the way God made me,” she states, “and I wouldn’t presume to get into halachic issues of what is considered to be wrong or right. I believe God loves me for what I am, as I am.”
Lev adds that although she has certainly had her struggles – both with her family and others around her – she has had some positive experiences, too. “A few years ago I lived with a lesbian partner and we had religious people come over to our house on Shabbat. My partner would make Kiddush on Friday night, and I would do it on Shabbat morning. We never encountered any problems with other religious people.”
But many have felt trapped, and the apparent impasse has led to tragic consequences. “Last year at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, Bat Kol had a stand. I was at the stand when I saw a young woman looking over in our direction, looking distressed. When I asked what was wrong, she said she had a religious friend who was a lesbian who had committed suicide and that if Bat Kol had existed back then, her friend might still be alive.”
At her own confession, Lev would rather not be doing what she does today for the organization, not because she doesn’t believe in it – quite the contrary. “In an ideal world, my sexuality should be my own private matter. Straight people don’t have to come out and declare they’re straight, do they? But I obviously recognize the need to provide religious lesbians with support and counseling. They need to know they are not alone in this world and that it’s OK to be both a lesbian and religious and, yes, they can have their own families. That is such a central issue in the Jewish world, and there is absolutely no reason for a religious woman, because of her sexuality, to have to sacrifice that part of her life.”
Any new organization, especially one that operates within an often hostile environment, needs funding, and that has been a problem for Bat Kol since its founding five years ago. However, now there appears to be a light at the end of that tunnel. The organization recently received financial assistance from the ROI Community for Young Jewish Innovators, created by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. According to Lev, the money is very important to Bat Kol, but recognition by such a prestigious foundation is equally encouraging.
Bat Kol, says Lev, is trying its utmost to spread the word about homosexuality to allay fears and, indeed, homophobic tendencies among members of the general public. “Part of our aim is to educate people. There are organizations today that are trying to educate teachers or schools to remove all this misinformation about what homosexuality is. I think ignorance is a big cause of homophobia. Bat Kol doesn’t go out to schools, but there are other organizations, such as IGY [Israel Gay Youth organization], that do.”
Lev says her first encounter with Bat Kol was an uplifting and enlightening experience. “I had been wrestling with my own struggles before – I don’t want to get into my family background – and when I went to my first Bat Kol Shabbaton [weekend], I was blown away. There were around 200 religious women there, of all ages and backgrounds, and there were even kids there! I found that incredible, to see religious lesbians bringing up their own families. I suddenly felt I was no longer on my own. There was someone there I could talk to, people who shared the same views and had the same issues. Bat Kol has social events, we learn Torah together, and there is counseling too, and on-line support.”
Today, Lev says much effort is being channeled into getting the word about Bat Kol and religious lesbianism out to the world via the media and the Web.
“The Internet is a very important tool, which allows religious lesbians to look for and get help anonymously before they are ready to come out. We are also looking to connect with other Jewish religious lesbian groups and communities around the world. I am part of the new Bat Kol International initiative which is working on that, and also on engaging rabbis in dialogue. That is also very important.”
The organization’s dialogue endeavor stretches far and wide. “We are looking to share dialogue with people and parties that may not be empathetic toward us. I believe that when you get to know someone as a person, you can get past all those taboos and preconceptions.”
In addition to the ROI grant, Bat Kol is gaining ground. “The organization has grown exponentially since 2005,” says Lev. “We have over 200 members now, which is unheard of considering how terrified most girls are in the religious community to come out of the closet. So when you have an organization at your back, you start to think, ‘I don’t have to be so afraid anymore, and there are others just like me.’ I was also scared and in the closet. I had no idea what to do. We’re making progress.”