Conversion therapy, Shalom says, is emotionally destructive. He says a friend of his who was "cured" of gayness later tried to take his own life. "You don't change," he says. "You only end up hating yourself even more."

The Support Groups

It is impossible to get an accurate number of gay Orthodox Jews. There is no official membership, and only a handful of people are willing to put their names on support-group lists. Shlomo Ashkinazy, a gay-rights activist and Orthodox Jew who lives in New York City, says he has spoken with over 200 gay Orthodox Jews over the past few years. Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski, who produced and directed "Trembling Before G-d," interviewed hundreds of gay frum (observant) Jews over the past few years for his movie. And those involved in gay community outreach say there are many more out there.

In the New York area, home to the largest concentration of gay Orthodox Jews, at least four support groups have sprung up to meet their needs. There are also a number of informal groups that meet on a monthly basis for Shabbat meals or Talmud study. Some of these informal groups, many of which operate in secret, have been around for years.

"It's almost a cliche," says Ashkinazy, who helped found one of the support groups. "Every gay frum Jew who finds out about [the support networks] says, 'I thought I was the only one.'"

The three founders of the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association chose that name specifically to attract a gay group with an Orthodox background. The group was publicized solely through word-of-mouth.

Sixty people showed up at the first meeting. For Chaim, then 28, walking into a room and meeting people like himself for the first time was a powerful experience. "I had told one person I was [gay]," he says. "All these people were going through the same thing. To see that you're not alone gives you inner strength."

"I am a different person today than I was five years ago," he adds. "I [now] know who I am."

GLYDSA has a confidentiality agreement that extends to all its members. Between 30 to 60 people show up at the group's monthly meetings in New York City, organizers say. Chaim estimates that about 2,000 people have come to meetings over the past five years. "The people who come are a total cross-section from the Jewish community," he says. "People with black hats, colored yarmulkes, girls who wear skirts, pants. Hasidishe people. And they come from all over. We've had people from Boston, Washington, Florida, California, Israel, England, France, Canada. They come to see that there is something out there for them."

Similar groups exist in Israel, England, and California. The first West Coast support group was founded in Los Angeles by "Jacob," a 54-year-old Orthodox gay Jew who had been married and living in a New York suburb until ten years ago, when he confessed to his wife that he was gay. Jacob hasn't seen his children since. He tried attending Reform synagogues, but because of his level of observance, he was not comfortable. He started attending an Orthodox synagogue, but was treated as a second-class member (he did not receive aliyot, for example) because he was gay.

GLYDSA does very little advertising, but its presence on the Internet has helped people to find out about it. The anonymity provided by the Internet has been a godsend to Orthodox gays. Suddenly, questions can be asked without fear of exposure.

Another Web site, Orthogays, provides resources and answers to the most frequently asked questions. Is it possible to be Orthodox and gay or lesbian? What does the Torah say about homosexuality? What can I do about sex as an Orthodox gay Jew? Can I still be Orthodox if I have gay sex? Why did God make me gay? What about the mitzvah of pru urvu (procreation)? How can I contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people?

"Miryam's" interest in starting OrthoDykes, a group for Orthodox Jewish lesbians, had its start in Israel about ten years ago. The issues for Orthodox lesbians are different than for Orthodox gay men, in part because the Torah does not specifically prohibit lesbian sex. Still, these women are often married and have children, and coming out would mean isolation. "[Orthodoxy] is all they know," says Miryam. "They love the rituals, the Sabbath, the davening. But then religion becomes the thing that means they have to reject a part of themselves. Your spiritual side is as powerful as your sexual side. You can't ignore [one] at the expense of the other."

Ashkinazy, meanwhile, says the groups are transforming the community. For a long time, he says, "people couldn't conceive that it was possible to be gay and frum, so they were leaving [Orthodoxy] in droves." Now, he says, "More and more people are staying frum-because of the support system and the role models."

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