Forty-four faces. Forty-four different stories. One recurring motif.
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“I was convinced I must be the only Orthodox gay person in the world,” says Zehorit Sorek. “And it turns out everyone else thought the same.”
“Our Faces,” a new online outreach campaign, targets those young Israelis who might be thinking similar thoughts today. By making their names, their photographs and their life stories public, these 44 members of Israel’s Orthodox LGBT community hope to convince others in the same boat that making peace with these two important, yet sometimes conflicting, parts of their identity is possible.
“We’re trying to reach those who are in the same place we were 20 years ago,” says Dan Oziel, who together with his partner Dror Zunz, created the concept for the campaign. “They may be studying in the same yeshivas and seminaries as we did, or serving in the same army units. They definitely go to the same youth movement. We thought it was really important to put out a message that there is no need for anonymity anymore, and we are proud of who we are.”
The Hebrew-language campaign, which went live on Facebook earlier this week, has since gone viral, say the creators, noting that in a matter of days it has already reached about 150,000 people online.
Its sponsors are three non-profits that serve the LGBT community in Israel: Havruta (Orthodox gay men), Bat Kol (Orthodox lesbians), and Igy (gay youth). As one commenter on the Havruta Facebook page noted: “I’m staring at this post for a half hour already, reading all of the short biographies of these wonderful people (and proud to say that I know and admire several of them), and the smile is big, very big.”
The stabbing death of a 16-year-old girl at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem this summer, an act perpetrated by an ultra-Orthodox man, has challenged traditional views of homosexuality in the religious world. The timing of this campaign, acknowledges Oziel, is “obviously connected.”
In their introductory remarks, the campaign participants write: “Here we are, strong and out in the open, inviting you to read a little story from our lives that may help you feel more secure.”
Some of the participants, such as Sorek, are well-known activists is Israel’s Orthodox gay community (she runs the LGBT outreach efforts of the centrist Yesh Atid party and was on their Knesset slate). For others, who may have come out quietly to their families, this is the first time they have made their stories known to a wider public.
Most are married or involved in same-sex partnership arrangements. Many have children. There are lawyers, filmmakers, journalists, educators and therapists among them. In their spare time, many volunteer their services at gay advocacy groups. Most live in Israel’s two big cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but many grew up in West Bank settlements or attended yeshivas and seminaries there. Almost all were active in the Orthodox B’nei Akiva youth movement.
Like Sorek, many had contemplated abandoning their observant lifestyle at some point in their lives. “It’s a natural thing for people to ask themselves why they should stay in a world that rejects them,” she notes.
But as Oziel observes, Orthodox Judaism is starting to come around these days. “Once, it was common for the Orthodox to say that there are no homosexuals among them,” he says. “Today, they know that there are.”
Of the “Faces” participants, quite a few are active members of Yachad, an Orthodox synagogue in Tel Aviv that actively reaches out to the gay community. And they have found other synagogues that accept them for who they are as well (although perhaps not with as warm an embrace).
Some, at the urging of family and religious leaders, have tried conversion therapy, a method, widely condemned as pseudoscience, that promises to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals.
As Yehuda Aloni recounts in his bio, while undergoing such therapy, a member of his group killed himself. “That death, that bitter end, it woke me up,” he writes. “I preferred to start learning and accept reality as it is rather than try to change myself.”
Muli Shemer-Eldar reveals that he once secretly consulted with a rabbi, who advised him to wash the bodies of old men in a nursing home out of a belief that this would help him develop a repugnance to the male body. “That’s when the coin dropped, and I realized he didn’t understand anything,” writes Shemer-Eldar. “When will you understand – it’s not only the body. It’s the soul. From that moment on, I stopped being ashamed of my love.”
Some have never found complete peace. Naama Tzoref, for example, whose parents struggled with their daughter’s coming out, though her father was starting to come around. After her mother refused to consult with a professional, Tzoref was very upset. A month later, both her parents were killed in a suicide bombing. “Nine years have gone by,” she writes, “but I still struggle with the sharp pain of that missed opportunity.”
When he began his yeshiva studies, writes Chaim Elbaum, he knew that God would make a miracle so that he would become just like everyone else. “But the miracle that happened to me was even greater,” he writes in his bio, “I came out as a religious gay man, one that believes in God and in how He created me.”
Or as Meron Sasson writes, explaining his response to those who question his newfound sense of pride in his identity: “Sometime pride is simply the opposite of shame.”