What It's Like to Come Out as Gay in the Orthodox World

Departures / Arrivals: Two young Israelis, on their way home from their first trip abroad, explain why they left the faith.

Yehonatan Shapira (left) and Yehuda Shlezinger.
Tomer Appelbaum

Yehonatan Shapira, 19, and Yehuda Shlezinger, 19; live in Jerusalem, arriving from Rome

Hello, can I ask where you were?

Yehuda: In Rome, and I will start by saying things are better abroad.

How long were you there for?

Yehonatan: Almost a week, but we did a lot. We were in Naples, too. It’s our first trip abroad.

Really?

Yehuda: He was in Poland and I was in Turkey, but being with family doesn’t count.

Did you have a good time?

Yehuda: The Vatican is nice, but Rome is super-touristy. This hunk waiter in an apron comes over with a frying pan that has a tomato and a pepper in it, and says, “Come and eat.”

Yehonatan: But we were lucky and stumbled on this Italian mama, no tablecloths or other nonsense, and the best lasagna I’ll ever eat.

Where do you know each other from?

Yehuda: We met in a group of former religiously observant people. I’m ex-Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] and he’s ex-Orthodox. 

How much of a Haredi?

Yehuda: The real deal. Multo Ortodoxi, they’d say in Italy. Yeshivas, Yiddish. Was alts? Alts gut.

When did you stop being religious?

Yehuda: Around the age of 15. But I think it started earlier. And all because of Zionism.

Zionism, of all things?

Yehuda: Yes. My father was anti-Zionist, and it bothered me that he didn’t identify with the country. I actually believe quite strongly in my country, and that was what made me realize that I no longer believe in it.

In what?

Yehuda: In God. In the secular world people really like to talk about belief, but very often in the Haredi world belief is no more than prayers: “Baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem.” It’s technical. In my opinion, you have to talk about the social structure. In the Haredi world, everything is very much not open.

Yehonatan: Everything is closed, and we are devourers of life.

Yehuda: It’s important for me to say that when you leave religion, that doesn’t mean you forgo the culture. Religion doesn’t belong only to the religious and the traditionalists. We have a Shabbat meal with all our friends, and then we go to a movie.

What about the comfort of faith?

Yehuda: It was revolting, I would put on tefillin for one minute.

Yehonatan: I used to do it with a charger cable.

Yehonatan, what’s your story?

Yehonatan: I never felt a connection with religion, I looked at it the way you look at a show window. Finally, at 18, I came out of the closet and started going to an organization of young gays.

How did your families take it?

Yehuda: I had a lot of fights with my dad. At some point he told me to get out of the house – it’s over. I understood that. He has two little girls, they’re Haredi, it wasn’t appropriate.

Yehonatan: With me it was less extreme. I grew up in a national-religious family in Jerusalem, and my parents accepted me. They’re both psychologists. My friends in the yeshiva also accepted it.

Yehuda: You have to explain to her that in every religious school there’s always a group that’s more open, and there are gays and bisexuals.

What happened afterward?

Yehuda: I live with my grandparents – they’re religious but very accepting – and I run a religious optometrist’s shop. My past helps me, because I “speak” Haredi. I come to work in jeans but put on a yarmulke; it’s just more normal there and I like it. It’s better than working in some dumpy mall.

What about army service?

Yehuda: I will soon start National Service [an alternative to the military].

Yehonatan: I am doing army service and am also working at the Waldorf Astoria, the fancy hotel in Jerusalem. The people there are high-level, both the staff and the guests. And we are very active in the [gay] community.

Is there a community in Rome?

Yehonatan: On the first evening we walked by the Colosseum – there’s a kind of small alley of places for gays.

Yehuda: Disgusting, it’s a hole.

Yehonatan: Actually, there was a nice South American girl there who talked to us about a party near some square, a three-story club.

And did you go?

Yehuda: There’s no point to this story.

Yehonatan: There is a point!

Yehuda: Passing the mike to you, darling!

Yehonatan: We missed the party. But it was nice to talk to someone who understood where we’re at. And anyway, in my opinion she was trans.

Yehuda: She wasn’t.

Yehonatan: She was!

Yehuda: She was a woman. Not everyone in the community has to be queer.

Gali Shabtay and Karin Flohr.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gali Shabtay, 51, and Karin Flohr, 43; live in Jerusalem, flying to Amsterdam

Hello, can I ask why you’re going to Amsterdam?

Gali: We’re going to Elspeet to attend a workshop for therapists in Brandon Bays’ “The Journey” method.

I read it. How did you get involved?

Gali: A desire to understand the human psyche, to help people.

Don’t people generally take that “journey” after a crisis?

Gali: Even though Bays developed the method after a major crisis, it’s possible to achieve growth and development without one.

Karin: I actually did get there after a crisis.

What happened?

Karin: Ten years ago I had a serious physical problem. For four years I looked for an answer, but the doctors didn’t have one. It was very unpleasant – one foot hurts, then the other, sometimes the hands. You start to think you’re nuts.

But you weren’t.

It turned out to be damage to the peripheral nervous system, felt in the soles of the feet. If I stand still, the legs swell and everything turns blue and red. But when they finally figured out what it was, the doctors said, “Good luck, because there’s no solution ... There are steroids, but they have side effects. And then I became open to a many things: acupuncture, guided imagery, bioenergy. A friend who had done the Bays workshop said: “I learned something, Let’s give it a try.” “Why not?” I said. So she went on the journey for me, and I was stunned. It was like my consciousness took off; I was totally high without taking anything. “What is this?” I wondered. And then I went and read the book.

I couldn’t get into it.

Karin: It is really readable, the language is pretty simple, but if I’d read it before doing the journey itself, I probably would have said it was science fiction. The fact is that it helped me tremendously. Before the journey I slept with ice-packs on my legs, I couldn’t stand up for a minute at a time, I took two painkillers every two hours.

How did “The Journey” help?

Gali: The basic principle of the method is that body cells have memory. That has been proved in research – by Deepak Chopra, for example. Numberless memories are created during our life, and some remain in the body. Over the years, traumas cause blockage that can be manifested as a physical disease and in negative behavior patterns, such as eating or addiction.

What does a typical journey look like?

I accompany the person being treated into relaxation, a meditative state, and then the unconscious brings forth things, and what comes up is accurate for that person for that moment. Sometimes you come for therapy for a particular problem and the unconscious wants you to deal with something else first. Then you do cleansing.

How?

It’s a process of conversation, after which you experience quiet and transcendence.

Why not go to a regular psychologist?

Gali: With a psychologist there isn’t necessarily a place that allows entry into the unconscious. In “The Journey,” there is a structured process of relaxation, there’s a method, you summon up figures and talk to them, you dispose of painful emotions.

Karin: Many times you reach childhood and even previous incarnations. Sometimes people drag something with them for years, and then they understand that it wasn’t done to them deliberately; when you understand, your perception changes. 

What do you have to do to become a therapist?

Gali: We did seven workshops, two of them with Brandon Bays, and an internship with 50 people.

Are the workshops fun?

Gali: Brandon is a virtuoso performer, she makes everyone cry and laugh. It’s not that we’re groupies, but she has an aura about her.

Karin: In a workshop in Germany, I got stuck in an elevator with a few trainers and got really scared. I was terrified, I had no air left, and I was so ashamed. Here I am in an elevator filled with people training in the method and I’m behaving like a retard. Afterward, in the full session, I said, “I am a survivor of the elevator incident.” She told me to come to the stage and she hugged me. I don’t like it when people touch me, and she said she usually doesn’t touch, but she felt that was what I needed. She sat and hugged me, and I remembered that someone in the elevator had held my hand. And that really was the only thing that helped.