Six years after she fell in love with a woman for the first time, Na’ama Arnon was married to a man.
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“My mother was always afraid,” recalled Arnon, who was born in the settlement of Efrat, educated in the settlement of Kiryat Arba and married at age 22. “She even asked me before the wedding if I was sure, if I had different feelings toward women. I said of course not, even though it wasn’t true. But it was completely because I’d convinced myself.
“Efrat has a fairly wide spectrum of people; compared to other settlements, it’s considered ‘different,’” Arnon continued. “It has many people who are less religious, religious-lite and left-wing.” But her own parents were “very religious, very right-wing.” So perhaps it’s understandable that she did “the right thing.”
Yet a year after her marriage, Arnon got divorced. Three months later she came out of the closet, and she’s never looked back.
Now 34, she lives with her female partner and their two children in Jerusalem. But she remains Orthodox.
“We run a completely observant household,” she said. “Religion is very important to us, in every regard. It’s not just keeping Shabbat and going to synagogue. I belong to this life, to this community. That’s how I want to live.”
Though coming out of the closet remains rare among religious Israelis, the numbers have grown steadily in recent years. There are also organizations that help, like Havruta for men and Bat Kol for women.
In the settlements, however, coming out is often more complicated.
“It’s hard in any small community,” explained Havruta chairman Daniel Jonas. “You have nowhere to run to. Lacking the option of meeting people like you in your own environment or taking a bus downtown to the local bar makes it difficult.”
Havruta gets about 200 calls a year, and roughly a third are from the settlements, Jonas said, because coming out is simply harder in a closed, conservative community. Moreover, the “guidance” people receive from their own community “is really still all kinds of nonsense, like conversion therapy,” which seeks to turn gay people straight and which is considered by psychiatric associations in the U.S. and Britain to be pseudoscientific, unethical and harmful.
Yaakov Stahl, 24, grew up in a very religious home in the settlement of Beit El. In ninth grade, he realized he was attracted to boys.
“I thought this was abnormal, perverted, a mental illness, that I couldn’t have a family and 1,001 things,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be gay. I wanted to be normal.”
So he told a teacher, who referred him to conversion therapy. But he soon realized it wouldn’t help. “I don’t know what lies he told himself, but a therapist he wasn’t,” Stahl said of his therapist.
After 10 meetings, he quit. “I still wasn’t fine with the fact that I’m gay, but I realized they were lying to me. I simply repressed the problem.”
In the following years he had some encounters with men, but it was a long time before he told his family the truth. When he did, they were upset, but they didn’t throw him out of the house. Nor has he become the talk of the town in Beit El, even when he walked around with a Gay Pride flag in 2015, following the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade.
“I lived there for three years after coming out of the closet, and no one, neither the adults nor the young people, said anything,” Stahl said. “Only last Purim did some 17-year-old boy yell, ‘You homo.’ I told him, ‘If you have a problem with the fact that I’m gay, deal with it.’” Later, he said, the boy’s sister apologized to him.
Stahl said Beit El even has a lesbian couple that lives together, and nobody bothers them. “They’re the most religious women around,” he said, noting that both cover their hair the way married women do.
Nevertheless, Stahl moved to Jerusalem, in part because he had also abandoned religion – something that’s often part of the process of coming out of the closet.
Yael Rashlin, 37, was assigned male at birth and grew up in a religious home in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Only after marrying a woman, moving to Efrat and becoming a father of three did she realize she was transgender – a realization that wasn’t greeted kindly by her community.
“I grew up in an environment that was very rigid, very strict, very unsupportive and not understanding,” she said. “When you come out of the closet, when you examine your possibilities, there’s a lot of embarrassment.”
After transitioning, Rashlin divorced her wife and moved to Ma’aleh Adumim. Now she is fighting a custody battle over her children.
Arnon also dealt with life outside the closet in Efrat. “It’s not a community where everyone knows everybody else, but it’s no city either,” she explains. Her parents worried what her friends would say, she recalls, and it helped to realize that everyone knew and didn’t care.
Still, she eventually moved to Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, where she is an elementary school teacher. She’d like to return to Efrat but doesn’t see it happening soon. “To be a lesbian family in such a settlement required great emotional powers,” she says. “I’m not sure I have them yet, maybe in another 10 years. I’m sure there’ll be many LGBT families there. Then it will be easier.”
One settler who came out of the closet yet stayed in the West Bank is Jonathan Maman, 27, a philologist living in Gush Etzion, who studies in yeshiva and teaches locally and in Jerusalem. He basically went in the opposite direction as the others. Born in Jerusalem, he studied at Himmelfarb High School and moved to a Gush Etzion yeshiva at age 18, being fully aware of his sexual nature. He says he’s doing well in the Orthodox settlement.
“There’s no room for someone saying he holds halakha in contempt,” he says, referring to Jewish religious law. On the other hand, he notes, “There is a norm that you don’t pry into others’ beds.” He says if he ever finds a partner, he will live according to halakhic restrictions. “From my Torah learning, I don’t see a way of justifying relations without any halakhic limits,” he says. “Worshipping the Lord, in the halakhic world, is disciplining everything. When we enter a world that has at least one act of full sex punishable by death and is to be done under no circumstances, there is no justification that theoretically can overturn such a prohibition.” While he doesn’t intend to violate the prohibition, he says he knows “many people who keep 612 commandments” out of the 613.
In general, he believes Gush Etzion isn’t a bad place at all for LGBT people, perhaps even a model for other settlements. “I know very senior rabbis who tell me unequivocally they strive for their settlement to be the same,” he says. “It means they will talk in public for [acceptance of gays], not in general about how they need to be nice to gays and how gays aren’t dangerous, but rather to say unequivocally that there is room in our settlement for a couple to conduct homosexual relations within halakhic limits.”
Still, he says there are no doubt settlements where it is much harder to be gay. He says many people, including rabbis, seek tolerance for LGBT people in more settlements, but adds that “anyone familiar with the settlements knows the huge difference between Gush Etzion and Samaria in this regard.”
When Maman speaks of difficulties related to his sexual orientation, he calls on the LGBT community to change, accusing it of make it hard for him with his right-wing politics. “When there was a controversy last year over Rabbi Yigal Levinstein [head of the army-affiliated yeshiva in the settlement of Eli who blasted the IDF for accepting gay soldiers, calling them “perverts”], Zehava Galon posted a status basically saying it’s either us or him,” says Maman, referring to the left-wing Meretz party’s leader. “One of the things bothering me is the attempt to make me a pawn between two camps.”
“As a right winger from a religious home, I feel attacked by Rabbi Levinstein, but also by the left side of the map within the community,” notes Stahl, echoing Maman. “They tell me I’m a right-wing gay, and that’s an oxymoron,” he says. “After Shira Banki’s murder, there was a Saturday night demonstration, and President Reuven Rivlin came to Zion Square. We stood there with Israeli flags and shirts showing pride in Likud. And they yelled ‘Heil Hitler’ at us. They gave a Nazi salute.”