Orthodox LGBT Activist: More of Us Are Coming Out – and Earlier, Too

Among participants at this week's ROI Summit in Jerusalem for Jewish innovators were founders of a non-profit group and a gay organization serving America's growing religiously observant LGBT community.

Noa Magger

His grandfather had served as president of Maimonides, a well-known Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, Massachusetts. But that wasn’t good enough for Mordechai Levovitz’s parents. Unhappy with the idea of their son attending a co-ed school, they founded their own Orthodox boys day school so he would have a place to study without being distracted by the opposite sex.

Levovitz lets out a great big laugh as he tells the punch line: “And then I turned out to be gay.”

The 36-year-old founder and director of Jewish Queer Youth, a non-profit support group for LGBT youth in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community, was in Israel this week attending the ROI Summit, a convention held every summer in Jerusalem for young Jewish innovators in the arts and high-tech fields from around the world. This annual gathering of Jewish movers and shakers is the flagship event of the ROI Community, an organization created and run by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network.

JQY is the only non-profit in North America today that is dedicated to providing assistance to young LBGT adults in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. As of the latest count, its network includes 725 members, many of whom are still in the closet. But attitudes have definitely been changing in recent years, reports Levovitz.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s common for Orthodox Jews to come out,” he cautions, "but relative to five years ago, there’s a definite shift, not only in the number of people coming out but in the age they’re coming out.”

As an example, he cites the support session his organization holds in New York each month, generally attended by 40-60 members of the Orthodox LGBT community, including of late two 18-year-old boys who show up in full Hasidic garb.

“These boys are out to their parents, and they’re out to some of their friends and their rabbis,” he reports. “I’m not only inspired that they’re out, but also by the fact that they’re not necessarily changing who they are in the gay environment. They’re still coming and owning their culture.”

Although Levovitz does not delude himself into the thinking that the Orthodox rabbinical establishment will, in the near future, embrace gay culture enthusiastically, he does see signs of change.

“The difference between five years ago and now is that now you have really well-respected rabbis coming out and taking a stand that we [the rabbinical establishment] have to be welcoming and we have to shift our perspective from rejection to acceptance,” he notes. “They’re not talking about changing halakha [traditional Jewish law], but rather, about shifting communal perspective.”

For example, notes Levovitz, the two keynote speakers at a mental health conference organized by JQY last month were senior members or the Orthodox-run Rabbinial Council of America: “They made it very clear, though, that the RCA, as an organization, is not yet ready for this. And that’s the challenge we’re at right now.”

The first student at Yeshiva University to publicly come out of the closet, Levovitz also became New York’s first male certified rape crisis advocate. Accepted early-decision to Stony Brook Medical School, he studied medicine for two years until taking a leave of absence to pursue a master’s degree in social work. In addition to working as a social worker for teens at the LGBT Center of Manhattan, he also served as the LGBT consultant for the United Nations NGO Committee for Human Rights.

Levovitz established JQY with a group of gay friends from similar Orthodox backgrounds in 2002. “Back then, the situation for Orthodox members of the LGBT community was so helpless and sad,” he recalls. “We wanted to change the narrative and create a different vision of what life could be like for these people.”

As he assists others coming out in the Orthodox world, Levovitz acknowledges that his own family still struggles with his sexual identity. “My family has accepted the reality that I’m gay, and my family loves me very much,” he remarks. “Would I say that my parents are gay advocates? No, they’re not.”

Jewish, then gay

Daniel Heller, another participant at the ROI Summit, is also a gay activist and product of the Jewish day-school environment in America. But his particular school, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was co-ed and far more progressive.

“I used to say that before I was really gay, I was really Jewish,” says the 31-year-old founder of The Welcoming Committee, a for-profit social enterprise that provides members of the American LGBT community with what it describes as “comfortable access” to nightlife, sports, cultural and travel opportunities in typically “straight” places and spaces. Founded three years ago in Boston, the organization now has offices in 10 cities around the United States and 27,000 members.

“This year, we’re projecting that 55,000 people will attend our events,” reports Heller, who goes on to explain how The Welcoming Committee’s business model works.

“We do two things – we build community and then we take them [our members] places,” he says. “For example, if we’re talking about a sporting event, we organize a big group, we sell our members tickets at face value, but we try to get them at a discount because we’re such a large group. The money we make is the difference between the face-value price and the rate we negotiate with the provider.”

A graduate of Harvard’s business school, Heller worked in project management at Amazon.com before setting up The Welcoming Committee. He also served on the board of Keshet, the LGBT-focused Jewish non-profit; his mother took over his seat.

Since it was founded, his organization has been bringing 700 people a year to Boston Red Sox baseball games.

“And that’s an opportunity for gay fans in this sports-crazy city to experience something near and dear to them in a completely comfortable environment,” notes Heller. “Not that the environment is unsafe for them otherwise, but it’s not 100-percent comfortable, and we like to talk about 100-percent comfort. So even as legal equality barrels down the hallway quickly in American, experiential equality can take a lot longer.”

The Welcoming Committee is about to hit its break-even point and is now debating whether to span out into smaller towns in America or to take the operation abroad. “It we do go international,” Heller says, “the most natural places for us would be Tel Aviv, London and Paris because we already have people there who are interested.”