NEW YORK – When Oliver Rosenberg moved back to New York last February, after a year-and-a-half hiatus in Los Angeles, he immediately got to work on two startups. The first was Prealth, a mobile app that allows consumers to compare costs of doctors' visits and offers helpful health-care information. The second was Or Chayim, an independent monthly minyan (prayer quorum) for traditional and Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, which concluded the year with a special Shabbat Hanukkah celebration last Friday.
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For Or Chayim’s first event in February, which he advertised on social media, Rosenberg said he hoped for about two dozen attendees. Instead, more than 50 people showed up in the events room of his apartment building on the Upper West Side, where the minyan continues to gather. Each month, Or Chayim consistently attracts between 50-75 participants, who daven a traditional service and then nosh on cholent and kugel, followed by a kosher catered dinner.
“I don’t really know what the magic ingredient is but I feel like he found it,” said Jared Arader, a regular attendee, of the community that has been created by Rosenberg.
More than 200 people have attended Or Chayim Shabbat events to date, and the group boasts over 400 followers on social media. The popularity of the minyan suggests that Rosenberg has tapped into an under-served niche in the city's Jewish community, which has surprised even him.
“I’m shocked by how successful it’s been,” he told Haaretz.
The past decade has seen extraordinary progress in LGBT inclusion in the American Jewish community, mirroring increasingly widespread acceptance in the country. Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues have led the way, with the Conservative movement coming around in recent years as well. Though the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox remains largely impenetrable to this momentum, some modern Orthodox communities have taken steps to open the door to LGBT individuals.
American organizations like JQ Youth, founded in 2001 to support young LGBT Orthodox Jews, and Eshel, founded in 2012 to support parents of LGBT Orthodox children, are helping to shape a generation for whom embracing one’s sexuality and experiencing a traditional religious upbringing are no longer mutually exclusive.
'This is not a bar'
Rosenberg, now 28, came out when he was 22 and a student at Yeshiva University. He spoke in 2009 on panel at the university called “Being Gay in the Orthodox World.” Following graduation, he explored a variety of synagogues and congregations on both the West and East Coasts, including Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, but found that he was missing the structure and liturgical traditions he had grown up with.
“It was so rich within me, this very traditional Orthodox spiritual style,” Rosenberg explained. And yet he saw that an Orthodox shul, even an inclusive one, didn’t offer the sense of freedom and camaraderie that a gay space provides. So he created Or Chayim to bridge the gap, contributing to the DIY independent minyan trend that has shaped American Judaism in the past decade. Apparently, others were looking for this as well.
“I know [that] as an openly gay man I can go to most of the minyanim on the Upper West Side and in New York,” said Arader. “But there’s something welcoming and open and safe in being in an environment where gay is normative and you don’t have feel as cautious about it.”
While the Or Chayim environment is certainly social and, for some, its appeal is primarily the mingling, the group’s roots are firmly religious – "centered around Shabbat, centered around a service,” Rosenberg said. “There are a ton of gay Jewish parties in New York, but this is not in a bar, it’s not in a club.”
The group's Shabbat service follows Orthodox guidelines and a low mehitza (barrier) separates men and women – when there are women: Approximately 90 percent of attendees to date have been male.
“We all hope more women will attend eventually,” said Arader, who pointed out that some transgender men have attended as well, which is also welcome. The age range is from 16 to 80, with a sizable contingent between their twenties and fifties. In terms of religious affiliation, Rosenberg says that about one-third identify as Orthodox, half grew up traditional but left the fold, and the remaining 20 or so percent don’t come from a traditional background but are, as Rosenberg put it, “traditional-curious.”
'A Zionist-positive space'
Israel has become an increasingly contentious topic in the American Jewish community, and no less so among LGBT organizations who struggle to strike a balance between support of Israel and criticism of policies that don’t align with their social values. During Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip this past summer, Bryan Bridges, a board member at CBST, very publicly resigned from the synagogue in response to what he felt was its insufficient support of Israel.
“There’s a feeling in some quarters of the progressive community that Zionism is a dirty word now,” Bridges, who has attended several of Or Chayim’s Shabbat services, told Haaretz. “There are a lot of people who wanted a Zionist-positive space that is also gay.”
Rosenberg is wary of weighing in on the subject. “I’ve treaded very lightly on the politics,” he said, but added, “I’m not afraid to be supportive of Israel.”
Though he never intended to publicly share his opinions, he did write posts on the Or Chayim blog about the Gaza war and the recent massacre at a synagogue in Jerusalem after members of the minyan looked to him for a statement. But he said he is not interested in furthering debate, and most of his monthly sermons focus on the weekly Torah portion.
“This isn’t about Israel,” he said. “This is about creating a unique traditional and Orthodox LGBT space.” Still, the warmer embrace of Israel has apparently attracted some of the group’s participants.
“I like the idea that among LGBT congregations there can be an array of opinions on Israel and what our Zionism looks like,” Arader commented.
Andrew Nagel has lived on the Upper West Side for more than two decades. He remembers that in the late 1990s, there was a rotating traditional LGBT havurah (religious- and social-oriented community), consisting of about 20 participants, mostly men. But the group fell apart and that niche hasn’t been filled since.
“For me, the energy that Oliver single-handedly put into this is really great,” said Nagel. “It brought something back on a sustainable basis.”
How sustainable remains to be seen, however. “We definitely need more resources than just my bank account,” said Rosenberg with a laugh.
The Or Chayim Kiddush is occasionally sponsored by organizations, as was last Friday’s event in partnership with the LGBT Israel advocacy organization A Wider Bridge. The Schusterman Foundation provided a grant for one such traditional Sabbath event early on, and participants will occasionally host one in honor of a life-cycle event, as happened recently for a same-sex wedding.
Rosenberg is finding that his organizational responsibilities are significant. “One of the frictions is: How much more time do I have to devote to this?” he said. But the enthusiastic response and strong, consistent attendance at the minyanim has indicated a clear need for a more traditional LGBT Jewish space – and Or Chayim just may be the answer.
“I think at some future point," he said, "it could likely become a congregation."