When Asher Gellis realized he was gay, he was pretty sure it would be the beginning of the end of his involvement in the organized Los Angeles Jewish community.
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“I felt that one day I was going to have to make a choice between being gay and being Jewish. I just didn’t see those worlds ever coming together in any kind of healthy fashion,” says Gellis, who notes that he was raised with a “wonderful” education, was very active in his synagogue and youth group, attended Jewish summer camp and visited Israel many times.
Acceptance at home wasn’t an issue. Gellis’ brother is also gay, and the two siblings chose to come out at the same time “because we didn’t want to give our parents two separate heart attacks,” Gellis says.
Though their parents hugged them and accepted their orientation almost immediately, their mother cried. She figured her sons would never get married or have children.
“I told her that I was dating someone,” Gellis recalls. “Her tears evaporated and she looked me dead in the eye and asked, ‘Is he Jewish?’”
But, as Gellis expected, finding his place as an openly gay young man in the organized Jewish community, even one as large, diverse and liberal as the L.A. incarnation, proved a challenge. He tried some of the gay synagogues and organizations, but couldn’t find a setting where he really fit in.
So, in 2005, he decided to create one for himself. “I got together with my friends and we just started doing gay Jewish programming for people in their 20s,” he says. “We didn’t really know what we were doing; it was just an experiment. But by the end of the year we had hundreds of people coming.”
The events started out as simple Shabbat dinners, parties, and wine-and-cheese events. Then Purim parties and Passover seders were added – the group even launched the first Haggadah compiling gay seder traditions from around the world.
At first it was an all-volunteer hobby. But over the next few years, as the events became increasingly popular, the group applied for grants and won seed funding. Eventually, it obtained second-phase funding from the city’s Jewish federation. Today, Gellis runs the organization JQ International out of his house in L.A.’s central Silver Lake neighborhood.
The group creates more than 50 events annually for all sectors of the LGBT community, and maintains a 24-hour hotline and website on LGBT Jewish life. It also organizes teen workshops and provides training for Jewish synagogues and organizations that want to learn how to be more welcoming to the growing community.
Transgender interfaith workshop
Unlike certain niche organizations aimed at sections of the community – for example, solely gay men, lesbians or the Orthodox – the group aspires to engage Jews throughout the LGBT spectrum with different levels of observance and commitment. It’s not always easy, Gellis admits.
“There are so many niche communities – niches in being Jewish and niches in being LGBT. It’s really hard to create events where all groups feel welcome,” he says.
“But largely, when we do events it’s because someone stepped up and said ‘I want to do this – I want to make it happen.’ We’re doing a transgender interfaith workshop this winter because one of our transgender leaders said it was something they really wanted to do.”
Despite the image of Los Angeles as an open-minded, anything-goes environment, a child coming out of the closet can still rock some Jewish families. The group’s hotline receives calls for help from people in the Orthodox and Persian immigrant communities.
Even in the world of supposedly progressive Reform and Conservative Jews, and at inclusive organizations like Limmud and Birthright, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to embracing young congregants as they cope with their sexual orientation, Gellis says. There’s still progress to be made in welcoming newcomers.
“It’s so trendy to be ‘inclusive.’ But a lot of the time, people don’t really know what that means. There’s a difference between creating an ‘affirmative’ space, not just a ‘tolerant’ space. It’s a significant difference that’s hard to explain. We still have a lot of trouble in the Jewish community when it comes to being affirmative,” he says.
“The thing I hear a lot from clergy is ‘I want to make my synagogue welcoming for people like you.’ And they will say it in a sincere and not condescending manner. But they will also say: ‘I can’t tell one of my student’s fathers that they should say it’s okay for their child to be gay.’”
According to Gellis, this sends a very negative message. “A rabbi will say, ‘it’s not my place to tell a father what’s okay for their child.’ And I reply that they have to understand that this is where the damage and pain is happening.”
This article is part of a special Haaretz series called "The new Jews of L.A.," about Jewish life in and around Los Angeles.