NEW YORK – In light of several recent Religious Freedom laws here in the United States and public spotlights on controversial conversion therapies, faith and sexuality have once again been cast as opposing forces. Yet on Sunday, a groundbreaking conference sought to reconcile the two, convening religious leaders, mental health professionals and educators to discuss best practices for serving members of the Orthodox Jewish LGBT community.
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The day-long event, called “Desire, Faith and Psychotherapy,” attempted to bridge the gap between the unique struggles that LGBT people face in religiously observant communities and the latest research on psychological treatment. It did so by bringing together two professions not often in conversation with one another but that both play a significant role in the well-being of the people they work with – whether clients or congregants.
“Having therapists and rabbis in the room together talking about this topic is so necessary,” said Jeremy Novich, a clinical psychologist who attended both in a professional capacity and on a personal level, as a self-identified gay Orthodox Jew. “This is the first conference we’ve been to of this sort. This is exciting.”
Approximately 150 attendees gathered on Sunday at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel on the Upper West Side for the conference that was nearly five years in the making, and one that stems from a growing need. A recent demographic report by the United Jewish Federation found that while Orthodox households currently make up about a third of New York’s Jewish homes, Orthodox children account for more than 60 percent of the area’s Jewish youth.
“As they grow, there’ll be just as many Orthodox Jewish teens, and LGBT Jewish teens,” said Mordechai Levovitz, a conference organizer and the co-founder and executive director of Jewish Queer Youth, a support and advocacy organization for LGBT Orthodox Jews, which co-sponsored the conference along with The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, and Lincoln Square Synagogue, a modern Orthodox congregation in Manhattan.
“We need to create the capacity within the Orthodox community to be able to care for all these kids coming in,” Levovitz explained to Haaretz. “The health professionals need to be prepared and trained and familiar with the issues, and the rabbis need to be familiar with the issues The first step of that is to talk to each other.”
That idea of preparedness is what drew Miriam Lankry, a social worker, to the conference. “I am from the Orthodox community and I know the issues being discussed here are of major importance,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility as professionals to be prepared to deal with the youth dealing with everything that’s going to be discussed here today.”
A shifting Orthodox culture
The conference began with a paper presentation entitled “Does God Make Referrals?” delivered by its authors, Dr. Alison Feit, the director of the Jewish Center for Trauma and Recovery, and Dr. Alan Slomowitz, a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist. They pointed out that while the psychology profession declassified homosexuality as a medical disorder in 1973, the Orthodox community has continued to pathologize it, though significant inroads have been made in the Modern Orthodox community in recent years.
“The culture of the Modern Orthodox community has shifted in the past two decades and offers the potential for dialogue and engagement,” said Feit, a member of that community, adding that she hopes religion and psychology can come together as “a place for dialogue and conversation so that therapies are tailored to the actual needs of each client, taking into account the religious and family context that person comes from.”
The relationship between LGBT Jews and the Orthodox community has often been an uncomfortable one, as depicted in the influential 2001 documentary film “Trembling Before G-d,” which for many offered the first insight into the struggle of LGBT people in that community. While many conference participants – who in addition to religious leaders and therapists also included a handful of students from Yeshiva University – shared difficult experiences about coming out in the Orthodox community (either their own or a client’s), the conference was notable for representing the next step of engaging with the issue.
“The question of whether there are LGBT people in the Orthodox community has been answered,” said Levovitz. “There are. There are so many of us out now.”
The question, he said, is no longer “Can you be Orthodox and gay?” because that question places a burden on a vulnerable individual and, for a 16-year-old struggling with her gender or sexual identity, “overly academic.”
“When you ask a different question, how can we ensure that LGBTQ people in the Orthodox community are safe, how can we ensure that LGBTQ people in the Orthodox community aren’t suffering that’s a question that’s posed to the rabbis, to the parents, to the schools. That’s the right question.”
Inadequately trained rabbis
It’s also a question that opens the door to religious leaders who otherwise wouldn’t engage in a religious conversation about homosexuality.
“We find that even the most ultra-Orthodox rabbis are finding the question of how do you make sure that people in their community aren’t suffering to be a very compelling question – and a question they’re willing to face,” Levovitz said.
Several prominent rabbis in the Modern Orthodox community were in attendance on Sunday, participated in panel discussions that addressed the community’s resistance to fully embracing its LGBT members, and tackled the contentious topic of conversion therapy and SOCE methods – sexual orientation change efforts.
“I’m here to listen and to educate myself,” said Rabbi Shaul Robinson of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in the opening panel. “Attitudes are something that are clearly changing. What is so necessary is education Rabbis like myself are not adequately trained to truly understand these issues. And we want to be.”
From the other side, clinicians don’t always understand the cultural nuances to address the specific needs of religious clients and navigate complicated communal codes. The only way to learn, said Levovitz, a licensed social worker himself, “is to become culturally competent. You have to go into the community and talk to the leaders and the movers and shakers.”
To help both professions acquire the necessary knowledge and empathy, conference organizers announced the creation of the J.U.S.T. Institute for Jewish Understanding and Sensitivity Training. The institute, which will host a follow-up conversation in May, will provide a number of services, including ongoing training for rabbis, educators and mental health professionals around issues of sexuality and gender, offer trainings for Orthodox Jewish schools, camps and youth groups, and provide mental health referral services for members of the Orthodox community.
The goal is to shift the conversation from what shouldn’t be done to what should. While commending U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement against conversion therapy earlier this month, Levovitz found it incomplete. “It’s just not enough to say what we can’t do,” he said. “And if you leave it at that, then you set up an adversarial relationship between religion and mental health, and it shouldn’t be. They have to work hand in hand.”