When Micah Thau was 15, he contemplated suicide. “I remember sitting on my bed nightly, crying and praying to God to change me,” he says. “I felt abandoned. It became unlivable.”
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A few months earlier, he had realized he was attracted to men. Growing up in an Orthodox environment in Los Angeles, he attended an ultra-Orthodox school for nine years and later a Modern Orthodox one.
Homosexuality was never spoken of, and when mentioned it was ridiculed or frowned on.
By 16, he had made up his mind. “I had two options: suicide, which I was genuinely thinking about; or rolling the dice, because what can I lose? Just my family, my community and my school/synagogue. I thought I would be expelled,” he recalls.
Thau gambled on the latter, and was shocked to learn that his rabbis, friends and family were all understanding and supportive. This was both a relief and great frustration, he says.
“For years I was in the dark, because for years nobody said anything,” he says. “The only thing I knew was cross talk and Shabbat dinners where stereotypical jokes were thrown around. I was suicidal for absolutely nothing; all this pain and se’ara, I felt it was for nothing. I was happy but also furious,” he adds, using the Hebrew word for storm.
Thau was not alone, neither in his solitude nor in his thoughts about committing suicide.
According to Mordechai Levovitz, the co-founder and executive director of Jewish Queer Youth, a group supporting and empowering LGBT young people in the Jewish community, over 70 percent of drop-in participants report suicidal thoughts or past suicide attempts.
“Most times, suicidality manifests with these teens engaging in risky behavior like drugs, sex and cutting,” Levovitz says. “Many of the overdoses in our Orthodox community are not reported as LGBTQ related, but they are.”
A strange form of homophobia
Gedalia Penner, 22, is a volunteer with the group and once mentored younger people at the center in New York. “It’s what I would have wanted when I was in high school,” he says. “There is something very restorative about being able to give the service that I couldn’t have myself.”
Penner’s coming out to his parents at 15 was followed by three and a half years of so-called reparative therapy. “It was something that was suggested to me and that made the most logical sense,” he says. “I wasn’t forced to go, but I didn’t know it to be a bad thing and I wanted a space to critically think about my sexuality anyway, so I ran with it.”
After visiting two different therapists, one of whom Penner says made him “feel like a failure,” he went to Israel to join an affiliate of JONAH, a Jewish organization that offered “conversion therapy” and has since been shut down.
Upon realizing he wasn’t “any less of a man for being gay,” and in retrospect understanding the harms of conversion therapy, Penner returned to the United States and told his Modern Orthodox parents he would live as a Jewish gay man. “Having a gay son in the Orthodox community is considered anywhere between shameful and a failure – it was at the time, at least – and it took them a while to get over that,” he says.
Sean “Yonatan” Herzfeld, 18, meanwhile, came out to his family at 14. “It’s scary to tell your family and friends something that seems like a big deal, even though it shouldn’t be, but I’m glad I got up the courage to,” he says. “Leading up to coming out was a little bit nerve-racking, but coming out itself was a very positive, uplifting experience.”
Levovitz says one of the main obstacles LGBT Orthodox youth face today is a “strange form of homophobia,” expressed in the pressure the family applies once someone comes out. “Their family will say, ‘We don’t have a problem with you being gay, but the community has a problem and they will punish your brother and your sister, and your father’s job will be in jeopardy.’”
Kicking children out of the house is less common in Modern Orthodoxy, Levovitz says, though it’s still prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community. But he sees the predominant issue within Orthodoxy today in the cop-outs of parents, schools and “well-meaning rabbis.”
“It makes you personally look good and puts the homophobia on other people,” he adds.
Levovitz credits technology and social media as part of the change in attitudes. His personal experience, growing up gay in an ultra-Orthodox community and finding people with similar experiences online, ultimately led to the establishment of Jewish Queer Youth. Today, there are over 1,000 teens and young adults in the group’s network.
“We had to build a community not based on feeling sorry for ourselves, but on building a hopeful future for ourselves,” Levovitz explains.
That might be the main difference between past generations of gay Orthodox people living double lives, and today’s youth refusing that kind of existence and creating their own opportunities.
At 19, Thau is now active in his community and former high school, Shalhevet, which adopted a series of statements protecting LGBT students and letting them know that someone is there for them.
Penner, who is also a singer-songwriter and teaches music, describes the rare experience of being part of both the LGBT and Orthodox communities. He says he has made it his mission to make both worlds work, and finds it most upsetting when LGBT people – in his eyes the most devoted, persevering and loyal members of the Orthodox community – are seen as “menaces to society and being victimized as trying to destroy Orthodoxy.”
Herzfeld says he hopes a key current shift will continue: Orthodox communities starting a dialogue about LGBT issues.
“This is no longer a niche issue that needs to be whispered about,” Levovitz says. “Like all the great challenges that face Judaism, this is one of them.”
LGBT Orthodox youth was celebrated on Sunday when Jewish Queer Youth held its first Hanukkah benefit concert in New York. Among its participants is Matisyahu, who says his music is about providing hope and comfort to those who need it.
“LGBTQ Jewish youth, especially from Orthodox homes, deserve to know that they are loved,” he said in a statement. “It is my honor to perform for and show empathy to the struggle of these brave teens.”
Another performer, Neshama Carlebach, said Jewish Queer Youth is doing lifesaving work for Jewish teens. “No human being should ever feel like an outsider in any community,” she said. “It is the time for great change.”