A War Over the Future of Judaism Rages in This Small Long Island Community

West Hempstead’s Jews pride themselves on their ‘live and let live’ attitude — but their rabbis’ hard-line response to the LGBTQ community has infuriated many. An unbelievable tale of love, hate and shuls in kosher Chinese restaurants

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Shlomit Metz-Poolat with a copy of the Long Island Jewish World newspaper that was withdrawn from local restaurants, August 2019.
Shlomit Metz-Poolat with a copy of the Long Island Jewish World newspaper that was withdrawn from local restaurants, August 2019.Credit: Gili Getz
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK — As the world marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in late June, Haaretz published an article in which five U.S.-Jewish LGBTQ leaders reflected on the milestone. It was a story that, just a few weeks later, would spark controversy among a small Jewish community on Long Island.

In mid-July, and unbeknownst to Haaretz, the article was reprinted in the Long Island Jewish World, a local newspaper that is published every weekend. Plastered on the front page was the picture of a transgender Jewish activist draped in Israeli and Pride flags.

Copies of the Long Island Jewish World at an eatery in West Hempstead.Credit: Gili Getz

But the story seemingly didn’t sit well with some in the suburb of West Hempstead. Haaretz has learned from multiple sources that at least two local rabbis ordered the publication be removed from kosher businesses and institutions, as well as from their own synagogues.

Stacks of the newspaper were removed from local restaurants and at least 150 copies were returned to the newspaper’s offices, at the behest of Rabbi Elon Soniker, of Congregation Anshei Shalom, and Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer of Young Israel of West Hempstead.

While it is important to note that both rabbis vehemently deny any involvement in the matter, Haaretz has discovered that the attempt to censor the article is part of a larger pattern of behavior from the community’s Orthodox rabbis toward LGBTQ issues.

It is a stance that has alarmed many West Hempstead Jews in recent years, reflecting a wider schism between the rabbis and followers of Modern Orthodox Judaism toward LGBTQ issues.

An open community

The main drag in the Long Island hamlet of West Hempstead.Credit: Gili Getz

Almost everyone in West Hempstead knows each other. Set over only 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers), this hamlet is home to some 19,000 residents (according to the 2010 U.S. Census).

The Long Island Judaica store in West Hempstead.Credit: Gili Getz

There isn’t much here except a busy thoroughfare that residents have to cross cautiously (Kelemer himself was seriously injured in a hit-and-run incident while crossing the road in December 2016). Very few businesses line the main drag: There’s a pharmacy, Hunki’s Kosher Pizza, Bageltown, a kosher Chinese restaurant named Wing Wan, and an art and music space called Creative Corner. Long Island’s population is about 12 percent Jewish, with some 46,000 of them living in the area of Oceanside, Long Beach, West Hempstead and Valley Stream. Although locals describe West Hempstead’s Jewish community as “live and let live,” some residents told Haaretz that they feel the local rabbinical leadership is pushing a hard-line that does not reflect how open the Orthodox community is and actually runs counter to it.

A sign outside Creative Corner in West Hempstead marking the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in August.Credit: Gili Getz

The rabbis “have such a hold over the businesses,” says B., a longtime West Hempstead resident who spoke on condition of anonymity, explaining that the local religious leaders are in control of some restaurants’ kosher certifications. (Many of the locals who spoke to Haaretz for this story only agreed to speak if they were not publicly identified, fearing for their social positions and, in some cases, their jobs in this small Orthodox community.)

“The community is very accepting, but I think that when the leadership feels certain pressures they will succumb,” says one man who has been living in West Hempstead for 15 years. “People have rights — regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of gender, regardless of anything, people have rights,” he says.

“To the religious world it’s a very sensitive subject, so part of me understands,” adds B., talking about the decision to remove the newspapers. “But some community leaders believe they are one step away from God, so therefore they get to make those decisions. To me, they are just ordinary people that have a title.”

Pattern of behavior

When news of the newspapers being removed reached Shlomit Metz-Poolat — a 48-year-old who has spent half her life in West Hempstead and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community — she had to check for herself.

“I was driving home, so I stopped at the pizza store. I look in the window: All the [other] newspapers are there, the Jewish World is MIA,” she recalls. “I go to the Chinese restaurant: I look in the store, I ask around, the Jewish World is MIA.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat with a copy of the Long Island Jewish World newspaper that was withdrawn from local restaurants, August 2019.Credit: Gili Getz

“I knew exactly which article it was because I had seen it. I realized that it was pulled,” she says. Although Metz-Poolat, who works as a prosecutor, was outraged by the attempt to hide the publication, she says she was not surprised. She had experienced that same exclusion firsthand.

The daughter of a rabbi, she grew up in a kosher, Shabbat-keeping Modern Orthodox household and in 1995 moved to West Hempstead with her husband. About 10 years later and after having a daughter, she came out as gay.

Despite the huge upheaval in her circumstances, Shlomit felt accepted by the local community: Her now ex-husband showed great understanding and they were successfully co-parenting their daughter; and she had met a new partner, Sally Poolat.

It was only after Sally and Shlomit married in June 2014, and Shlomit changed her surname to Metz-Poolat, that things changed: Her membership to Congregation Anshei Shalom — led at the time by Rabbi Yehuda Pearl (aka the man who introduced Americans to hummus), who was about to pass the torch to Soniker — was revoked. Both rabbis had made the decision together, they informed Metz-Poolat in an email.

Many conversations and meetings followed. The status of Metz-Poolat’s membership became the talk of the town and people in the community felt they had to do something. A dozen very strongly worded letters were sent to the rabbis, pleading with them to reverse their decision and praising Metz-Poolat for her active role in the community.

“Our shul has always been that one place that opened its doors to everyone, no matter their eccentricities, quirks or differences,” one congregant wrote. “There are decisions that are either right or wrong,” another stated, adding, “Does ostracizing fellow Jews feel right?” A third congregant even quoted Aristotle: “‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Please keep Anshei [Shalom] the welcoming place it has always been.”

But despite the pleas, the rabbis did not move. Metz-Poolat applied for membership at Young Israel of West Hempstead, but Kelemer refused to go against his colleagues and would not accept her as a member.

Throughout all this, Sally Poolat, who hadn’t changed her surname, was still allowed to stay at Congregation Anshei Shalom.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat's blue Mazda car with the "HYPHN8ED" license plate and an Israeli flag on the trunk.Credit: Gili Getz

'The community is not the rabbis, and the rabbis are not the community'

“It definitely came as a surprise that the rabbis behaved this way — because the community didn’t,” Metz-Poolat told Haaretz one Sunday morning in Bageltown. “The community is not the rabbis, and the rabbis are not the community.”

Her social circle in West Hempstead makes her feel very “sheltered and safe,” she says. Indeed, strolling around town with Metz-Poolat, it is easy to witness this welcoming environment: people hug her, sit down to talk with her and stop her on the street to say hello.

After being kicked out of the synagogue, Metz-Poolat made multiple attempts to reach out to the rabbis, only to be told that their position had not changed. As we walk past Congregation Anshei Shalom, she points at the synagogue entrance, looking inside the glass door. “You see this? That menorah over there behind the glass? My family donated that.”

And so, after being removed from her and her family’s historical house of worship as a member, Shlomit Metz-Poolat decided to turn her pain into action.

‘The gay shul’

Wing Wan kosher Chinese restaurant in West Hempstead. Its basement has been the unlikely home to Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael.Credit: Gili Getz

In December 2017, Metz-Poolat opened her own synagogue. Since it doesn’t have a building of its own, the congregation — which offers people an alternative to the more established ones in town — meets once a month in the basement of Wing Wan, the local kosher Chinese restaurant.

According to its Facebook page, Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael is a “Modern Orthodox warm, friendly and inclusive shul. ... All are welcome!”

Prayer books were donated by a synagogue in New York City; two Torah scrolls were donated by rabbis in Queens and Hillcrest; and a community member even helped build an ark for the scrolls.

Although some in the community have labeled Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael “the gay shul,” Metz-Poolat insists it is a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and many of those who attend are not from the LGBTQ community.

“It has a 4-foot mechitza [partition between men and women] that [Orthodox rabbis] would be happy about, [and] where the only thing women do is a prayer for the State of Israel and a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces,” she explains. “The other thing is that women can come up, at the end of davening, when everything is put away, and give a Dvar Torah.”

Shlomit Metz-Poolat holding a framed copy of a newspaper story about the opening of Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael in West Hempstead.Credit: Gili Getz

The congregation hopes eventually to be able to have a permanent home and meet each week.

“There is not a person in any shul that hasn’t done something — committed a crime, gotten arrested, lied, violated halakha [Jewish law] in some way or another,” says Metz-Poolat. “I think the overall issue in the community is that there is a perception that this particular ‘sin’ is to be targeted because it’s perceived as undermining the heteronormative family structure.”

But Metz-Poolat isn’t the first or only LGBTQ person to come out in West Hempstead’s Modern Orthodox community. Residents can name close to 10 other openly gay or transgender neighbors: Some remain in the area while others have moved away, driven out by people they describe as hard-liners.

C., a gay man who used to live in West Hempstead with his husband, spoke to Haaretz about his experiences there. The couple had lived in the town since 1999 and used to attend Kelemer’s Young Israel of West Hempstead synagogue.

“People could figure it out, but we didn’t come out and say we were gay,” says C. “Nobody really questioned it. I’m sure people understood, but we didn’t really have an issue up until 2014.”

That was when Young Israel had a guest speaker deliver a speech about “traditional family values.” C. says his husband “is a lot more outspoken than me and he got up and objected to it — and, more than that, he outed us. We both walked out of the synagogue.”

After the incident, some community members even visited the couple’s home to express their support and, after things cooled off, the couple met with Kelemer.

“He basically requested that we apologize to the [congregants who were there] and to the speaker,” recounts C. “He also mentioned — which we found very obnoxious — that he took a poll of the people who were there to see if they would agree for us to keep going there or not, and basically the poll said they would like us to stay if we apologize.”

But that wasn’t an option for the couple, who decided to resign and change synagogues. They started to go to Congregation Anshei Shalom, which was still led at the time by Pearl, with Soniker as his second-in-command.

Things were OK for a year, C. says, but then that changed: When one of them asked to lead a service and read from the Torah scroll, he says that Pearl denied the request on the basis that “openly gay” people cannot do so.

Eventually, they got tired of fighting and moved away.

“We moved for a number of reasons, but certainly being in that community didn’t help as far as wanting to get out of there,” explains C.

They now attend a conservative synagogue in their new city and feel very welcomed. “They know we are married, we have a family membership and we’re the stars over there — they love us,” says C.

Open discussions wanted

According to a survey published last November by Eshel, an organization that works to make Orthodox communities more LGBTQ-inclusive, most Orthodox parents of LGBTQ children wish to see changes in how rabbis discuss the issue in their synagogues.

Customers waiting at Hunki’s Kosher Pizza in West Hempstead.Credit: Gili Getz

Over two-thirds of those surveyed said they wanted broad, positive and open discussions about LGBTQ issues, including education programs for synagogue members. In addition, 28 percent said they wished their rabbi would no longer made negative statements about LGBTQ Jews from the pulpit.

But the conservative approach of West Hempstead rabbis isn’t just toward LGBTQ people. Metz-Poolat recalls that, about 10 years ago, Congregation Anshei Shalom stopped letting girls speak in synagogue for their bat mitzvahs.

“Rabbi Pearl said ‘never again,’” she recalls as she stands outside the synagogue. “So in this shul, no woman can go up onto the bima and speak to the congregation — and nobody says anything.

“They are hurting members of their own community,” she adds.

Some hard-liners in the community actively have tried to block Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael from assembling. People have threatened Wing Wan’s owner that they will boycott the restaurant if she continues to allow Shabbat prayers in her basement.

“I feel that if you want to label them as sinners, then you should support them having a prayer service so they could get forgiveness — that’s the flip side,” says community member Norman Kaish. “You should be putting your arms around them, not pushing them away.”

Each month, between 50 and 100 people show up for Shabbat services. But as a result of the pressure on the restaurant, congregants have now decided that, after the High Holy Days, they will start meeting at each other’s homes for services, until they can raise enough funds for a permanent building.

Metz-Poolat says the people who attend Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael are not coming because they don’t have an alternative: Some just prefer the more intimate and quiet setting it offers. “There was a need to create a shul here,” she says. “God willing, it should live on [after I’m gone]. And, quite frankly, because I’ve become so controversial, if I step away maybe people will stop calling it the gay shul.”

Shlomit Metz-Poolat with Lanie Kaish in Bageltown, West Hempstead, August 2019.Credit: Gili Getz

Norman Kaish’s wife, Lanie Kaish, praises Metz-Poolat and Poolat, calling them “the kind of people you want in a community. These are the kind of people that make what I believe an Orthodox community should be,” she says. Another member of the community, Yaffa Lamm, says simply, “Whether you are a man, a woman, gay or straight, people are people. Let’s just get to know [people] for who they are.”

'These are the kind of people that make what I believe an Orthodox community should be'

Lanie Kaish

One woman living in West Hempstead tells Haaretz the issue of Metz-Poolat’s membership was poorly dealt with. “I understand why they did what they did; I don’t agree with it, I don’t think it was right, but it’s a commentary on how the general Orthodox community is handling this,” she says. “They don’t know how to respond — and the first response is fear.

“The rabbis need to get together and figure this all out,” the woman adds. “I think they just don’t know what to do yet.”

‘The Jewish mafia’

When the rabbis ordered that the Jewish World newspaper be removed from various restaurants, they faced no pushback. Residents in the area explain that the leaders’ influence on the community is significant.

“When a rabbi orders or requests something, it’s not a choice — because in two seconds they could say ‘Don’t eat at so and so,’” says Metz-Poolat. “The mere threat, even if it’s self-imposed ... the mere sense that the rabbi of this community had asked that it be pulled, [the store owners] are not gonna get into trouble.”

“It’s the Jewish mafia,” says B., outside of Congregation Anshei Shalom. “They have a grab on the community and under no circumstances are they going to let go. They will fight to the last breath.

“If something doesn’t fit with their philosophy, they are not just against it, they are dead set against it,” B. continues. “When Mashiach comes — and I hope one day he does and I’m here — he’s gonna look at the people and say ‘You got it all wrong!’”

Another resident, A., recalls that it was “very upsetting” to hear about the attempt to censor the local newspaper. “Nobody has a right to tell me what to read or not to read,” he says. “Nobody has the right to go into public stores and remove newspapers that they find objectionable.”

Norman Kaish, meanwhile, believes the rabbis “are trying to act on the behalf of the community from a religious standpoint, without giving enough thought to what the lifestyle needs to be or can be for a gay family. What bothers me is the fact that it reflects negatively on the children in those families and the damage that is being done to them doesn’t seem relevant, it’s unfair.”

“I don’t see much sensitivity, and I’m surprised about that,” he adds.

Community members in West Hempstead understand that there are complexities that come with leadership positions and many agree that the rabbis are “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

“They don’t want to be seen by the Orthodox Union or Yeshiva University as the community that endorses the gay lifestyle,” says Norman Kaish. “If you don’t want to admit that you’re gay or live a gay lifestyle, then they have no problem. But I don’t know of any Orthodox community in the United States where this is endorsed.”

Eshel Executive Director Miryam Kabakov, who learned of the newspaper incident after A. called her organization’s “warm line” to report it, says they deal with pushback “all the time.”

The offices to the Long Island Jewish World.Credit: Gili Getz

Orthodox Rabbis who have hosted or tried to host events with Eshel were either boycotted or threatened with a boycott by their local board of rabbis, she says. “It’s all peer pressure and social control,” she says..

“That’s what is holding back the Orthodox community,” Kabakov continues. “It has nothing to do with whether parents want to understand their kids, or love their children or make their Orthodox community more open. It’s that the rabbis are complete cowards, understandably so.”

Metz-Poolat notes, meanwhile, that she feels “part of the rabbis’ jobs is to keep their jobs.”

“I think that’s really what it is, and it’s sad because it becomes almost like a mob mentality.

“This is the largest civil rights movement of our time and they can’t seem to figure out a way to do anything with this situation other than literally trying to erase the article, make it go away,” she says.

“I try to explain to people that these rabbis are their employees,” she adds. “You can take a position that says “Not our shul, not our rabbi” — but people are scared.”

Room for inclusion

While some Orthodox rabbis are still struggling with acceptance of LGBTQ members, Kabakov says there has been a “tremendous amount of growth” in the Orthodox Jewish world overall.

Some Orthodox rabbis have also found ways to include LGBTQ members in Jewish life, like Rabbi Ysoscher Katz.

Katz, who was raised as a Satmar Jew, is now head of Talmud studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary in the Bronx. He believes the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is an issue that can be solved within the framework of Jewish law, and that rabbis have a responsibility to do so.

“It’s important because they are Jews, they are in our community and they want to be members — so of course we have to make them as welcome as possible,” Katz tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “I don’t see why a queer identity should matter whatsoever in determining the place of someone in the shul. They identify as queer, big deal! Why is that interesting?”

But beyond making LGBTQ Jews feel at home in Orthodox synagogues, Katz says the alternative to inclusion is far worse and does a disservice to the idea of continuity that the Jewish community at large is so attached to.

“Not doing that not only means that we are losing the percentage of the community that is queer, but we’re also gonna lose a significant number of the rest of the community that’s not queer but has [shaped] their attitudes toward the tradition at large on how much the community can be inclusive,” he explains.

“That doesn’t mean that we should take the tradition and turn it into a pretzel just so every young millennial should be happy,” he adds. “But it does require us to kind of really go back to the books and look closely and see: maybe we overlooked some aspects of this conversation?”

Katz believes Orthodox rabbis have to do the “hard work” and find a way to progress on this issue, which is “not going to go anywhere.” He also understands that some older rabbis or, even more, some young new ones are nervous about taking the plunge because of external pressures.

“The establishment is invested in the status quo, and if you’re a rabbi you look behind your shoulder and you’re always afraid that some big leader is going to swoop into the community and say you’re not qualified.

“You can still hold onto all the principles, all the values and add to that the additional value of creating a home for the queer community,” he concludes.

Not less than, just different

West Hempstead residents Sheera and Curtis Sobin, whose son came out as gay some years ago and has since moved away from the community, are “Eshel parents.” Once every three months they attend a meeting organized for others like them — a support group that has really made a difference in their lives.

The Sobins would like to see Orthodoxy come up with a solution for LGBTQ Jews. “Why is this so different than any other mitzvah in the Torah?” asks Curtis Sobin. “Rabbis aren’t excommunicating people who don’t keep Shabbos. Why is this the only thing that becomes the rallying cry around which someone can be included or excluded from the community?”

“Anything that is in the outside world is in our world, and saying that it’s not — or hoping that it’s not, or wishing that it’s not — is not going to make it so,” adds Sheera Sobin. “And it is way more prevalent than you think it is.”

Metz-Poolat adds that rabbis just “don’t know what to do with” people like her. “We’re not less than, we’re just different. And Orthodox Judaism doesn’t know how to deal with different. Nobody had electricity 3,000 years ago, so halakha figured out how to deal with electricity on Shabbat,” she points out. “So this is one more thing that we have to figure out.”

Shlomit Metz-Poolat's pet dogs Kona, front, and Lizzie. Credit: Gili Getz

“And I’ve tried to create the same thing that heteronormative families have,” she adds. “There is a consideration from the LGBTQ community to the Orthodox world that we are not getting in return.”

Moving on

Despite the heartwarming support from community members, after almost 25 years in West Hempstead, Shlomit Metz-Poolat and her wife made the difficult and painful decision to move. They would have done so sooner if it wasn’t for Metz-Poolat’s daughter, Joely, now 18, who loved growing up there.

In August, just two days after Joely left West Hempstead to make aliyah to Israel as a lone soldier in the Israeli army, her parents started packing up their large house to begin a new life 30 minutes away in Great Neck.

“I’m tired,” reflects Metz-Poolat. “There are an unbelievable amount of signs that this is not where I should be. I need a shul and I need to be part of a community, I need to walk in the door and have a place I can go every week. I don’t want to be left out.”

Haaretz reached out to both Soniker and Kelemer for comment on the incident involving the Jewish World newspaper. Both denied they had any objections to the front page article on LGBTQ Jews.

“I personally don’t, nor do the other rabbis, have any issue with your article at all,” Kelemer told Haaretz. “There was no attempt on the part of the rabbis to ask the Jewish World to be banned in any of the synagogues, nor in the kosher establishments.

“If there is any issue that we have with the Jewish World, quietly and privately, that’s something we will be taking up with them directly — but the issue doesn’t revolve around your article,” he added in a phone conversation. “It’s possible that somebody stepped into one of the establishments and they have expressed a disagreement ... but from the community rabbis — which means of the synagogues — there was never any attempt, nor do we plan to make any attempt, to boycott the paper.”

Congregation Anshei Shalom’s Soniker also wrote in an email that “there was no request to remove the paper from the kosher establishments by any of the rabbis of our community.”

When Haaretz made a second attempt at an interview about the community in general, Soniker said it was his “general policy not to discuss issues with the press.” Kelemer did not respond. Pearl was also contacted, but declined to comment.

A source in the Long Island Jewish World, who said they were not authorized to speak and wanted to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that of the 50,000 to 80,000 newspapers circulated to various communities on a weekly basis, West Hempstead represents only an “insignificant” number of about 300 papers.

“There are multiple LGBTQ people sitting in multiple Orthodox synagogues throughout the metropolitan New York area, some known to rabbis in the Orthodox community and some not known,” the source said. “That was the comeback that I got from multiple people outside of West Hempstead when that cover [with the Haaretz LGBTQ-related article] came out.

“I truly believe that for all Jews around the world, newspapers and media are a vehicle for enlightening those who choose to participate in Judaism,” the insider added.

The Jewish World’s publisher, Jerry Lippman, is a vocal advocate for independent journalism. In a New York Times article in May 1984, he expressed the importance of having freedom to thoroughly investigate and report controversial issues. None of the synagogues in West Hempstead advertise or financially contribute to the privately owned weekly.

New life, new synagogue

As she moves to a new community, Shlomit Metz-Poolat hopes to put the drama behind her. She has already secured membership in a synagogue near her new home. But for her, moving away and letting the issue go was not an option.

“Yes I’m leaving, but you just can’t leave and know that you’ve contributed to harm by remaining silent,” she says. “I want to vocally, respectfully and forcefully get people to hear that change has to come. And it doesn’t have to come at the cost of halakha; it just has to come at the cost of people being kind. I don’t think that’s such a difficult thing to ask for.”

Five years after being rejected by her synagogue, Metz-Poolat has even found a way to joke about her experience: Her car, a blue Mazda, is tagged with custom-made license plates featuring just one word: “HYPHN8ED.”

Shlomit Metz-Poolat's blue Mazda car with the "HYPHN8ED" license plate and an Israeli flag on the trunk.Credit: Gili Getz

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