Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Call for Boycott of London Jewish Cultural Center for Hosting LGBTQ Events

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FILE PHOTO: Participants take part in the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem July 21, 2016.
FILE PHOTO: Participants take part in the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem July 21, 2016.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in London are campaigning for locals to boycott a Jewish cultural center in the British capital because it hosted a week-long event dedicated to the Jewish LGBTQ community, The Guardian reported Sunday.

JW3 hosted GayW3 in March, a week of events meant to celebrate London's gay Jewish community. It took place on the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offenses Act, a legislative move that decriminalized gay sex in England.

Last week, a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in London renewed their call to boycott the center in protest of a Hanukkah event at the JW3 held by Imahot v'Avot, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ Jewish families.

A letter signed by 25 rabbis said that JW3 "promote[s] a way of life which is in total contradiction to Orthodox Judaism and halakha [Jewish Law]. Members of our community should distance themselves fully from JW3, its activities and services, and refrain from visiting JW3 even for recreational purposes only.”

The letter has been circulated to ultra-Orthodox communities in northwest London.

The first call for boycott from the rabbis came in July, when they called for protest against  “a program of activities that in our view promotes a way of life which is in total contradiction to Orthodox Judaism.”

The July letter, The Guardian reported, went on to quote a passage from the Torah: “A man who lies with a male as one would with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.”

In March, a poster advertising GayW3 was vandalized with the word "shame." 

JW3 aims to create a "warm, safe Jewish community space" for all types of Jews, Raymond Simonson, JW3's chief executive, told the Guardian. "JW3 is cross communal," he continued.  “We work hard to build relationships with diverse groups and individuals. We’re trying to hold up a Jewish lens to the 21st century, and in particular a British-Jewish lens. And also we’re holding a 21st-century lens to Jewish life.”

He added that the group of rabbis who signed the letter represented "just a small, specific bit of the Jewish community," and as such JW3 resisted pressure to cancel the event. He suspects, though, that the group of rabbis were trying to revoke the kosher certification from JW3's kosher Middle-Eastern restaurant, Zest.

One rabbi who signed the boycott letter, Aaron Bassous, has been involved in previous scandals surrounding the gay Jewish community. When chief Sephardi rabbi Joseph Dweck spoke out in support of gay Jews earlier this year, Bassous called him "dangerous" and "poisonous" to the Jewish community. 

When the ultra-Orthodox rabbis called for boycott, JW3 received "overwhelming support" from across the Jewish spectrum, Simonson said. Laura Janner-Klausner, Reform Judalism's senior rabbi, said that “the Jewish community should be proud that we are a welcoming and inclusive place for LGBT individuals."

Some orthodox rabbis supported JW3's programming.

Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of Britain, did not comment on the latest boycott call, but said "we must have zero tolerance for" homophobia when the GayW3 poster was vandalized in March.

Simonson remains dedicated to the tolerant, community-centric mission of JW3. “The vast majority of British-Jewish communal leadership want to create tolerant spaces for people of all different backgrounds," Simonson told the Guardian. "It’s a changing world and we want to be open and inclusive – and we believe we’re reflecting mainstream Jewish opinion," he said.

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