An organization that is doing groundbreaking work in bridging the Orthodox Jewish and LGBT communities is making its debut with J-Pride and marching with the Jewish community and allies in Sunday’s Pride Parade.
Eshel, an organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities, will be marching with J-Pride.
Miryam Kabakov, the organization’s executive director, said the group has done extensive work on both coasts – primarily Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore – and got involved this year when J-Pride Program Coordinator Heather Renetzky reached out and asked her to speak at the J-Pride Community Summit in March.
“Demographically speaking, there are not that many Orthodox Jews in the Twin Cities who will be our allies or reach out to us,” said Kabakov, who has lived with her partner in St. Paul for the past nine years. “Throughout the years, I’ve been communicating with the modern Orthodox community here. Some of the members of Darchei Noam have been very receptive and want to get involved in some way.”
Renetzky said that she’s been following the work Eshel has done for a while and is happy that they are now able to partner together.
“As J-Pride, our goal is to bring the entire LGBT Jewish community and Jewish community together,” she said. “What’s exciting is that it allows us to reach out the more orthodox side of the spectrum, and it lets us deepen those relationships.”
Kabakov is hoping that modern orthodox allies will take part in the parade this year with J-Pride, wearing one of two free t-shirts that the group is giving away to those that are marching.
“At Eshel, a large number of our members are straight Orthodox allies, and we’re asking allies to come and participate,” she said. “We have ‘Orthodox Ally’ t-shirts and so if people want to show their support that way, that would be great. It’s a strong visual image. ”
The “Orthodox Ally” shirts started a year ago following the massacre of 49 LGBTQ people in an Orlando nightclub. A group from the New York synagogue Darchei Noam reached out to Eshel and asked if they could march with them as a show of support. Since then, there has been an Orthodox ally presence at Pride events in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
“Our focus isn’t just getting LGBT Orthodox people to identify themselves because that’s harder for some people than being identified as an ally,” Kabakov said. “Coming out in the Orthodox community is complicated. As an ally, it’s complicated, but not as complicated as being LGBT.”
Kabakov said that part of what makes coming out in the Orthodox community so complicated is the belief that is against Jewish law.
“It’s a contradiction in terms for some Orthodox people. There are a lot of stigmas, and along with the stigma goes being shunned or rejected, and not being fully embraced for who they are,” she said. “In ultra-orthodox communities, when the siblings of the LGBT person are getting married it’s harder to for them to find someone to marry. Some get kicked out of school or lose their jobs if working in a Jewish environment. It’s complicated.”
Being an Orthodox ally, she said, is still complicated. But less so.
“It’s less likely that you’ll be told you can’t fully participate in Jewish life or ritual life as an ally,” she said. “You’re less vulnerable to losing your job or your home. You’re vulnerable in that you might lose some friends. And that happens. You yourself aren’t committing that ‘sin’ but people may think you’re too open minded and disagree with you in for accepting LGBT people.”
A program that Eshel runs is called the Welcoming Shuls Project, which started when they received calls and emails from LGBT members who wanted to know which Orthodox communities would openly welcome them and their families.
“We’ve had rabbis who have signed on and they have been wonderful rabbis,” Kabakov said. “But we’ve had rabbis also be vocal about being an ally and they’ve been ostracized. There is tremendous peer pressure.”
Kabakov said that Eshel’s approach is to talk to members who feel there is a dissonance between their orthodoxy and what we know about being LGBTQ – that it’s not a choice.
“Something has to give. We don’t want people to leave their faith – in fact, it’s the opposite; we want people to keep it,” she said. “The only way to get around that is to create understanding and giving a face to people in the community. Lots of Orthodox leaders have gotten on board and been more understanding because of that.”
For more information about Eshel, you can e-mail Kabokov at [email protected].