Now more than ever I want it to be clear that this is as accurate a transcription as I could render but there definitely are parts that are missing. This is not verbatim. It is unofficial. It would be wrong to treat every word as divine. Any and all mistakes are mine. I would like to offer a forum for people to learn and to discuss, but not a forum for people to bash, malign or otherwise hurt others. Some names have been changed and that is deliberate. Do not reveal the identity of anyone associated with this event; if I've changed the name it was purposeful. Do not quote from this article for any official purpose; contact the people who spoke if you wish to quote them.
(There was an incredible turnout of people. The whole room was full and others were sitting on the floor. I would say
Panelists: Avi Kopstick, Josh, Mordechai Levovitz, Jonathan
Moderated by: Rabbi Yosef Blau
Dean Gelman of Wurzweiler also in attendance.
Rabbi Blau: In order for this program to work, especially with such a huge crowd of people, a number of you feel very strongly about things, passionately, I have to ask that everyone cooperate with the parameters that we set for this evening. This – Wurzweiler actually had been running programs with a much smaller turnout apparently (laughter) in the past. The shift to involve this broader audience very much was influenced by two articles by students, one that appeared last year in the Kol Hamevaser and another that appeared this year in The Commentator which was a call to be taken seriously and to be heard. It’s not an occasion for debating halakha, for making halakhic suggestions. The halakha as expressed explicitly in the Torah and in the Chachamim is clear to everyone here. And this is not what we’re here to discuss and I’m making the point in the sense that if someone does try to discuss halakha, I will ask them to stop. It’s not appropriate in the context of what we’re doing. Secondly, as far as the various psychological theories and interpretations and shifts in the APA statements about homosexuality, again, this is not the forum for that discussion. We have a number of mental health professionals working for Yeshiva who have worked with students who wanted to discuss this issue with them but this is again in a different context. Dr. Pelcovitz who is sitting on the stage after the four presentations will make a few remarks to give a certain context. What we WILL be doing is addressing the pain and the conflict that is caused by someone being gay in the Orthodox world. Our four panelists, one present student and three alumni of Yeshiva, will be speaking about their own lives and experiences. I would ask you not to take pictures of them and not to record to respect privacy. Recordings have an unfortunate tendency to enable someone to take out a snippet and then use it for various and sundry purposes. The program will conclude at 10:00 PM. There will be an opportunity for questions, they’ll be written down and I’ll present them to the panelists. The questions should be to the panelists, not to me. Anyone in Yeshiva knows I’m around and if they want to discuss anything, halakhic or otherwise with me, they can always find me. One last request: No matter what you feel, do not interrupt any speaker, show respect to people. I trust it won’t be necessary to ask someone to cooperate. I really really hope that I’ll be able to maintain control. If we lose control, unfortunately, I’ll have no option but to simply end the program. We’re not going to allow any chaos. I thank you in advance for your cooperation. Our first speaker is Joshua . (Thunderous applause.)
Joshua: Oof, there’s a lot of people here. Hi, everybody. Okay, I guess no better place to start than at the beginning. First of all, thank you very much to all of the institutions that allowed for this to happen- to the University, Rabbi Blau, Dr. Pelcovitz, moderators and safety nets, maybe- we’ll see how that goes as we go- thanks to everyone for coming. It’s exciting to be able to dialogue with you, think with you, talk with you about this part of ourselves. And then lastly, actually, I just wanted to start with an apology. There are faces that I see in this room who I have relationships with before the last 30 seconds and I haven’t had the chance to talk about this part of myself and I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to talk to you yet if it’s surprising- we can talk about it later, find me on Facebook.
Here’s my story. In some ways I actually suspect my story is a bit unlike some of the other panelists that you are about to hear because I don’t think I ever had the courage to admit to myself that I was gay. I’m from Toronto originally, went to dayschool, yeshiva highschool, two years at Gush and then YU. And all along the way I’m not sure that I ever was ready to admit to myself that I was gay. There was a moment in yeshiva where I think I developed – I guess you could call it a crush on a chavrusa I was learning with- and I told myself this was just a normal development. Carried on this way through my 20s- I tried dating- there are actually a couple people in the audience that I think I’ve been on dates with (laughter) but really for all my teen years and my 20s I was not in any way prepared to admit to myself that I was attracted to members of the same sex. Even coming home from a date I would feel that something wasn’t right but…It would usually be during Al Chait times that I would think about the feelings that I had and would clop al cheit for having these feelings and then I would bury it deep, deep down. I think my breaking point came somewhere in the middle of my 20s when I did develop feelings for a friend and it became obvious to just about everybody but me. I fell into a serious depression at the time- doubly depressed that one, it was clearly unrequited and two, that I had these feelings at all. And it wasn’t until a very good friend of mine helped me to see what was happening that I could confront my demons for the first time. And I’ll be forever grateful. The first years or months was definitely depressive months. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts of ending my life at that time. Long period of intense medication and therapy and medications and the whole list- really baring all today – but I finally started the process of coming out to people, sharing my news ,a part of myself with people, and that began to make it real and in some ways more manageable. More – a little more able to cope with it in some ways. I remember before telling anybody or really just talking to my therapist being asked ‘what comes next’ and I could envision nothing. No future. The whole future that we hope for- raising a family and raising a family of Jewish existence all melted away- I could imagine no future that would be there. Although I guess the process of telling people has been helpful and healthy.
Three different ways in which my life has profoundly changed by virtue of this being part of who I am-
1. Halakhically- I’m not going to talk about halakha but just my own halakhic feelings or religious
Big question was how to be a halakhic person and be true to this part of myself. Second was way that I would be able to participate in my community- woulud it be possible once I was out that I wouldn’t be able to get aliyot at shul. I was recently at a friend’s wedding where I was asked to give a toast at the reception because I found out a friend had asked me not to be involved in the chupah lest it disqualify the kiddushin and that matters to me quite a lot. Cultural- almost overnight I had gone from being part of an ‘us’ to being a ‘them.’ It was as if the ground had shifted under me. Gay people when talked about at Shabbat meals are a ‘them’- far away from an ‘us.’ Against the very fiber of my being, I had suddenly become a ‘them’ when I just yesterday was a ‘us’ when people didn’t know I was a member of this ‘them.’
Three different ways that my life has been better since starting to come to terms with this:
1. No longer feel like a conflicted self. I have benefited a ton from reading articles in Tradition and online and feel more comfortable putting on tefilllin and tzitzis and davening three times a day now that I’ve just accepted sometimes life will be full of contraditictions and this is the part of the person that I am rather than worry about breaking point where I am no longer able to be frum.
2. I think since coming out I’ve developed a better relationship with my family. While I was hiding, I think that I was hiding more of myself from my family than they deserved for me to hide. When my folks came to visit, I remember walking in Midtown and seeing two men holding hands and my father snickered and I remember thinking to myself I couldn’t share this part of myself with my family because of that. And I’ve been proven wrong over and over and over again. But it’s funny how even the smallest things- so a word of caution about the words and language we choose to use about ‘thems’ that are really ‘uses.’
3. Friends- I’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support and inclusion from friends. I suspect that my time is just about up so I’m going to step down. I think that a lot of people have asked: What do you want? What’s there to want, what’s to be gained from some kind of meeting like this? If I had to make just a single request: To think about the differences between the ‘uses’ and the ‘thems’ and the ‘thems’ are not really that far away. There are faces that I see in this crowd – they probably don’t know it- but they are definitely the reason that I am I think alive today. And that wouldn’t be the case probably if I had been treated as a ‘them,’ an outcast, as someone who didn’t get to be part of a shul community and circle of friends. I’m thankful for the uses in my life and my hope would be that others who want to feel like uses can continue to feel that way – like they are a part of that us.
Rabbi Blau: The second speaker is Avi Kopstick.
Avi: Good evening. First I want to say thank you to all of my friends who are joining me on the panel, thank you to Rabbi Blau, Dean Gelman, Dr. Pelcovitz, my professors who I emailed and asked if they could come support me and with a lot of encouragement they told me they would all be here, I have family here and friends- thank you for all coming. As a lot of you probably know, I’m a student at Yeshiva University. Most of you see me on a daily basis. Usually I’m happy, engaging, affable, confident and secure. Truth is, I haven’t always been this way.
I always knew I was different- didn’t consider myself to be homosexual till I was 18. But in many ways I only knew that I was 4. When I was 4 I had this indigo winter jacket- my siblings and cousins would always use to make fun of me and I would say no, it’s blue, Ima told me so. I do remember that jacket and how much anxiety I felt. When I was 6 I learned to ride a two-wheeler on my sister’s hand-me-down bike. It was pink and white frills on the handlebars and I hated that bike and I didn’t know why it caused me so much panic and distress. In Grade 3 I made a best friend, I never had one before, we did everything together but I remember thinking one day – you know- it’s not that I LIKE him, like him; he’s going to hang out with girls when he’s older and I’m just jealous. I can already look back and say by the time I was 8 I had some clues at, least when people say ‘when did you know.’ When I was 11 my sister looks at me at the Shabbos table and says, ‘Stop being so gay.’ My mother screamed at her and said, ‘Don’t say that- maybe he’ll turn out that way.’ I pretended I didn’t care but it made it much harder coming out to my mother 18 years later- no, that was bad math- 13 years later. Sorry Mom, I became one. By the time I was 12 I already knew for sure that I had some attraction to guys and thought to myself but everyone does, right, right? (Laughter) And I tried to keep this denial going as long as I could. I said, all right, fine, maybe it’s just a phase and I’ll go through it and I’ll be attracted to girls and build a family. Maybe I am more attracted than I thought- maybe I’m bi- but it doesn’t matter because I’m still going to build that big Jewish family that I’ve always wanted and everyone expects of me but after a while no matter how much I tried to reason this way I could not deny how much more my heart beat around guys that I liked vs. girls I felt more platonic toward. I never did anything about it but I still felt in some sense that I was letting everyone down not because of what I did but what I might be. When I was a sophomore at yeshiva high school, one time I spoke with my rabbi in the office. It was awkward for me because I never really spent time with rabbis. One long teenage angsty why can’t we go to movies, why can’t we listen to non-Jewish music and started breaking down in this rabbi’s office and was crying and I like movies a lot, but (laughter) and he didn’t really know how to console me. He just kept saying, “I don’t know- we just don’t trust you (laughter)” – I cried in that rabbi’s office that day not because of things I could say. The one thing that caused me such despair and hopelessness I couldn’t say out loud.
I did come out to myself in my year in Israel. I said out loud to myself, ‘I am gay.” I didn’t go down without a fight. I decided to date my best friend in the whole world because if I didn’t feel some attraction to her and wasn’t in love with her then it couldn’t be anybody. But I did call up my rabbi in Toronto and am hiding on some patio outside my yeshiva in the night and I say, “I’m not really that into girls” and he says, “Are you gay?” and I say, “I’m not sure- I’m going to try dating osme girls.” Without that rabbi’s support I don’t know how I would have survived those two years (fire alarm starts. It’s insane. We stay put.) So that rabbi sent me tons of literature – online, elsewhere- he kind of knew where to find everything. And he left me to my own discretion and said make up your own mind and supported me no matter what.
(An administrator states: A fan shut down in an elevator which triggered the fire alarm- we’re okay.)
He told me to look into the issue and no matter what I decided he would support me. He supported me when I came out to him, when I said I was going to go out with my best friend, he cautioned me and told me what might happen and supported me when I eventually had to break up with her crying in the hall in some random office building next to Ben Yehuda street. It was devastating, the whole thing, my best friend and I was hurting her more than anyone had ever hurt her and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t come out to her because I was still in yeshiva so I tried some half-truths and it didn’t come out well. “I’m just not that attracted to you…you’re beautiful…but…” and she sent me an email, “You think you know someone and then they turn out to be the biggest jerk in the world.” I’m not a jerk but what I did to her was unforgivable. That was when I finally realized, concluded that I’m gay and nothing I can do. I fought for six years, every Rosh Hashana, denying who I am, every Yom Kippur with tears streaming down my face asking God to take it away. My test is not that Hashem made me gay and I have to become straight but my test is to live with it. I came out to friends- most accepted me. I came out to a couple of rabbis- they exceeded expectations. Most of the rabbis I did tell were probably some of the most brave, tolerant people that I know.
I told everyone except the people that mattered most which was my family. Coming out to my family was very difficult. The more I pushed it off, the harder it got. The anxiety from being in the closet- when you are hiding something, basically it permeates into the rest of your life. I started pulling away, preemptively as I thought they were going to reject me. I figured I’ll just run away to Israel and then all my problems will be solved. I kept people out of my room, off my computer, kept all phone calls with my family short and curt. I sounded lethargic and depressed on the phone to my father- I probably was. I felt these relationships with my family dwindling away. I knew that if I wanted to maintain any connection with my family I would have to tell them the truth – fortunately I didn’t have to. My father asked me, my sister asked me and my brother said he always knew. I was 21, went out for beers with my mother and I told her I was gay and she didn’t want to hear it. And I said ‘Your perfect Avi who you thought was going to give you tons of grandchildren is no longer perfect.’ She doesn’t like to talk about it still but at least she knows. Felt an instant reconnection to my family. Granted it is not all flowers and rainbows. My father still sometimes hopes I can change. Sister and brother sometimes upset about it. Sometimes, not intentionally my father says things that are very hurtful like ‘gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married- all they want to do is have sex all the time.’ Alternative lifestyle- what alternative lifestyle? All I do is hang out with my straight friends all the time and watch movies and hang out. And he’s surprised that I have straight friends. I don’t want to blame him. He has an internal conflict and it’s persistent because of the dissemination of misinformation from rabbis and community leaders. He’ll say ‘I spoke to a rabbi today and every gay person I’ve met or most of them had some sort of trauma in their life in their younger years.’ Complete anecdotal evidence. For the record, I have never been sexually molested. I had a very pleasant childhood- don’t tell me that I have some memory that I’m repressing because it’s only going to create false memories that weren’t there and make me more depressed and it’s not worth it. So like I said, the fears that I had that my family would cut me off, that I would be kicked out of the house- these were unfounded but not illegitimate. Other people not as fortunate have been kicked out of their houses. My brother’s chances for a shidduch might have been hurt. My parents are probably judged as being bad parents. Do I need to be so vocal about it (being gay?) My mother would probably say no. I like to think that I am doing something positive. I’m speaking for people who have no voice, for kids who hide who they are, or who speak but are anonymous. In my rabbi’s office, there’s something that you want to say but it causes so much strife and you want to but it hurts. So I am out. A gay Jew in Yeshiva University. All right. Scandalous. (laughter) Truth is, I guess I’m a little bit ambivalent about my experience here- not with the school. The rabbis, most have been completely caring and sympathetic. The administration has been as ___ they can be. The reality is that I face homophobia all the time. Sometimes it’s deliberate when people write ‘fag’ on Ely Winkler’s campaign signs or when people ask my roommate if they are afraid of me coming on to him at night. Or when people liken me to adulterers or people who commit bestiality or incest. Or in Sociology when people raise their hands and say, “I’m not homophobic; I just wouldn’t let my kids near gay people.” At the same time it’s easier having started the Tolerance club. At the same time have made such amazing friends at YU who accept my differences an dmake me happy, empathize with where I am coming from. The pasuk ‘a man shall not lie with another man because it is an abomination’ is not just my problem because I am gay but their own challenge. How could a religion that is supposed to be so compassionate put an individual through so much suffering? Hashem made me that the only way I can feel loved is with another man and then tells me to abstain from it. I’m not saying how to solve that but to understand that struggle. You don’t have to legitimize or accept me. Hope we will be able to universalize the struggle and share in it because I just can’t carry it alone any longer.
Rabbi Blau: The third speaker is Mordechai Levovitz.
Mordechai: It’s like musical chairs. All right. First of all, I just want to express how incredibly overwhelmingly emotional it is to see this many people coming here because they are interested in talking gabout this subject. All my life, when I was in yeshiva, when I was a kid, whenever I even thought about bringing up this subject people would say ‘this is not something we talk about because nobody wants to hear about this, this is something of which we were ashamed.’ This is something I have to tell myself even now, after I leave, that this is something people do want to talk about – that’s the lesson that I’m learning right now. It’s the silence ,like Avi just said, the feeling that you want to say something, something that is obviously the issue but you won’t and then it becomes you can’t and you shouldn’t and then it just lives inside of you and burns and you start feeling, gosh, there’s something wrong. There’s something evil. It’s not something necessarily that you become a victim to because people call you names because all kids are bullied. It’s the notion when I was a kid that there was something inside of me that was hurting other people and not hurting strangers but hurting the people I loved the most. You know, all kids have to deal with thinking about disappointing their parents and that’s something again, a rite of passage. We want to make our parents proud. Ever since I was a kid what I was afraid of was embarrassing my parents just by opening my mouth. I may have been a kid but I wasn’t stupid. I knew that just by walking around the way I did, talking the way I did ,things that just the way I was at 4, 5, 6 or 7- I went around and my hadn was like this and that’s true and it is funny- but it wasn’t funny to me then because when I knew that when I did this and I looked at my father and my father’s eyes in public I saw how embarrassed I was. I saw how I, who loved him- he was so embarrassed and that killed me. When I was a kid, like I said, you know the type- there’s always one kid who is a ‘little girly boy’ – the stereotypes are true because they’re true and that’s who I was and I’m not going to apologize for it. When I went to weddings, I loved weddings- my family is very frum and very yeshivish family. My relationship with my father was based on the time I would learn with my father at night- when I was 9 we were discussing R’ Chaims, etc and it was amazing. One of the best things about growing up in a frum home was the weddings. From a very young age I would get very excited to go to these weddings to be in the women’s section because it wasn’t exciting in the men’s section. The women with their beautiful gowns and the dances. And at one point my father got nervous and said come, come, come dance with me. And I was a chutzpadik kid and I said, “Why would I want to leave this wonderful place to go be with a bunch of retarded smelly penguins?” That was another time where there was silence. It was funny but so embarrassing for him because other people heard it, too. They took me to therapists at the time. They talked to rabbis so they said it’s a very easy answer, take me to a therapist. But even the therapist I went to till I was in high school would not bring up the subject of being gay- it was like they were embarrassed.
I just spoke with my mother today- because I would go in and then the therapists would speak to my mother. With all these therapists that I went to, did any of them ever tell you that there was a possibility that your son could end up gay and how you would react to that? And she said absolutely not. It’s the silencing, not the people who yell ‘faggot’ or put up posters about bestiality. It’s the something that there are no words for because that’s scary. The first time this silence broke was when I went to Camp Monk- I wasn’t big into sports obviously but drama, fireplace, circus, camping- these things were so exciting for me and I really did love it. It was the first time that I was away from my parents. I didn’t have to see that look of shame and embarrassment on their faces- I went to camp and I was fabulous. I could sing Les Miserables, etc. This drove people crazy. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and I wasn’t ready for how New Yorkers relate to this. I figured what am I, I’m 10, not doing anything wrong. My counselor who is a 17-year-old guy comes up to me and says to me, “Mordechai, I have something very serious to ask me.” He says: “Do you like other guys?” So I was excited- finally somebody gets me! And I say, “Yeah! Yeah, I do, I kind of like this one over there.” And the next day my parents were called in to Rabbi Monk’s office. And he takes off a book from the shelf by a rabbi who happens to be my father’s great-uncle and he says ‘there’s no natural desire for homosexuality. It must be that it’s only rebellion against God and it only happens after you’ve explored every other taivah and then he looked at me.’ I was TEN. Only ten! And it made sense to everyone in the room. Except me. And I was kicked out of camp. And we can laugh about it now but they were crazy and I was kicked out. Do you know how embarrassing that was? We get riled up in yeshiva- cheftza gavra, etc, but when you get very passionate about this issue and put up signs ‘bestiality and stuff’ – the people that you’re hurting are the kids who are most vulnerable, who are in the closet. Kicking a kid out of camp because of a passionate understanding or misunderstanding of some great Gadol is hurting children. I can take it. NOW- bring it on now. I talk to the rabbi, great relationship. It’s wonderful NOW. It’s the kids who hurt, the closeted kids who hurt. That’s homophobia nad being violently passionate about this and people yelling outside- they’re not hurting me- they’re hurting those kids in the audience who might have contemplated committing suicide. They’re hurting the kids who are so afraid because they want to live their parents’ dream for them- that’s who they are hurting. I can’t imagine that that is in sync with the values of Judaism. It’s not what my parents taught me or what my rabbeim taught me.
In general, I went out – I went to yeshiva; I loved yeshiva even though I was me. I had some run-ins with other rosh yeshiva about this subject. When my rosh yeshiva wanted to talk to me about this, “Mordecahi, I think that you may be” and I was ready for “gay” and he said “evil.” Maybe I wasn’t 10, but what, 14? A 14-year-old boy is evil?
I went to a very black-hat yeshiva. So I figured go to the Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Israel so I went to Shalavim, it was very exciting, I’m going to wear a kippa serugah. During the day we sit in the beis midrash and we argue about whether a chosson and kallah can have sex on Shabbos on the first night and biah she’lo k’darka so I can also talk about homosexuality. So six weeks later the Mashgiach pulls me aside and says, “Mordechai, we are jus tnot equipped to deal with you- you’re making everyone really uncomfortable” and kicked me out of yeshiva. And sent me to Gush! Where apparently all the gays go. (Insane laughter.)
When I went to Yeshiva University I still wasn’t ready to call myself gay. I knew how many doors that closed and I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear it and I needed to hold on to a dream. And I thought sexuality is fluid, all right. So I called myself bisexual, pansexual (at the time it was a very hip term.) I needed that at the time. I knew even though I called myself that that when it comes to actual sexuality, sexual fantasy- I can love a woman, think she’s pretty but didn’t feel the same way about a woman that I felt about a guy. But it doesn’t matter. A good Brisker method is the head guides the heart. Doesn’t matter what I feel- this is the road. This is the right road. So at the time I went to the Rav and told him I was pansexual. He said, “What?” and in the end he said all right, did some research and found an organization for helping people like me, Jews who want to be straight. So I went to a therapist and started dating a great girl from Stern. I was head-over-heels-fascinated by her. I went to an all-boys yeshiva and I never had the time to know a girl like that and we dated, always hoping that one day I will have a dream about her ,fantasize about her. Finally, a year or two into our relationship I had to tell her. And she said, “I think I’m” and she answered it for me, “gay.” And I said, “How’d you know?” and she said, “Mordechai, everybody knows.” Yeah, I guess. She said, “I love you and I know you love me but frankly, I want to sleep with you. I dream about you- I’m excited when you call. I don’t hear that in your voice and I know that you love me and you want to be part of my life and you can – you can be my friend forever but I deserve more from a husband. I need someone who makes me feel attractive, like I’m the most attractive person in the world and you do, too.” This blew my mind. I mean, why have I not talked to girls? Wow! They’re doing something right in Stern. I mean, to this day, we are best friends. She’s married now and I just spent Chanukah at her house. The breakup with her went much better than the breakup with the psychologist.
I went to the psychologist and said, it’s been a year, and I said, I don’t think I’m getting any sexual attraction. And he said well, what is sexual attraction and the first thing he told me was, “I never really thought you were very into this to begin with.” What? I wasn’t committed? I gave up everything I wanted- head and heart and Brisk and my mother and father. And then he caught himself and said, “You know what? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. If you want to be gay, I wish you every success in life.” And that hurt me much more than the ‘you’re not committed.’ If I want to be gay? Do I want to embarrass my mother? Maybe it’s happening because after a year of therapy, $200 a session, maybe there was something wrong with that- no it is my problem because I don’t WANT to live a straight life. Everything clicked at that point. I thought of what my ex-girlfriend said and it finally made sense. And maybe Briskers and Litvaks need to learn it made another kind of sense- in my neshama. What I knew was morally right and fit into the mold of yahadus. I need to find, I need to be true, I need to look at the metzius in my life and learn how to make the mundane holy. But you can’t change the metzius. And I’m going over probably. Yes.
There’s enough time for questions after. The point is that after that I found a lot of other gay frum guys like myself who have also been in the closet. Every yeshiva I was at I wasn’t the only one but I didn’t know it. Same way I didn’t know there were all of you out here, people ready to be supportive. And sometimes you have to make things like this to find out that people are more supportive. We created a small community of people who come from frum backgrounds who are gay- not with any agenda- some are trying still to change, some who are gay and live with a gay lifestyle and some struggling still. We all learn from each other, all argue and discuss and accepted. No one can stand in another person’s shoes. That organization is called JQY and there are over 300 people- all kids under 30 who grew up in Yeshiva who befriend each other. We’re no longer alone and nobody has to be alone and when you look at this crowd, you know that, too. So thank you so much and we’ll get to other things during the questions.
Rabbi Blau: In order to move things along, our Presidential Fellow will be handing out cards for people who want to write down questions. Raise your hand and she’ll give you a card because we’re running off schedule which is not Jonathan’s fault but Jonathan.
Jonathan: Hi everybody. First of all, it takes a lot of courage for the four of us to get up here and talk to you guys (lots of applause). I’m shocked to see everybody here. Thank you so much for coming. My name is Jonathan, I’m 23 years old and I’m a proud alumnus of Yeshiva University. I don’t know if many of you know who Mitt Romney is. He was the runner-up for President in ___. You’ll find Romney starting a speech thanking me for bringing him to Yeshiva University for having the opportunity to unveil to the world his views on foreign policy. I was the President of an important student club here at YU. I raised a profit of $130,000 dollars for YU. I was also 100% closeted. Never did I ever for the first 22 years of my life publicly acknowledge that I am gay. Can you blame me? Have you been to YU?
Being closeted was survival. It was even more than that. I remember thinking in those years: How can I accomplish anything as a gay guy? Gay isn’t mainstream. Gay is my mother’s hairdresser. I would never forget when I would meet someone new at YU, sometimes it would happen when a person met me they would turn to a friend of mine, “Is Jonathan gay?” So they would respond, “Well, he just comes off that way. But he’s not. He’s just from LA.”
So my senior year me and all my friends started dating. In the dorms we would ask each other how’s your plate, who have you pushed off to the side for now, etc. My friends were dating girls and I wanted to date girls, too. I mean, this is how we were raised, this is what we want for ourselves. This is the only model of happiness that we know for ourselves. Allow me to provide a little bit of background. I have the best parents. They gave me the best childhood. Every Shabbos my dad would play football with me. He introduced me to a stock market game he thought I would like, we played it every Shabbos and it was love at first profit. I’m a hardcore Miami ____ and I work in finance and vote Republican. How am I gay?
Looking back, I remember at five I saw ‘cinderella’ and knew I was going to meet a prince charming and that’s just hindsight. ___ remember seeing a girl, imagined building a home with her, raising kids together with her and that was just when I was 8. That’s what we all imagine for ourselves. The fact that when I hit puberty and my sexual drive started to kick in and it was oriented exclusively toward guys. That wasn’t part of the cards, my aspirations, and so getting back to when I was a senior at YU and my friends started dating women, so did I. And I would take out these girls and by the sixth date the girl has told all her friends about me and she’s really into me. You go on the date and it’s palpable. (Joking) Who wouldn’t be? I’m adorable. Yet. I had no feeling for her. It dawned on me that the way I viewed women romantically when I was 22 was exactly the same way I viewed them romantically when I was 8. They weren’t just some angelic princess that would be an accessory on my arm helping me achieve the dreams of a white picket fence and a Golden Retriever. These women were adults and wanted to be wanted. These women wanted to be craved, wanted to be loved, wanted to be respected. They deserved that. They were feeling this for me and yet I wasn’t feeling this for them. It was simply unfair. And then I thought to myself, not only was this unfair to them but also unfair to me. I also deserve to be loved and craved.
So when I graduated YU I knew I had to explore being gay. I wanted to meet a gay religious person. I looked online to find someone to talk to and so I did, a guy in his 30s, deeply closeted and in life he was deeply stuck. He had no plan what to do, wanted to get married to a girl but didn’t know how. He was living a double life. It was depressing. The only thing I learned from meeting him was that I knew what I didn’t want- I didn’t want to be that person. I was a guy who was getting things done. Frankly, I don’t have the time to be stuck. Seriously, I was deathly afraid that this 30-something year old guy was going to be my life. Living a lonely, peripheral, unimportant existence.
Subsequently, while I wasn’t ready to come out yet, I started bringing out the issue of homosexuality and Prop 8 to people I knew. One person knew of an organization JQY- Jewish Queer Youth. Afraid to email them but eventually I did. Met a couple of them for coffee and for the first time in my life didn’t feel isolated. Told my straight roommate I’m gay and he said, “No, you’re not.” And I said, “I am.” He couldn’t imagine me being gay and I couldn’t imagine being gay. What happened to my friendship with my straight roommate? I’m his best friend. I’m the best man at his wedding- he’s getting married in a week.
I think the final straw in my coming out to myself was looking at my older brother. He dated hundreds of girls and finally got married at 29. And he was so lonely when living on the Upper West Side and when he finally found his bashert I just saw that relationship and it was something that just clicked in me that the way they just know that they are into each other and have this amazing chemistry- the way they have this instinct inside me that my life would be complete with a man – that’s how my brother had this instinct that his wife would complete his life. That’s how you all know that a woman will complete your life. And so the next time I went home to LA I resolved that I was going to tell my parents. I expected my parents to not be okay with it. I mean my parents are community people. What does this mean for their reputation? But I reasoned that even if it took the m 5 years to be okay with it that hopefully by the time I get to my late 20s if I found a guy and want to build a life with him, hopefully my parents will accept him and celebrate smachot with him and go about the minutiae of life with him.
And so I told them. My mom went ballistic. That’s an understatement. She asked me every day for a month if I was molested as a child. Because in my mother’s mind that was the only way you could be gay. So I said, “No, Mom. I had this amazing childhood, etc.” I think she screamed at me every day on the phone for 3 months. But she just couldn’t get it. “You were always so smiley, always so happy, you’ve never been sad or depressed” and that’s part of being closeted. You can’t even show other people that you are sad or depressed. But eventually my mom had an instinct in her that she always wants the best for me and always wants me to feel good about myself and I would not be the person that I am today if it were not for my parents, love and moral support that they eventually showed me. They’re amazing.
So I was officially out to my parents. But coming out to my parents and to my friends was a whole different story. So then I told one friend and he was cool with it, but he would say ‘you can’t tell so-and-so because he’s too religious.’ So I went for it, next person I told was him and he was even better about it. And he said, ‘But you can’t tell so-and-so’ where it became this game. If only everybody even today knows how okay with it the next person was- truthfully it really surprised me. My friends are amazing.
So why come out to people? Because before you come out you think there’s going to be nobody who is accepting but somehow everyone accepted me. This fake veil of homophobia is lifted. I was here two and a half years ago and I would never imagine an event like this taking place. The fact that people are here and coming here with their hearts- it’s shocking. My friends know I’m the same Jonathan but they still ask me if I started using different words. Do I start saying, “Fabulous?” I can get away with it so I sometimes do. I’m still the same person that I was. Don’t have to deny one part of who I am just so that I can embrace another.
I’d like to finish by talking to the young Jonathan who was closeted and afraid and isolated. I wish I could share with him all the support that my friends gave me when I came out to them. I wish I could make them feel the love that my father, mother and brothers ended up giving to me. And I finally wish I could show them all these friendly faces and this amazing turnout that I am looking at in the room right now because the old Jonathan could never have imagined this event taking place. I would tell him, it did take place, it is taking place, we’re here proving this event could happen and speaking on behalf of the old Jonathan, thank you for all being here. This means everything. (Applause.)
Rabbi Blau: Dr. Pelcovitz doesn’t need an introduction and we are running late.
Dr. Pelcovitz: There were four very eloquent voices that we just heard and what I was struck by was how different each of the voices was and how different each of the stories was and how incredibly complex the journey was. And I just want to make a few brief points. The program is not really meant to hear from a psychologist and certainly is not meant to hear from anyone other than the four men you just heard from.
Point one is obvious. I think it’s incredibly important for all of us here to understand that this was not an easy path for anybody who we just heard and to the extent that we have to understand ‘al tadin es chavercha ad she taiga limkomo’- can’t judge anyone till we’ve stood in his shoes. And I think that the important take-home message that we all have to understand is that this is not –there’s often kind of this ignorance that somehow this is a hedonistic choice or a choice that comes with ease- it wasn’t. And that’s what’s so important about the messages we all just heard.
The second point I wanted to make which was made by a number of the men is feeling isn’t doing. It’s not the same thing. Nobody has the right to judge a feeling. We’re in an institution where there are very clear guidelines and halakhic guidelines which is not what tonight is about but I think a very important lesson in life is the lesson that there is a huge difference between validating and being empathic and being there for somebody and supporting them and necessarily agreeing. Validation and agreement are two different things. And the cry that I am hearing tonight is one asking for validation and understanding and I don’t think we have to be concerned that that means that through doing that we are not being true to the internal values and halakhic principles with which we’re living. And I think that’s another important point.
And the final point which I think was made beautifully by Josh at the very beginning- and actually was made by all four- was how language brings control. One of my colleagues, ____ once showed me an FMRI of one of his patients who was a survivor of the World Trade Center and he showed me that as he was having a flashback to the worst moment of his life, that horrible day when he basically doesn’t make it, the ___ was shut done, the language areas of the brain was shut down. Then he showed me subsequent FMRIS in the course of therapy as he named the monster and gave words to his pain, that’s where healing came. Healing comes from lighting up Brokaw’s area, from giving words. As we heard, as all four of the panelists said in different ways, as you talk about the pain and about the struggle and come to the process of belonging and rejoining the community although perhaps in a different key and in a different way, greater control comes and observance comes. It may not be observance in completely the way that we like to think about it, but as belonging comes and membership in the community comes, greater observance comes as well in other areas. I think that now I’ve said what I said, I’m sure that not everyone will agree with what I said, but let’s go to the remainder of the program, which is to respond to the many questions and comments on the cards.
Rabbi Blau: I said that I would not take the questions to me but to the panel but the first question on this was to me and I’m not going to answer it but I will acknowledge it as I said before. Question is: How is a rabbi supportive of people coming out- I will clarify my position to anyone who wants to see me tomorrow morning or any other day or by phone or email.
Josh: We can speak just a little bit to only our personal experience of course, or really just to mine. So much feedback, sounds like spitting in your ear- can you hear? When I was first sharing my information with rabbis, which I hadn’t done all around, though I suspect now this is like a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. I got a mixed review but never got a totally unsympathetic review. I’ll be my friend but if you choose to live this lifestyle I won’t be able to support you, he said- and that was something I understood but in the years since I’ve told him he’s come back to me to ask for my input when he hears from guys in his yeshiva who ask him this same question. Our relationship has changed but not necessarily for the worst.
Mordechai: The answer is: depends! Depends which rabbi. Certainly there are rabbis who are more right-wing, more open-minded. You can be right-wing and open-minded. The best answer that I heard, not a halakhic answer, but early on when I was still bisexual and he said to me, very mired at the time in, just speaking at OU conference on Agunah at the time. Mordechai, there are huge questions that I have within Orthodoxy, places where I wish I can do more but I can’t, places where I am confined by halakha- I can’t give them (those women) a halakhic easy answer. You talk about it, speak to – Judaism is not an easy religion in all areas. People are constrained, want to do more but need to be intellectually honest to the halakha.
R’ Blau: Why are there no female panelists?
Avi: I offered, I couldn’t find any who would contact me. That’s it.
Mordechai: This should be the beginning of many- look how many people are in, some who couldn’t get in. We were contacted late by women who would like to be on this panel- we were contacted. There are bisexual, lesbian, transgendered women in this community and the important thing is to hear from them.
R’ Blau: How did the response in NYC compare to responses in your hometown?
Jonathan: I’m from Los Angeles. I think people have reacted pretty similarly ot the way they’ve reacted in NY- they’re pretty similar. A lot of my friends from LA now live in NY and vice versa. You can say how have people reacted to my siblings who live in LA. My brother is on a softball team and there’s a bunch of guys on the team and one of them, they’re talking about something and said ‘that’s so gay, man’ and then said ‘oh.’ And changed it to ‘that’s just interesting.’ And that’s pretty much it.
R’ Blau: Thinking long term, do you think it’s possible to live an Orthodox lifestyle while being gay?
Josh: This is a pretty hard question but I would say first of all it’s difficult to think long term all the time but so far I’m going to answer in the affirmative. I think it is possible and this is why. 1. It’s working for me so far. I’ll admit now it’s been a while since I’ve made it to Shacharis in the morning with a minyan but I still daven three times a day and consider myself to be a pretty frum dude. 2. I think the people up here and gay men and women in general don’t hav ea monopoly on having issues with frumkeit. I suspect that there are other people out here who continue to daven, etc even though the whole system is not worked out for us or if it is, we still continue to live with questions. One of our Roshei Yeshiva at gush would say he doesn’t have all the answers but still puts on Tefillin. It feels to me that all my friends have plenty of questions as well- don’t feel like I’m the only one with issues.
R’ Blau: A few people just wanted to express support for people for coming and making it here. So that’s easy. Particular question for Mordechai. Do you know why the girl dated you for a year if she knew you were gay?
Mordechai: (starts laughing) I’ll tell you. I mean, it took her a year to muster up the courage to actually say it. It too me 21 years to muster up the courage to say it. She had very strong feelings for me and different feelings but feelings nonetheless and we were exploring together. I give her a lot of credit- saying the word, like I said, sometimes just formulating the word itself is an accomplishment and it helped and I thank her. We should all be more comfortable using the word ‘gay’ –it’s not a dirty word, it’s not something embarrassing. You don’t have to say, “I think he might be- you know.” That’s actually doing more harm than good because it’s making the word seem like something that shouldn’t be said- it’s our lives. Not proud of being gay. I’m not proud of being right-handed either. Proud of the very courageous hard decisions, hard choices that we made and had to make in terms of not living closet. At least we chose that way. Coming out to parents, dealing with these hard issues. It’s that that we’re proud of. Gay pride- why do you have to go and parade it? We’re not parading being gay. None of us talked about anything we do in the bedroom. That’s private. And I don’t talk about anybody with that except the person- whatever. The point is that what we celebrate is our triumphs that we talk about. And that’s what not only we mean but what the community of gay people mean. Why do they need to march? Why do they need to celebrate? Do YOU think that what we did was courageous? (Applause.) So that should answer your question.
R’ Blau: Why did you choose to go to YU? There are other environments that would be easier for you in secular universities.
Jonathan: In high school I did really well. I’m not trying to boast; I’m just saying I got a 1400 on my SATs, 4.0 GPA, but I only applied Harvard, Warton and YU. Because I knew the first two were reaches and I remember asked why not apply to NYU? I just deep down knew in 11th and 12th grade that if I went to NYU I would be gay by sophomore year. So I thought if I stay in the yeshiva environment somehow I would keep to my goals and aspirations of marrying a woman.
Avi: I just want to say the question is why do you choose YU? We’re all Jewish from Modern Orthodox community, being gay is not the only deciding factor in why or how we choose- we want to come for the amazing things at Yeshiva University.
Josh: I was looking for a place with morning seder and night seder.
R’ Blau: Have you noticed a difference in reaction between your parents’ generation and your peers?
Mordechai: My parents’ generation- when they were my age there was the 60s. The idea of nostalgia and things were different then is something I don’t really buy into. I think that younger people in general are exposed to a lot more things and others are very conservative- so it depends.
R’ Blau: What do you think the Orthodox community can do to make gay Jews feel accepted? Are there any steps or actions you feel would help create an environment of warmth, inclusion, etc?
Mordechai: THIS. This, this, more of this. This should not be an exception. There’s obviously a huge interest in this subject. There’s more to talk about, more to discuss. Hopefully whomever is taking over the Tolerance Club should always have a forum where people who are gay, lesbian, transgendered have a voice. This should be a tradition- this is a great start.
R’ Blau: I’d like to ask Dr. Gelman to say a few words.
Dr. Gelman: My apologies for being late. Actually with everybody in this room I can’t understand why there were more cars on the George Washington Bridge but there was an accident on the cross Bronx and nothing was moving- trailer got stuck under a bridge. This is an opportunity to show what a real university is all about. (Applause.) It’s inquiry, discussion, it’s not about who can yell louder or who can make the more outrageous claim. The Wurzweiler School of Social Work for now probably the past three years has had a regular visit from Mordechai and a number of other individuals as part of our educational process on understanding diversity and having a sense of what people’s emotional needs may well be. And all of us have learned over those three years with JQY sending representatives to our regular program and summer bloc program. We’ve also discussed a variety of other sensitive issues and not just the issue of gayness in the Orthodox community. I think the last time I have ever seen this many people in this room is when Jesse Jackson was here and that also proved to be a very interesting discussion. There are things that I think my Presidential Fellow, who I rehearsed on my speakerphone in my car so she got everything down right, there are subjects and topics that we shy away from as a community and I know- Presidential Fellow ,did you tell them about nineteen years ago? The reality was that 19 years ago you could not discuss abuse in the orthodox community. And in a room in the 9th floor 24 specially invited people worked out an arrangement with the ultra-Orthodox community and city’s administration on how there could be sensitive responses to abuse in the community and overcome the notion of lasha hara. Whether it is abused individuals, children, spouses, agunot- these are all issues and you should be proud as members of this community that there are opportunities to grow, to learn, to communicate and not really to yell and scream and I’m delighted with not only the turnout but also the support that these four individuals have received this evening. So thank you.
One last item. JQ Youth will be with us in the spring. Also, the question was raised about who is on the panel- you might be interested to know that a Stern graduate who was also a Wurzweiler graduate has a new book coming out and it might be a very interesting experience from part of the other side of the equation.
R’ Blau: I said we’ll end at 10 and I intend to keep to schedule. One last question: What do you think is the next step for the Orthodox community?
Avi: So I think after hearing our experiences, I guess the one thing that we’ve been avoiding, that we clearly didn’t talk about is the logical next step maybe just- how to make it- I was talking to Dean Schwartz and brought up – halakhic damage control.
R’ Blau: Can you explain what you mean by it?
Mordechai: No, no. It’s true. The next step is what you do when you leave here. That’s what the next step is. Because most of us do know people who either they tell you that they’re gay or you think that they may be gay and it’s up to you – will you be silent, will you avoid the issue? Are you going to make this something that you’re not going to talk about? When you don’t bring up the issue with someone who yo u think may be gay, are you not bringing it up out of compassion with him or because you’re not comfortable with the subject? If it changes in your mind – if you understand that these are just stories- that gay people aren’t evil people, people rebelling against God or the Torah, are people struggling and who need you- and if you will be there for them then that is the greatest next step that we can ask for. Certainly giving them resources like JQYouth so they can meet other people who are going through something they are going through. Talk to YOUR rabbis about this. Talk! Open the dialogue where you can. If you think this is something that your shul is secretly dealing with but not publicly dealing with, tell and maybe this is something that you can bring to your community. Every community is dealing with this and very few communities are bringing people to talk about it. What are they afraid of? We need to stop responding to a fear that doesn’t exist. Go back to your communities, your community centers, to your leaders, to your shuls and say maybe we should hear from the gay people in our community because we know that there are. And if those gay people are not ready to talk then all of us are ready and willing to talk and there are many people in the crowd who are ready and willing to talk. So there’s no excuse. I’m begging you for me and my relationship to this religion and this community- you can help. So please do.
R’ Blau: This ends the formal program. Anyone who wants to speak privately with any of the panelists is certainly welcome to do so.
Addendum: My point of view on this event, namely, 'To Deserve and To Sacrifice.'