Welcoming Shuls Project opens Orthodox doors to LGBTQ Jews

Welcoming Shuls Project opens Orthodox doors to LGBTQ Jews

But most N.J. synagogues won’t ‘come out’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Dr. Saundra Epstein, director of Eshel’s Welcoming Shuls Project. Photo courtesy Eshel
Dr. Saundra Epstein, director of Eshel’s Welcoming Shuls Project. Photo courtesy Eshel

Rabbi Daniel Geretz has trouble understanding some of the attitudes toward LGBTQ Jews he has encountered in his Orthodox circles. “I understand that halacha limits certain behaviors,” said the leader of Maayan, an Orthodox congregation and partnership-style minyan in West Orange. But “I can’t wrap my head around a refusal to wish a mazal tov to a gay or lesbian couple following a same-sex commitment ceremony.” He feels saddened when Jews who self-identify as Orthodox can’t find an Orthodox synagogue where they feel comfortable. 

When he heard a few months ago about the Welcoming Shuls Project, he didn’t hesitate to call.  

Welcoming Shuls Project (WSP) is an initiative of Eshel, a New York-based organization working to create acceptance in the Orthodox community for its LGBTQ members and their families. Launched in 2015, WSP focuses specifically on identifying synagogues where LGBTQ Jews will feel comfortable praying. After two years, 104 Orthodox synagogues across the country, including 13 in New Jersey, have signed onto the program.  

For Geretz, “It was an obvious way to let people know they were going to have a different experience davening at Maayan.”

And yet, the number of Orthodox institutions extending this welcome mat is limited and their fear of “coming out” as a participant in WSP is palpable. In fact, of the local New Jersey synagogues that participate in the Welcoming Shuls Project, only Maayan was willing to speak with NJJN, the others refusing to comment, even with the promise of anonymity. 

WSP maintains heightened secrecy around its list of gay-friendly Orthodox congregations. Only 14 congregations are listed on eshelonline.org, and someone seeking a congregation must contact Eshel directly. “We do not want a rabbi to fall on the sword of his own principles and understanding of what halacha asks of us in terms of wrestling with ideas that come into conflict,” said Dr. Saundra Epstein, director of WSP. 

She acknowledged that few congregations want their work with WSP to be public, citing “pressures from associations of shuls” like the Orthodox Union, “community politics,” and “residual fears and concerns” among synagogue members and lay leaders. 

Orthodox rabbis work in an orbit of larger communities, parent institutions, and yeshivot that can make life difficult for them, she said.  

A yeshiva will “pull in the reins” if a rabbi does something that’s perceived as threatening to the power of the institution, according to Epstein. She added, “I have seen rabbis who want to be caring and open, but their yeshiva will say, ‘If you do not do this our way, we will make your life miserable.’” The Orthodox Union did not respond to a request for comment. 

Similarly, when leaders of Orthodox institutions decide to work with Keshet, a national organization working with Jewish institutions to become more inclusive of LGBTQ people, they often express a need to participate as individuals, not as heads of institutions. “The speed with which individuals reckon with conflicting values is different from the speed of institutions,” said Catherine Bell, Keshet’s senior director of programming and leadership. 

Of course, she cautioned, “That’s not to say that every individual in the Orthodox world is saying, ‘Yay, let’s join the gay pride march.’”

Epstein is aware of the dangers of discretion, pointing to some members of the clergy who have hidden any presence of sexual predation by calling their silence “discretion.” At the same time, she deals with the reality that “one wrong word in one wrong place can destroy everything we are working toward,” so she continues her mission cautiously, with guarded optimism about Orthodox acceptance of LGBTQ members.  

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz experienced institutional aftershocks following his December 2017 talk at the Old Broadway Synagogue, where he was religious leader, in support of transgender Jews. The Lakewood resident was fired from two rabbinic jobs — religious leader at the Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem and Aish rabbi at Columbia University — although both organizations said the removal was not related to his remarks, according to a report in The New York Jewish Week. 

“It’s not possible right now in the dominant culture to speak truth to power without losing your job,” he said in a phone interview with NJJN. He is critical of those Orthodox communities that believe one must choose between sexual or gender identity and religious identity, “as though being nice and welcoming is in contradiction with Jewish values and Jewish tradition.” 

Moskowitz remains a trans ally and retains leadership in Jewish organizations. He’s a founder of Kehillat Harlem, an inclusive congregation in Harlem, and senior educator at Uri l’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization. 

“The question we all have to answer is, how much faith in God do we have to do the right thing, regardless of what we have to lose?” he said. “Most people in power are not willing to take on the risk, to jeopardize their jobs. It’s a real struggle.”

There is no data available on the number of LGBTQ people within Orthodox Judaism; however, Epstein suggested there is no reason to think the numbers are any different among the Orthodox than in society in general, where the community is about 10 to 13 percent of the population. Eshel is hosting its eighth annual LGBTQ retreat, to be held Jan. 12-14. More than 100 people were registered two weeks before the conference. 

Traditional Orthodox communities follow their understanding of Torah law, which explicitly prohibits homosexuality. Most Orthodox communities also follow strict guidelines with regard to gender roles and identity. 

In 2010, a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis signed a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” It confirmed the prohibition on same-sex interactions, but stated unequivocally that gay and lesbian Jews should be welcomed as full members of the community. It did not address issues concerning same sex couples. 

For Epstein, the matchmaking between members of the LGBTQ community and Orthodox synagogues is personal. Two of her four children are lesbian. “I’ve told them they don’t get a pass on being religious,” she said. “They have to find a community where they are accommodated.”

Speaking to NJJN on the phone, a tractate of Gemara open in front of her to somewhere in Baba Kama, she explained she is always ready to discuss laws and interpretations with the rabbis she reaches. “My main thing is that I bring texts,” she said. “When rabbis hit issues they are unsure how to approach, they call me. I can be a source for them.” And she tries to keep the conversation focused around halacha, Jewish law, “not emotion or personal biases,” something more likely to creep in among rabbis over the age of 40, she said.

Creating a flexible approach with varying levels of acceptance — from something akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to full acceptance as embraced by West Orange’s Maayan — has enabled WSP to enlist rabbis and congregations across the Orthodox world, not only those affiliated with liberal Orthodoxy, like Geretz, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but also those from the rabbinical schools of Yeshiva University, Ner Yisrael, Chabad Lubavitch, Mercaz HaRav Kook, and a few with ordination from the chief rabbi of Israel. And once Epstein has signed on someone from a particular yeshiva, she said, it’s easier to sign the next one. 

Generally, rabbis don’t call her; she calls them. “I become the shadchanit,” she said.  

For one congregant of an Orthodox synagogue in northern New Jersey, what the rabbi says publicly is less important than how the rabbi handles issues as they arise. (This congregant came out after a divorce and asked to speak with NJJN anonymously since not everyone is aware of his circumstances.) He said that two of three rabbis he was in regular contact with were “incredibly sympathetic, compassionate, and supportive.” They assured him that he could continue to lead services and receive aliyot even in a committed same-sex relationship. Whether they voice their support publicly is something he is less interested in. “I don’t care,” he said. “That sort of public recognition is a bridge too far for them.”

But, he pointed out, “If a rabbi had stood up and said something 30 years ago, maybe my life would be different. But the world was not there.”

The third rabbi never got back to him. “But it doesn’t bother me because it was coming from an honest place,” he said.

For one ultra-Orthodox rabbi — Epstein declined to identify who — there is no conflict between halacha and homosexuality. He believes the issue can be resolved by focusing on pikuach nefesh, saving a life. She recalled him saying, “Torah and halacha say clearly that if it’s a question of hurting an individual or compromising their well-being … we can set aside ritual observance. That’s halacha. We don’t want people to commit suicide or leave the community or feel lonely and ostracized.” 

Once on board, rabbis may face any number of challenges. Geretz laid out some of the practical ones he anticipates: Do I count a transgender man in a minyan? Should a gay or lesbian couple sit next to one another in shul if heterosexual couples are separated by a mechitzah?  But from his perspective, these are challenges to face with real people standing before you — not reasons to exclude people. 

“They’re theoretical questions for me now. I can consider them, but hesitate to commit to a specific answer until a practical question actually materializes.”

In the meantime, Epstein will continue to make her phone calls, hoping to expand her list of welcoming shuls.

“This is going to be one of those issues that will be resolved bottom up, not top down,” said the North Jersey congregant in an email. “The rabbis won’t lead on this. The community will. Rabbis will follow.”

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