LGBT kids need ‘support, love and acceptance’

Moderator Elliott Malamet, centre, with panelists, from left, Joanna Halpern, Gidon Feen, Miriam Herman, and Andrew Dale. FRANCES KRAFT PHOTO

For young people in the Orthodox community, “lives are on the line” because of negative attitudes toward homosexuality, said Andrew Dale, a panellist at a live-streamed Torah in Motion event called “Sinai and Sexuality: LGBT Jews Talk about God, Torah and Personal Identity.”

Dale, one of four young adults who spoke to 300 people at TanenbaumCHAT’s Wilmington Avenue campus on Dec. 3 as a followup to a May event on the LGBT community and Orthodoxy, said that young gay people who are not accepted have a suicide rate eight times higher than average.

A financier turned entrepreneur, Dale also volunteers for Eshel, an organization for LGBTQ Jews, on its “Welcoming Shuls” project, determining to what extent they will be welcome at various synagogues. The organization also offers pastoral counselling resources.


Moderator Elliott Malamet said it was “surprisingly painful” to hear that some people couldn’t appear on the panel because they hadn’t come out to everyone. “I wanted to understand the experience of these young people. I think they’ve all been magnificent,” he said at the end of the evening, sparking a standing ovation.

Joanna Halpern, a student at McGill University, said the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in some Orthodox circles is “the denying of who you are…. It’s terrible. It’s not OK.” The Calgary native who moved to Toronto to attend Ulpanat Orot no longer considers herself modern Orthodox, but said Judaism is still a big part of her life. She is the founder of JQueer, for LGBT Jewish young adults in Montreal.

Halpern said she ended up seeing a psychologist because of severe anxiety, after she tried to be the person she was expected to be.

Dale, who became ba’al tshuvah in his late 20s, years after coming out, found that going to shul “elevated” him.

As someone who did not grow up Orthodox, Dale has what he calls “ba’al tshuvah privilege,” not having had to worry, for example, that his parents might be angry he’d ruined a sister’s chance of getting a shidduch by coming out.

Miriam Herman, who attended Tiferes Bais Yaakov High School in Toronto and is now a graduate student at Yeshiva University, said the most important thing about coming out is to “make sure you’re safe.” She said she didn’t come out to her mother until she was financially independent.

Jewish kids “need our support, love and acceptance,” she said.

Gidon Feen, a student at George Washington University, where he is involved in Jewish leadership, grew up in a “pretty haredi” American community until Grade 7, when his family became modern Orthodox.

He said when a rabbi spoke to his Grade 10 class about homosexuality being a psychological disorder, and that gay people “should not be part of our community,” he found himself “in a very fragile state of mind,” struggling to define himself sexually and also in the context of Judaism.

Feen changed schools soon afterward, and came out at his graduation party. Although his friends were very accepting, he feared – unnecessarily, as it turned out – that his shul community would react differently. Now, Feen says, he has “a very happy relationship with Judaism.”

Participants also discussed wanting a Jewish marriage and family life. Dale said he would like to see “some kind of commitment ceremony” and a welcoming attitude to same-sex couples in the synagogue. He noted that the Torah prohibition against homosexuality refers only to the physical act, not to “being in a relationship, showing love, having companionship, showing commitment, or having a kid.”

Herman said that, growing up, she never spoke to anyone about her sexual identity. “I think we need to educate our kids, demystify the subject, and make sure everybody’s safe and still loving God.”

Malamet – a co-founder of Torah in Motion with Rabbi Jay and Ilana Kelman, and a longtime educator at TanenbaumCHAT – agreed. The subject will come up, he said, even if it’s not in the curriculum. In that case, he said, “it’s essentially left to the whim of the individual teacher instead of a thoughtful, deliberate, mindful approach.”