On Sunday, some leading Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, met with mental-health professionals and members of the Orthodox gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community for a conference on “sexual orientation and gender identity in the Orthodox and chasidic world,” as a press release put it.
The conference, about 150-strong, held at the Kraft House on Columbia University’s campus, was organized by the modern Orthodox, Upper West Side Lincoln Square Synagogue; the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology; and JQY, a nonprofit that provides support to young LGBT Orthodox and chasidic Jews.
The goal was to help the two sides understand each other; the mere fact that the conference met is a milestone.
“I think that it was a very honest, forthright program, and it allowed two very important populations – both the rabbis, and also the therapists who are dealing with individuals who are undergoing the conflict of same-sex orientation and Orthodox practice and belonging,” Rabbi Goldin said.
“It was a very positive atmosphere. Everyone who was there appreciated each other’s presence. I thought it was important to go to share some of the issues facing Orthodox rabbis and communities as we struggle with these concerns.
“The issues are that as much as we desire to be sensitive to the population involved, the loyalty to our principles and the loyalty to our law is important to us, and it should be appreciated by others as well.
“There has to be a mutual recognition of the validity of each other’s concerns,” he said.
“There can be a home for everybody, as long as we can respect each other’s concerns. You have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis, and determine whether they can be comfortable, and whether we can be comfortable.
“The key issue is that on both sides there has to be an awareness of the valid concern that each community has. Part of the problem is that when you are in a position, as the Orthodox world is, of having standards and rules and regulations, it often is interpreted as insensitivity. Why can’t you just change? Why can’t you just X or Y or Z? Part of what I was trying to educate was that just as those who are asking us to change have their values and the concerns, the issue of Jewish law and continuity are a tremendous value to us. Once that is acknowledged, then there are ways in which we can meet.
“We won’t satisfy each other entirely, but we will find ways to talk, and to make people feel welcome.
“I was pleased to see a recognition on the part of those in attendance that the law is a value, and that the Orthodox community can’t be expected to compromise on its fundamental adherence to the law.”
Rabbi Helfgot, who also teaches Judaic studies at SAR High School in Riverdale, said that the conference “represents part of a continuum that started a few years ago, when people, especially in the modern Orthodox world, became much more comfortable speaking about the reality.
“We have gay congregants in our synagogues, gay families in our communities, kids from gay communities coming into the day-school system,” he said.
“It is a reality that rabbis and therapists and everyone recognizes. We all struggle with giving the best guidance and advice, as Orthodox educators and rabbis and communal activists on the one hand, while on the other hand maintaining our fidelity to halacha and not fudging the basics of halacha.
“We have to be sensitive and welcoming and inclusive to the reality of the Jewish family as it exists today. Gay families, and people with same-sex attractions, are one part of the reality. We have a spectrum of nontraditional families in our communities. In some communities it is a larger percent, and in others it is smaller, but we have single parent families, gay couples, divorced families, blended families – all sorts of scenarios.
“We have to understand where people are, the struggles they face, and how they can find their place in the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Helfgot told a story he had heard at the conference from Rabbi Shaul Robinson, the Scottish-born spiritual leader of Lincoln Square. “Rabbi Robinson said that he remembers that years ago, when he still was living in England, when people would talk about these kinds of issues they would snicker, and even some rabbis would make jokes about it. He was very pleasantly surprised when he returned to England to speak at a conference. The subject came up, and the seriousness and sobriety and respect with which the rabbis addressed it reflected very positively on the fact that what they were talking about was people’s lives.”
Although the issues are not new to him, and he has explored them intellectually, “it is very powerful to hear about it directly,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “Hearing concerns and issues face-to-face is a healthy thing.”
He left the conference feeling hopeful – but, he said, “I didn’t come in with any feelings of hopelessness. I think the community is on a very positive trajectory of inclusion and discussion and openness about wanting all of our young people and older people and middle-aged people to find a place to connect to God, to connect to the Jewish people, to connect to Israel, to connect to fellow Jews.
“I think that was the undercurrent to the conference,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “It wasn’t at all about trying to change halacha. That would not fly. It’s about changing attitudes – it’s about inclusiveness, about sensitivity. Even small things – like training teachers in our schools about the expressions they use, the examples they give – make a difference.”