A million-dollar gift will enable Jewish Queer Youth, the organization founded in 2012 to support LGBTQ youth from Orthodox, chasidic, and Sephardic/Mizrachi homes, to expand activities nationwide, including to northern New Jersey.
For an organization just a decade old, which reported less than half that sum in revenue in 2019, the donation, from Toronto-based real estate developer Paul Austin and his partner, Dalip Girdhar, is huge.
It comes as LGBTQ people are finding increasing visibility and even acceptance in some Orthodox communities. This acceptance can be seen by the willingness of a prominent modern Orthodox entertainer to perform a concert for JQY in December, and in the willingness of a group of 25 Bergen County Orthodox rabbis and educators to meet with JQY leadership in early 2020 to discuss plans for a local JQY drop-in center. (Those rabbis and educators are not comfortable attaching their names to the project, however.) The plans, waylaid by covid, are being firmed up now, and JQY hopes to open its Bergen County programming in fall; now, it’s looking for space for weekly or monthly meetings.
Thanks to the grant, JQY now is looking to expand to Chicago, Baltimore, and southern Florida too.
When covid hit, JQY shifted its weekly Manhattan drop-in program in Times Square to virtual meetings. More recently, it has been running meetings with both real and virtual components. But the online option gave JQY wider visibility beyond Manhattan.
“That’s how we found out that there are so many people around the U.S. and around the world who need JQY,” Rachael Fried said. Ms. Fried is JQY’s executive director; she first encountered JQY as a participant in its programs.
The premise of the drop-in center is simple. “It is a place where people can show up,” Ms. Fried said. “They can be who they are and not hide anything about themselves. A lot of people who come to JQY think they’re the only one like them” — that is, an Orthodox Jew, from 13 to 23 years old, who is not straight.
Participants in the in-person drop-in center programs get a hot kosher dinner and the chance to relax with games.
“A lot of times Orthodox people going to LGBTQ spaces will feel not part of it because they’re Jewish,” Ms. Fried said. “Even if the spaces are Jewish, they’ll feel different for being Orthodox. And they may look different,” she said; some chasidic participants wear distinctive garb.
Before covid, the program would draw 20 to 30 people a week. Now, the reopened center draws a similar number, with a further 15 to 20 participating virtually.
In Bergen County, “We’re looking for a place we could rent on a weekly or monthly basis,” Ms. Fried, 34, said. “I’m working to create the resources I didn’t have when I was younger.”
Ms. Fried, who earned a master’s from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work after graduating from YU’s Stern College for Women and its high school for girls, says that “everything we do looks through the lens of ensuring the mental and physical safety and health of each individual person.
“We are mental health professionals who are making sure that any youth in the Orthodox community know that they are not alone. As a person who grew up closeted and Orthodox, I didn’t know this.
“We have a crisis line where anyone can talk or text at any time to speak to a social worker. We run support groups and we also run trainings for schools and camps and mental health professionals. We also have the option for one-one-one sessions with a social worker throughout the week.
“The first thing is that this community is so at risk,” Ms. Fried continued. “Seventy percent of our participants have considered suicide. That’s an astronomical number, even compared to other LGBTQ groups. It’s a group that struggles with depression, isolation, and self-harm, and they are suffering in silence. They’re not out to most people. Nobody knows they’re suffering.”
In December, JQY hosted a concert at Manhattan’s Congregation Rodef Shalom that drew 200 people. It featured musician Lenny Solomon, who has performed for decades for NCSY conventions and other Orthodox groups; his series of “Shlock Rock” albums of Orthodox-themed parodies of popular music have been a staple of modern Orthodox CD collections for a generation. Although he lives in Israel now, his annual concert tour of North America is a major event in some Orthodox circles.
“It was a big deal that Lenny Solomon came to JQY,” Ms. Fried said. “He definitely got a lot of flack. I told him beforehand that people are likely to give him a hard time. He said, ‘Okay, I’m ready. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to come.’
“He said it was much more difficult than he imagined it would be, but he stands strong that this was the right thing to do. He said that Shlock Rock’s mission is to play for all Jews. He said that he really felt he could feel the simcha and joy in the room, and that it was the best concert of the tour.
While the Orthodox community “has come a long way, there is still a long way to go,” Ms. Fried said. “It is acknowledging that there are LGBTQ people in our community and that we exist, and that conversion therapy is harmful and is not an option. It used to be that this was a topic that was never spoken about; now this is a conversation that takes place at people’s Shabbos tables.
“But they’re still talking about it like it’s other people. So many times there is someone sitting at the table or in the classroom or in the bunk who is sitting in silence during this conversation because they don’t feel they have a place there.”
She said she sees this in the difficulty people have in entering the drop-in center.
“A lot of time people will say, ‘I walked around the block four times before I mustered up the courage to come inside.’ Or, ‘I went home and came back the next week.’
“People are so afraid of who they are going to see there. They don’t want to out themselves to anybody. I started at JQY as a participant. I know how scary it can be.”
That same reluctance manifests in the online meetings.
“People will sign up to come to the drop-in center virtually and won’t show up. They’ll do that five weeks in a row. We’ll reach out and say, ‘We noticed you signed up and didn’t come.’”
When people come to the drop-in center for the first time — whether in person or virtually —a social worker meets with them and gets their basic information. For the virtual sessions, they are asked to keep their cameras on and use their real names during this intake meeting. Afterward, in the main Zoom room, they can turn the camera off and use a pseudonym.
“There are different ways of coming out,” Ms. Fried said. “People will turn their cameras on when they feel comfortable.