The request for rainbow-frosted cupcakes came from a repeat customer — Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, a Conservative synagogue that had relied on the West Orange Bake Shop to make kosher desserts for its special events. But this year, bakery co-owner Yitzy Mittel decided to decline the order. He couldn’t bring himself to produce the Pride-themed goods.
Mr. Mittel, who is Orthodox, had made a similar cake for an order the year before. But the experience unnerved him, he said, because his understanding of Jewish law holds that LGBTQ symbols are “antithetical to what we stand for.”
The symbols are “a celebration of something which is against Torah,” he said. “I didn’t want to be making that cake.”
After consulting with both a rabbi and an attorney, Mr. Mittel canceled the orders, sending B’nai Israel elsewhere to find kosher Pride treats.
Since rejecting the shul, Mr. Mittel has gotten validation from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last week that a Colorado web designer had the right to refuse to build a wedding site for a same-sex couple. The ruling followed a 2018 decision in which the court found that a Colorado baker had the right, on religious grounds, to turn away a gay couple who wanted a wedding cake. In both cases, although different legal reasoning came into play, the court’s conservative majority prevailed.
The local Jewish community has been divided on the issue. Many rabbis have accused the baker of bigotry, and some customers are boycotting his shop. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest privately said it would stop buying from Mittel before walking back its position in a statement by its CEO. And Eshel, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families, held an all-day training session for allies in West Orange on Sunday.
“The reason why Eshel exists is because these sorts of incidents, when they happen to someone over and over again, make people feel unwanted and unwelcome in their communities,” Miryam Kabakov, Eshel’s executive director, said. “This is just one small example, but the effect overall is to drive people away from Orthodoxy who are trying to live frum” — observant — “lives, leaving them feeling like there is no place for them.”
But Eshel is driven by the understanding that there absolutely is a place for them. That’s why the evening’s theme was “It’s Not About the Bakery: How to Be an Ally to the LGBTQ+ Community.” Its goal is unity, not enmity.
“The question of boycotting the bakery has led to a split in the community,” Ms. Kabakov said on Monday, the day after the training. “Eshel’s purpose is to keep communities and families together.
“Instead of focusing on the question of whether the baker did the right thing, a couple of Orthodox allies reached out asking Eshel to conduct a training for them in how to be better allies to LGBTQ+ Orthodox people,” Ms. Kabakov continued. “Eshel’s goal is to create places where community members understand each other enough to treat each other with the utmost respect and create an environment that feels safe for LGBTQ+ people. Only allies can do this when leaders and others lag behind.
“Rainbows and flags are not about sex — they are about the opposite of shame. No one does well when they feel shame.
“We had 35 allies gathered in a living room in West Orange grappling with some difficult situations they have found themselves in — in the shuls and schools they are in,” she said. “They learned skills in how to respond to homophobic comments, uncomfortable social situations, and how to protect their children’s privacy while confronting hateful speech.
“We want people to show up in more meaningful, long lasting, and impactful ways. We want to give people tools beyond a boycott.”
The bakery incident comes at a time of widespread advocacy by political conservatives against LGBTQ inclusion and rights. Pride events across the country have faced pushback this year.
Some of this has taken place in Jewish communities. In Highland Park, 30 miles from West Orange, Orthodox rabbis successfully petitioned the mayor to remove four Pride flags that were flying in front of a synagogue on a main street. The mayor later apologized and put the flags back up.
But what happened in West Orange offers a particularly potent example of how culture wars can play out in — and divide — Jewish communities, partly because of the symbolism of a kosher bakery citing what it says are Jewish values to justify declining the order of a local synagogue.
“While I know this has happened in other parts of the country, I hadn’t expected it here,” Dan Cohen, senior rabbi of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, wrote on Facebook. “Then I learned that the bakery in question is a kosher bakery, and as a result, the bias was coming from within our Jewish community.”
B’nai Israel placed its order, which reportedly specified that the treats be decorated with rainbows, on June 6. A staff member also reportedly made a separate order the same day for rainbow cupcakes for the synagogue’s youth group. Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald, the synagogue’s director of congregational learning, planned the meeting. Neither Rabbi Schwartzwald nor the synagogue’s youth group advisor returned requests for comment.
The bakery initially accepted both orders, only to cancel them later without providing an explanation. It did, however, agree to process the synagogue’s order for cookies without rainbow decorations. (Mr. Mittel said that he gave the synagogue a discount for those cookies.) Mr. Mittel added that he had canceled both orders and notified his would-be customers within 24 hours. He contends that some members of the community are impugning his reputation by claiming that he had failed to provide enough notice to the synagogues.
But when Rabbi Schwarzwald went to the bakery to request an explanation about why the Pride order was canceled, Mr. Mittel refused to talk to her. He said he had chosen not to engage because the rabbi had come during peak hours and “wanted to create a scene.”
To Rabbi Schwarzwald, the message was clear. “I was comfortable drawing conclusions that meant that I was going to take my purchasing elsewhere,” she told the New Jersey Jewish News last week. “It seems clear that the bakery has made the decision that Pride is not something they want to support. It’s their choice, it’s their legal right, and I can choose to spend my dollars wherever I want.” She was able to buy desserts at another kosher bakery in West Orange.
The issue gained momentum as other rabbis in the area learned what happened and commented publicly.
“When we refuse basic Jewish services to members of our community who are articulating who they are, we are excluding and dividing,” Rabbi Robert Tobin of the Conservative B’nai Shalom in West Orange wrote in a blog post on June 22. He highlighted the Conservative movement’s recent strides toward LGBTQ inclusion, and an interpretation of the Torah that holds “humans are created in the image of God with a variety of potential gender identities and with the possibility of gender fluidity.” Rabbi Tobin also reportedly addressed the incident in a sermon, according to a report published in the New Jersey Jewish News.
David Vaisberg, senior rabbi at the independent Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, tweeted that he was “so disappointed” in the bakery.
“They make great baked goods but have shown themselves to be against the LGBTQ+ in canceling orders of rainbow baked goods in Pride month,” Rabbi Vaisberg wrote, adding that he was letting the bakery know why they had lost his business and advised followers to “please do the same.”
In his Facebook post, Rabbi Cohen addressed the argument that an observant Jew can cite Torah as the basis for their objection to serving a Pride-themed cake. “If I’m being honest, we all pick and choose which sacred texts we embrace and which we ignore,” he wrote. “If by contrast, you CHOOSE to focus on the Biblical texts that exclude people, that denigrate others or are hurtful and judgmental, you aren’t religious. You’re simply a bigot.”
Parts of the Orthodox community have become open to LGBTQ inclusion in recent years. Organizations including Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth advocate for people who identify as LGBTQ and their families in Orthodox spaces, and some prominent Orthodox figures have come out as gay in recent years.
But others in the community remain opposed to LGBTQ inclusion, citing passages in the Torah specifically forbidding gay sex. The flagship modern Orthodox campus, Yeshiva University, has cited its status as a religious institution in an ongoing legal battle over its refusal to recognize an LGBTQ student group. The recent death by suicide of a gay YU graduate, his friends said, highlights the pain of being Orthodox and gay.
Mr. Mittel says his business is being unfairly targeted by people who disagree with his personal religious choice, which he says is on par with declining to fulfill a church’s order for cakes decorated with crosses — something he says he has done in the past.
“There’s other bakeries out there that will do it,” he said about making Pride-themed kosher baked goods. “Why should I?”
He also insists that he is not homophobic. “If somebody came in and told me they want to pay me three times the price to write on a cake, ‘I hate gay people,’ I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Symbols carry a lot of weight.”
Tensions reached a new high after a local online news site, TAPintoWestOrange, published a leaked internal memo from Dov Ben-Shimon, the CEO of the local Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. In the memo, Mr. Ben-Shimon advised staff not to buy baked goods from Mittel’s shop, citing “the Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim, that each one of us is created in the Divine Image and deserves to be treated as such.”
“While it is their right to refuse service, it is also our prerogative not to support their establishment,” Mr. Ben-Shimon wrote.
The memo upset some local Jews who felt it was inappropriate for the federation, which serves Jews of all denominations, to make a judgment against a Jewish-owned kosher business whose owner believed he was following Jewish law.
Later, Mr. Ben-Shimon characterized the memo as an internal purchasing directive and said it did not reflect the federation’s current position.
“That internal memo did not reflect an appropriate, thoughtful and responsible communal dialogue,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said. “While there is significant pain in the community as a result of actions that we have seen, we believe that Federation’s decision-making process should be filled with love and sensitivity, and we will take steps to ensure that this will be reflected in our actions in the future.”
Describing Mittel as “a decent, good, kind, thoughtful and honorable person who has been placed in a difficult situation,” Mr. Ben-Shimon added that the local Jewish community “is blessed to have a wide array of opinions, ideologies and beliefs” and said he sees the federation’s role as working “to continue to strive for tolerant, respectful dialogue and discourse.”
In a follow-up correspondence from the federation, published by the New Jersey Jewish News, Mr. Ben-Shimon wrote, “We sincerely regret that our actions have caused divisiveness in our community as our aim is to bring the variety and richness of our many constituents together.”
Mr. Mittel said that he has spoken to Mr. Ben-Shimon since the story was published, and that the two had a positive conversation. Saying that his bakery has been visited by “obnoxious” people since news of the cancellation came out, he said it was he — not members of the LGBTQ community — who had become a victim of intolerance.
“I don’t think it’s good for the Jewish community to be adversarial to each other,” Mr. Mittel said. “There’s no need for that. We have enough people disliking us without us causing strife to each other.”
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Joanne Palmer contributed to this report