Behind the Headlines; Jewish Groups Join Thousands in Gay Rights March in New York
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Behind the Headlines; Jewish Groups Join Thousands in Gay Rights March in New York

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Jews from as far away as Israel and as close as New York’s Greenwich Village were among the tens of thousands participating in this week’s Stonewall 25, the International March on the United Nations to Affirm the Human Rights of Lesbian and Gay People.

Alongside gay Buddhists, Mormons, Quakers and witches, the Jewish groups — representing synagogues, seminaries and communal organizations — were as passionate about their Judaism as about the need for gay rights.

Since Sunday’s march took place on a Jewish fast day commemorating the Roman destruction of ancient Jerusalem, members of some Jewish groups took a break from the day’s festivities to say the appropriate prayers.

For Saul Mizrahi, a founding member of the gay and lesbian Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Greenwich Village, the moment illustrated the balancing act of being both proudly Jewish and openly gay.

“How do you unravel two identities?” It’s like a pretzel. Do I dance? Do I mourn? Do I eat?” he asked.

The June 26 march marked the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, when a police raid on the Stonewall Inn — a gay bar in Greenwich Village — was met with unprecedented resistance and a three-day uprising for gay rights.

The event is considered to have been the launching pad for the gay rights movement.

For many of the Jews marching behind blue and white banners, the rebellion was also the springboard for religious and cultural reconciliation.

“Now I feel proud to be able to walk on the subway with a gay Jewish button and an earring,” said Rick Landman, who had come to the march from Rochester, N.Y. “I wasn’t able to do that 25 years ago.”


Members of gay and lesbian synagogues throughout the country said that solidifying their Jewish roots gave them the social and spiritual base from which to define themselves.

Others said that their association with synagogues helped them to feel comfortable coming out with their homosexuality.

“There’s no point in praying to God if you have to lie about who you are,” said Ron, a public school teacher who asked that his last name not be used. “Fortunately, here all the parts of myself can be synthesized.”

Despite these advances, many gay Jews find the two worlds irreconcilable and choose to dissociate themselves from religious life.

Others determined to grapple with both identities say mainstream religious life, and the laws and customs forbidding homosexual relations, are an ongoing source of conflict and debate.

“I am outraged by people who use Jewish laws and traditions as a whip to beat 10 percent of our people,” said a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“We are their teachers, their counselors, their youth leaders and — yes — their rabbis,” said this student, who declined to be named.

While the Reform movement ordains openly homosexual rabbis, the Conservative movement– despite considerable discussion in recent years– does not.

Nonetheless, a group affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary, which trains Conservative rabbis, had come to march under their own banner,

Wearing a white knitted yarmulke, Michael Orlow, who graduated JTS with a master’s degree in philosophy, said the group was lobbying to keep gay rights on the Conservative agenda.

But it is the Orthodox movement that maintains the staunchest opposition to homosexuality. This opposition often forces Orthodox gay men and lesbians to leave the movement, permanently repress their homosexuality or go deep underground.

After an arranged marriage failed and a series of Orthodox Jewish therapists were unable to “cure” him of his homosexuality, a man–who would not give his name for fear of reprisals — sought help in a secret support group for gay Orthodox Jews,


The 20ish man, who was raised in an Orthodox home, said his Holocaust-survivor parents called him a Nazi after he told them he was gay.

The despairing parents were advised by several Orthodox groups to cut him off and say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Dedicated to his religious beliefs, he moved out of his parents’ house but did not give up on religious life. “I refuse to leave Judaism,” said the bearded man, wearing traditional tzitzit and yarmulke. “I’ve seen so many others that have.”

A middie-aged couple from New Jersey, members of Mishpacha — a Jewish support group for relatives of gays and lesbians — said they have struggled to reconcile their Jewishness with their son’s homosexuality.

But they said that they — and many parents in similar situations — have had a difficult time.

“There’s a kind of disjunction to how they love their children and love their religion and are finding a kind of split. It’s distressing,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “I would have preferred he married a girl,” her husband said.

Landman, the Rochester resident, founded the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Children of Holocaust Survivors and is an original member of the radical Gay Liberation Front, which grew out of the Stonewall rebellion.

He said there are deep links between growing up with survivors and facing the AIDS crisis. “When my parents were younger, I would ask, ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ ” Landman recalled. “They would answer, ‘Don’t ask, they’re probably dead.’

“It’s the same answer today,” said Landman. When people ask about an original member of the Gay Liberation Front, the response is, “he’s probably dead.”

The spector of AIDS loomed over the march.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah missed the festivities because she was officiating at the funeral of a congregant, a 36-year-old doctor who had died of AIDS.

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