TEL AVIV (JTA) — When Gidi Grunberg was 16, he fell in love with a boy at his Orthodox high school near Tel Aviv.
Consumed by guilt, he transferred to a high school that was more strictly religious, hopeful that with more rigorous Torah study his attraction to men would pass.
A product of Orthodox institutions, Grunberg eventually came to accept his homosexuality during his years of mandatory service in the Israeli army. But in his private life, he found himself faced with a choice between his sexual identity and his religious community.
"I prefer to be true to myself, and to accept myself, than being part of the community and living in a lie," Grunberg told JTA. "I lost everything. I lost my friends from the yeshiva. I lost the youth movement. There was a lot of things at stake."
With non-Orthodox religious options still a rarity in Israel, young gays and lesbians like Grunberg who grow up in traditional, highly insular surroundings typically have found that they must choose between their Orthodoxy and their sexual orientation.
But that is starting to change with a number of recent initiatives that are creating a community for religious gays while gradually opening up a space in the Orthodox community to address what remains a highly polarizing issue.
Israel’s paucity of alternatives to Orthodoxy, a fact liberal Jews frequently decry, is prompting religious gays to push for greater openness within the Orthodox world rather than decamp for more liberal options, as they often do in the Diaspora.
As a result, the issue of homosexuality is arguably one of the few areas in which Israeli Orthodox leaders are ahead of their counterparts in the United States, where a recent public meeting at Yeshiva University on homosexuality was pegged as a watershed event.
While no member of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate has given religious sanction to a gay lifestyle, several leading figures have met with religious gays and offered words of encouragement and support.
"We are a fact here," said Ilan (not his real name), who recently returned to Israel after several years abroad and marvels at the sea change in attitudes. "We’re found. We don’t have to take off our kipah before we go into a bar. It’s OK to be gay and Orthodox here."
Last October, the Israel Gay Youth Center launched three support groups for religious youth that combined are serving about 50 young people each month.
Havruta, an association of Orthodox gay men, has succeeded in opening discussions with several liberal-minded Orthodox rabbis. A similar organization, Bat Kol, serves religious lesbians. Another group, Shoval, helps teach tolerance in the Orthodox community.
A gay-friendly Yom Kippur service was held last September in a hall at Tel Aviv’s Gay Center. Organizers expected 60 people, but the service attracted 250 on Yom Kippur eve and an even larger crowd for the holiday’s conclusion the following night — so large that people were spilling out the door.
"The majority of us cried," Grunberg said. "It was really, really exciting. And it gave us the belief or hope that things will change."
The service was initiated and led by several religious gays, including Zehorit Sorek, a 34-year-old lesbian who effectively was kicked out of her Orthodox Tel Aviv synagogue last summer after she sought to mark her marriage to another woman with a celebratory kiddush.
Raised in an Orthodox family, Sorek says she lacked the vocabulary to understand signs of her sexual orientation that, in retrospect, were obvious. Sorek married and had two children before coming out as a lesbian at age 29.
Sorek and others say it’s important for them to have a community that understands both their sexual orientation and their religiousness – something the secular gay community often lacks.
"I didn’t have the same language with the regular lesbian community,” Sorek says, adding that her wife Limor tells her " ‘You speak biblical Hebrew, and they speak regular Hebrew.’ "
Following the shooting last August at a gay community center in Tel Aviv that left two dead, the community not only has persevered but thrived.
Havruta, founded in 2007 by a half-dozen alumni of Israel’s hesder yeshivot, which combine army service with Torah study, now boasts a mailing list of 400. The group has organized several successful discussions with leaders of the country’s national religious institutions.
At one such event, Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, who heads a hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, said that religious gays cannot live a lie. Sherlow said gays should not marry, but neither should they remain closeted, according to Benny Elbaz, one of Havruta’s founders.
"That’s big," Ilan said of the Sherlow meeting. "That never happened before."
But despite the advancements, religious gays say the road ahead is long and progress is halting. As with observant communities the world over, Israel’s Orthodox world is inherently conservative, and homophobia remains prevalent.
But the growth of religious gay organizations nonetheless has sparked a degree of hope among religious gays that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
"I think that that’s the wonderful thing that’s going on in the last four years: There are so many options," Grunberg said. "If I had someone to talk to and someone to express myself to or someone to help me, I think I would have come out of the closet years ago and not at 21."