NEW YORK (JTA) — It was nearly midnight Saturday, and Jayson Littman was milling about an upscale Manhattan nightclub greeting friends with a wide smile and often a big hug. Standing alongside a “shot boy” — clad only in underwear, a kippah and Star of David necklace — he offered partygoers shots of Manischewitz in plastic cups.
Littman was hosting some 400 gay Jewish men who filled the top floor of the Hudson Terrace for “High Homodays,” his annual gay Jewish party held between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Israeli EDM music sounded from the DJ booth along with the occasional Britney Spears and Taylor Swift song — plus some shofar blasts in the mix for good measure. Some people were dancing, others just mingling.
“I want people to go to the occasional Jewish event outside Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services,” Littman told JTA. “And a lot of people are focused on their relationship to Judaism this time of year.”
With a packed social schedule, Littman may be the unofficial mayor of New York City’s Jewish gay scene. In addition to throwing parties, he organizes group trips and on more than one occasion has played matchmaker for nice Jewish boys.
But growing into this prominent role was a bit of a transition. Littman, 38, grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in an environment he calls “black hat Orthodox.” He spent a large part of his 20s trying to repress his sexuality, going as far as attending conversion therapy.
Once he came to terms with being a gay man, however, Littman — who keeps kosher and now considers himself a “non-practicing Orthodox Jew” — realized he felt somewhat alienated from the sense of belonging he had growing up.
“I loved being a part of a community that had structure, familiarity and the feeling of being part of something,” he said.
In 2007, he invited a bunch of Jewish friends to a gay bar in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan on Christmas Eve. He told a couple dozen people, expecting 40 guests at most. Word spread quickly through Facebook, though, and more than 200 showed up.
And voila — the community he felt he was missing was suddenly born.
“There are a lot of gay groups around the city that are about spirituality and how to reconcile the gay and Jewish worlds,” he said. “Having a place where I can express being gay in a Jewish environment is great. But I wanted a place where I could feel comfortable being Jewish in the gay world.”
Littman launched Hebro — and amalgam of “Hebrew” and “brother” — in 2008, a “social start-up” for gay Jews that produces parties and organizes travel tours. He has since left his career in finance to run Hebro full-time.
Today, the Hebro parties, which are funded through door admission of typically $15 to $25, draw hundreds of guests. The largest — Jewbilee, on Christmas Eve, described by Littman as the “gay version of the Matzo Ball” — attracts up to 1,300 people.
While the vast majority of Hebro’s partygoers have at least one Jewish parent, Littman said, a small minority are not Jewish at all. “Bagel chasers,” he jokingly calls them.
Some are more religious, too; on Saturday, a smattering of kippahs were spotted in the crowd. This year’s High Homodays party had a larger Israeli crowd than usual, Littman said. (Coincidentally, this reporter found herself in a shared taxi with an Israeli new to New York on his way to the party.)
Part of the proceeds from the event benefited Jerusalem’s LGBT center, Jerusalem Open House, which was greatly affected by the recent pride parade stabbing in Israel. In fact, a survivor of the attack was at the party.
A good number of Hebro regulars are not observant but are looking to marry Jewish men. Mike, who asked that we use his first name only, was looking exclusively for a Jewish partner when he met Jeff, his now fiance, at a June 2012 Hebro Pride weekend party. The two will be married in February.
“It’s purely social and purely fun,” Mike said of Hebro events. “It’s not political, and it’s not religious.” And since the events ask so little commitment of attendees, they tend to attract a lot of people, he added.
Beyond parties, Hebro also operates as a travel agency. Littman, who has led four LGBTQ Birthright Israel trips, has also guided two Hebro trips to Tel Aviv for those older than the 26-year-old Birthright cutoff.
In April, he ran a weekend trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, dubbed “Shvitz!” with about 100 attendees, and featuring a Friday-night dinner on the beach and Saturday beach party.
“A lot of people came from states that don’t have gay Jewish life,” he said.
Hebro events have been exclusively for gay men, but Littman said he is planning on helping put together a holiday party for gay women, too.
In the gay Jewish world, Littman is the kind of person that author Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a connector. Littman is also helping other gay Jews from around the world — Toronto, Mexico and London, specifically — set up similar events.
He’s a confidante, too.
“I’m often approached by gay Jewish men in the same situation I was in,” Littman said. “But what’s interesting is that I was already in my 20s when I was dealing with this. A lot of them are teenagers who come from Orthodox backgrounds.”
He credits the trend toward younger sexual-identity acceptance in part to the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, as well as the observant Jewish community’s increasing willingness to address these issues.
“They’re finally having the conversation that they were not having years ago,” he said. “Saying that, there are still a lot of Orthodox Jews who are struggling.”
Littman’s goal: “For others to feel that sense of Jewish community and self-acceptance of being gay and Jewish, and allowing ourselves to be authentic with who we are — which, in turn, will better our familial and Jewish identity, no matter how that’s expressed.”
But he also can’t escape his desire to be a matchmaker.
“I want to help gay Jews meet other gay Jews and get married and have kids,” he said. “That makes me very happy.”
It’s a feeling he shares with a perhaps unexpected group of Hebro clients: moms of gay Jews. While Littman said he has very occasionally had mothers ask him to remove online photos of their sons for fear of “outing them,” more often he sees moms paying for their sons’ tickets to the parties.
“I had one mom check in with me afterwards to make sure he [her son] actually went,” Littman said. “She wanted to know if he tried to meet a nice Jewish boy.”