Orthodox LGBTQ Youth Group Grows, Pushing At Bounds Of Acceptance


Four years ago, JQY, the fledgling advocacy group that assists Jewish queer youth primarily from Orthodox backgrounds, ran on a shoestring operating budget of $10,000.

“We didn’t have an office, we didn’t have employees, we didn’t get paid,” said Mordechai Levovitz, JQY’s founder and, up until this year, executive director. He and one or two others worked out of hotel lobbies, coffee shops and the occasional spare room at a JCC. They scratched together grant proposals, fundraising pitches and the blueprint of expansive programming that could one day offer a lifeline for teens struggling with their sexual orientations and gender identities. “We had to bang on doors to be heard,” said Levovitz, 40. “The battle then was for existence.”

Today, with an operating budget of $400,000, a newly minted executive director and nearly $300,000 in grant money from UJA-Federation of New York and partnering organizations to expand programming, the battle for “existence” is won, said Levovitz.

“The question is no longer: ‘Are we here?’ The question is: ‘How do we grow?’” said Levovitz.

As of this month, Rachael Fried, the organization’s former deputy director, is stepping into the role of executive director to further expand the group’s initiatives, including JQY-U, a project to organize groups of queer Jewish students on four New York campuses (Columbia/Barnard, NYU, Queens College and Yeshiva University); a new partnership with Israel Gay Youth (IGY) to engage alumni here and abroad; and a new “drop-in” center in Long Island’s Five Towns.

The question is no longer: ‘Are we here?’ The question is: ‘How do we grow?’

And, as much as JQY focuses on community building and social networking, the organization remains a much-needed support system for queer, frequently closeted teens who may face severe communal consequences for coming out. The Manhattan JQY Drop-In Center, which opened its doors in 2016, was intended to support teens and young adults most at risk with support groups, licensed mental health counselors and suicide intervention. As the number of drop-ins grows, JQY is planning to pilot similar centers in other Orthodox enclaves, including Teaneck, N.J., and upstate Monsey.

“Those who find JQY share the experience of thinking, at one point or another, that maybe they are the only one,” said Fried, 32, who grew up closeted in the Modern Orthodox community. (Fried, who was named a Jewish Week 36 Under 36 honoree in 2017, first publicly came out as gay in a Jewish Week article in 2015.) “We know what it feels like to worry that our families, schools or communities will kick us out if we tell them who we truly are. Learning that there is acceptance can itself be a surprise.”

According to a 2017 study, millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to identify as LGBTQ and to be allies of the community.

The organization’s expanded budget and reach speaks to a generation that increasingly sees sexual orientation and gender identity in a radically different way. According to a 2017 study, millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to identify as LGBTQ and to be allies of the community. The survey, conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of GLAAD, a media group that promotes acceptance of the LGBTQ community, found that 20 percent of the youngest respondent group (18-34) identify as LGBTQ, a notable increase from 12 percent of Generation Xers (ages 35-53) and 7 percent of the baby boomer generation (52-71). The survey also found that acceptance and understanding of the community has reached historic levels, particularly among young people.

The data is echoed by findings in the first-ever survey of Modern Orthodoxy, released in 2017. One third of respondents said their attitudes towards sexuality have changed, most citing an increased acceptance of gay Jews; 58 percent of respondents support synagogues accepting gay members, and 72 percent reported being “OK with it.” While support is highest among the liberal factions, significant support exists on the right as well (24 percent of the right-most cohort support gay Jews joining their synagogues).

Though the dial has moved significantly over the past few years towards acceptance of queer individuals in Orthodox spaces, JQY still handles difficult cases. In one recent case, Levovitz and Fried described helping find a new high school for a gay student who was asked to leave his yeshiva after he painted a rainbow flag during a school project and subsequently refused to apologize. In another recent case, the two described intervening after an effeminate yeshiva student was bullied intolerably at his out-of-town yeshiva. The young man, who was not out as gay at the time, caught some of the verbal offenses on camera and sought out JQY for help.

“We met with the rabbi who runs the yeshiva and explained the serious mental health risks at stake,” said Levovitz. The “black hat rabbi” was very receptive, said Levovitz, and said he would refer future cases to JQY for assistance. (JQY requested the school not be named to protect its privacy.)

Despite strong headwinds, JQY has managed to negotiate meetings with representatives from nearly every mainstream Orthodox and charedi institution, from the Orthodox Union to Agudath Israel of America, the largest ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, acknowledged that representatives from the group had met with JQY. In an email, he qualified that “an organization committed to all of the Torah’s ideals, like Agudath Israel, cannot in good conscience really ‘work together’ as a group with groups like JQY, other than to stand ready to meet with representatives of the group, and to listen to or counsel individuals the group might choose to refer to us.”

Orthodox Judaism has, in recent years, become more tolerant toward gay and transgender Jews, but the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis believe that the bible clearly prohibits homosexuality. In addition, the majority view gender as immutable.

JQY has not only received tepid receptions from right-wing groups. Earlier this month, organizers of the Washington, D.C., Dyke March banned rainbow flags with stars of David on them because they thought the flags looked too much like Israeli flags. Israeli and American flags had been banned from the march because of the countries’ “oppressive tendencies.” Although march organizers said stars of David were welcome at the event in other contexts, and ultimately let the flags into the march, the standoff left many members of the Orthodox queer community feeling unwelcome, yet again.

“Too many LGBTQ Jewish youth already face rejection from their families and their religious institutions; it is horrible that they now face rejection in our own queer community,” read a post on the group’s Facebook wall that received 90,000 views.

That, on top of a Modern Orthodox yeshiva’s recent decision not to ordain an openly gay student (and JQY alumnus), caused many members to feel bruised and deflated, said Levovitz.

“We’re rejected from the Jewish community for being queer, and we’re rejected from the queer community for being Jewish,” he said.

We’re rejected from the Jewish community for being queer, and we’re rejected from the queer community for being Jewish.

The sting of rejection has doubled his and Fried’s determination to grow JQY, he said. “We will use that same space to connect and radically belong.”

The recently launched Five Towns drop-in center, which hosts a monthly support group at a private location, is a test case in pushing for space to belong. Located in the heart of Long Island’s Orthodox community, the center’s opening met with significant resistance from certain local rabbis. While other rabbis told them quietly that they were supportive of the center’s launch, they forbade Levovitz and Fried from advertising publicly in the Five Towns.

“Increasingly, we’re hearing from Orthodox leadership that we’re needed,” said Fried. “But most are terrified to publicly endorse us in any way. Everything has to be hush-hush.”

For now, Fried and Levovitz have accepted the less-than-enthusiastic welcome. Despite not allowing the new drop-in center to advertise its launch in any community publications or forums (“Community leaders told us they were afraid of picketing,” said Levovitz), the center is open and welcoming teens once a month.

For Aviva, an active JQY alumnus and an intern for the Five Towns Drop-In Center, the group has been a godsend. (Aviva requested that her full name not be used in order to respect family concerns.)

“In high school, I really needed something,” said the Long Island native and rising sophomore at Queens College. “For a long time, I thought there was no community for me.”

As a high school student, she would take the train into Manhattan in the evenings to go to the JQY drop-in center, which she discovered by word of mouth.

“I would take the train late at night, and, as a teenager, that was scary,” she said. “It was the space I needed, but it was hard to access.”

She imagined opening a center where she could “just be myself” closer to home. Now, she’s helping run it.

“One of the hardest things for me to overcome was feeling like, if everyone knew I was gay, I would get kicked out of my shul, never be able to be Orthodox, lose my family and lose my friends,” said Aviva, who grew up in an Orthodox home.

For a long time, I thought there was no community for me.

“My queer identity meant cutting off my community, and killing my shot at having a normal life.”

Those fears have not actualized. Today, she is “out” to friends and family and describes herself as “very Orthodox, and very gay.”

“I realized maybe I can have the life I want,” she said. “I hope I can help other teens realize that, too.”