Monday, January 7, 2013

Out In Lubavitch

Growing up and coming out in the Chabad Lubavitch community of Crown Heights

The atmosphere buzzed with energy and talk about who we are as Chassidim and disciples of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe at a farbrengen (gathering) for a former classmate's birthday a few months ago. While familiar with these affairs, I hadn’t been to one in quite awhile. As at any good farbrengen and after a few shots, I started talking about growing up Chabad and gay. Some did not deign to acknowledge the topic at all; others approached it with anxiety and trepidation. It is simply not normal to discuss such things at these get togethers but, hey, I didn’t become an activist by remaining silent. After we started peacefully discussing different aspects of homosexuality in the Jewish community, I tried to make an important point. I observed to an individual, who had expressed homophobic leanings and tried to minimize the issues that LGBTQ people face within more orthodox communities, that, while I may very well be the only out gay person sitting at this table of 20, it is very unlikely that I am the only gay person there. He tried to refute me claiming that he knew for a fact that I was the only gay person there — the all too common, blanket, unfounded denial that feeds alienation and isolation of queer people within the Chassidic community.

But, my statement was assured; we are here, many still struggling in silence and fear, and we are not alone.

Many people from frum/Orthodox communities have contacted me seeking guidance and advice. Like me at one time, they’ve felt alone and had never spoke to an out gay person. They've thought it might just be a phase that would hopefully go away if only they met the “right girl”. Trying my best to be objective and honest, I answer their questions about what it is like living as I do with the “whole world” knowing and how people have reacted towards my being openly gay.

It hasn’t always been a picnic. Coming out especially in Chassidic communities can be detrimental to one’s self, family and overall sanity if not prepared. Sometimes I feel as if I were pushed out. I had confided in a friend while at yeshiva in Brunoy, France, at the age of 16 (yes, I really was a Brunoy boy). Soon the entire school of more than 400 found out about me. Publicly humiliated by some and ignored by most an ocean away from home, I was seen as a diseased person who did not belong. During those 8 trying months at yeshiva, some denial about the gossip and hatred helped me to survive, not to mention the support of the very few who I would dare say were real Chassidim those who, despite the fact that they had never heard of such a thing in their lives, remained my friends and were supportive of me, genuine, accepting and inviting unconditionally.

Still I felt isolated and was unaccepting of myself until, paradoxically, I sought out reparative ‘therapy’, hoping to become straight in order to be accepted by the only community I had ever known. I had never interacted with anyone who wasn’t a fellow Lubavitcher until I was 18. Trying everything I could to assure my place in my family and community, I inadvertently ventured into the outside world, met others who were struggling and developed a somewhat different perspective. I learned there were other kinds of Chassidim and Jewish people out there ones like me. I found myself exploring a new world. Yet, I did not fully accept who I am until I was 20. Some skeptics and critics try to convince me that by living my life honestly, I’m hurting my family and my soul. Until I was 20, I had wrenched, wrung and racked my soul, praying, pleading, begging for some miracle to turn me straight during weekly trips to the Ohel (the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place). The best thing that ever happened to my soul was finding peace when I stopped fighting against, not a “desire” or “inclination” as some would describe it, but an inalienable part of me.

Even though I was able to accept myself, experience made me pessimistic about my community. Fortunately though, living in Crown Heights has gotten easier and easier by the day. Today 6 years after I was outed, I've been pleasantly surprised by people on the street, patting on the back and letting me know that they’re supportive of me and my journey. And, once dismissive, long time family friends have told me on many occasions, “Chaim, I love you and accept you as you are.” A very Lubavitch attitude indeed. This is the message Chabad tries to spread and instill around the world that every single Jewish soul is worthy, a ray of light with something to offer. Still, I never thought I would experience this attitude usually reserved for those who drive to shul on Shabbos and but nonetheless try to return to Orthodoxy at Chabad houses around the world — certainly, not among our very own friends, family and community in Crown Heights, in “the Rebbe’s schunah” (neighborhood).

In Crown Heights, I have occasionally had the great displeasure of bumping into people like Molly Resnick, whom many consider one of the greatest, most public examples of intolerance and bigotry within the Lubavitch movement today. Nonetheless, the voices of the Molly Resnicks are being drowned out by the people, including my own family, who have grown, not just to tolerate me, but to embrace me fully for who I am.

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credit for design, Maya Avisar; original picture, wikimedia
“Once a Chassid, always a Chassid” is often heard at the Chabad schools, camps and farbrengens. Still, I do not consider myself as religious as I once was. However, when I started dating someone a year and a half ago, I did take some pride in having grown up Orthodox and being able to tell him about it. He had grown up in a rural area with no Jewish upbringing or identity, but, the more I told him, the more interested he became in Judaism. A year later, he bought his first pair of tefillin in a Crown Heights Judaica store as I stood with him eagerly, despite the negative experiences I had had. Some people have facetiously identified me as the Rebbe’s shliach (emissary) to the LGBTQ community no doubt others would argue.

Six years ago, I could have never imagined being gay Jewish voice nonetheless welcome at farbrengens. I didn’t think I’d be proud to walk the streets of Crown Heights even despite some intolerance. The negative voices are slowly dying out, and more positive and accepting voices are being heard louder and louder. Everyone should be able to live openly and honestly without pretense nor fear of losing family, friends and community. I truly hope and believe that there will come a day when anyone who is LGBTQ can be accepted as they are and know that they are not alone.

Afterword
I was delighted to be invited to write about growing up Chabad and gay for a blog devoted to issues relating to the Chassidic community, sometimes discussing more controversial issues, such as why Chabad often stirs great animosity. The blogger informed me that, while this piece “brought him to tears” and despite his sympathy for gay people, he cannot publish it because he doesn’t want to get too “political.” He explained “they believe it’s against halacha (religious law) and that’s what I mean by political,” elaborating “because gay sex is against halacha, it becomes a difficult issue to deal with.”

Of course, I did not mention any personal, private behavior considered a violation of halacha. I discussed having found after much difficulty some acceptance within the Chabad community. I discussed not hating, but loving our fellows, not oppressing the weak, and not standing idly by as another’s life is in danger. As have many others, I had struggled with suicide because I felt hated and unwanted and was oppressed; the danger is real. These are important issues that must be dealt with. I hoped to shed some light on the experience of growing up gay within Chabad and give a voice to those suffering in and because of silence. Many community leaders have ignored us and pretended that we don’t exist, and others equate our mere existence with unspeakable violation of halacha.

Ironically, the blogger had questioned whether the ending was too positive and “preachy” prior to deciding not to run it. Now, I cannot help but have some doubt myself. Still, I am proud, and I am hopeful. I am impressed with the blogger’s sympathy and consideration despite his religious convictions, but I fail to see how a story of finding some acceptance could controvert those convictions. His refusal does not actively affirm halacha, but passively disaffirms thousands of gay Jews.

And, my statement is assured; we are here, many still struggling in fear and silence. 

But, we are not alone.

19 comments:

  1. THIS is becoming redundant/repetitive. You could probably write a book and you should, maybe.

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  2. Not ever going to stay anonymous or be shy in my support for Chaim. I'm very disappointed that the other blogger didn't share this, but B"H that YOU did. I'm also so, so glad that you do have people who love and support you, especially in Chabad. It's been heartbreaking to even hear of one member of the Chabad community treating you with ostracism and a cold shoulder at best. Those individuals who haven't know the truth not just with The Rebbe's teachings and example, but with Torah, with what it REALLY means to be a Jew. I know it hasn't been easy at all. And the fact that so many people are so obsessed with what you do behind closed doors -- a very immodest obsession at that -- speaks volumes. People in the Chassidic world are viewed by outsiders as being incredibly homophobic, racist, sexist, etc., thanks to people like Molly Resnick. Thank G-d there are people who are showing that this is NOT true across the board. I beg the others who can shatter that stereotype to PLEASE speak up, act up, and not cave -- just saying that you love and accept someone just the way they are, just the way G-d MADE them, is revolutionary all in itself. It's also what being a real Jew is all about.

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  3. Chaya Mushka MilchteinJanuary 7, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    Chaim this article is beautiful. As a Chabad girl searching for the right place to call home you inspire me. Anyone that says you are the only one is so wrong. I have Chabad friends that are gay. I am queer. May the words that we right again and again finally hit home with parents and help them become more supportive of all people. So that if by chance there child does not fit into the round whole that child will still have a place to turn even if it is just at home. May one day we have the strength to always be "out" Thank you Chaim.

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  4. Chaim I fully support you!

    -Chaya Greenwald

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  5. <3 you, Chaim! Your bravery continues to amaze me! I'm so proud to be your friend!!

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  6. I support you , and an pro gay rights etc .
    But am not sure Chabad can or should accept gay people . It is not who Chabad is, Chabad has a commitment to Torah and Halacha . The rebbe wasn't liberal , he was following and teaching Torah as he saw it .
    I don't blame you for spreading tolerance but I don't blame them for resisting it . Which is why I am bothered when you ppl say a true chossid accepts gay ppl , I find that ridiculous and you imposing or at least pushing your western democratic values on a community , even though that is not who the community is .

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    1. Kindness, loving our fellows and not oppressing the weak are Western democratic values? If only! And, Crown Heights is an Eastern dictatorship? I must say I am baffled.

      I'm not sure that I've heard us people say a true Chassid *must* accept gay people, nor I am certain what that would even mean. We are here regardless, and we are not requesting approval -- and no one should have to ask for basic level of respect and human dignity. I am certain, however, that Mr Levin wrote that he was able to survive because of people he considers real Chassidim. He did not say that he considers them Chassidim because they accept gay people; indeed, he wrote that they hadn't heard of such a thing. Unlike most others, they remained kind to one boy who was suffering in a very difficult position. That is not ridiculous; it's beautiful.

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  7. Wish I could edit my last comment but it should say you guys as opposed to you ppl.

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  8. To the commenter above who writes that Chabad should not accept gay people because of our commitment to Torah and Halacha:

    You write that the Rebbe was not a liberal and that he followed Torah and Halacha. The Rebbe continues to do thos through hos shluchim and community, mainly in Crown Heights. What the Rebbe strived for was that we should learn to accept PEOPLE for who they are, not for what they do.

    Any upstanding Chossid will recognize that the sexual acts of gay men are against Halacha, however that is not to say that we can't love the neshamos of gay people. And if, in fact, we were truly dedicated to following the Rebbe's way we would find a way to accept the holy neshamos of oyr fellow yidden, no matter which way they swing.

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    1. Spoken like the Catholic Church.

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  9. Shalom Chaim

    I sent you a mail un your mail adress Could you please read it ?

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  10. I find it very interesting how a Lubavitcher hasid with homosexual inclinations and a gay man with Lubavitch inclinations can both be so similar... I wonder if you ever feel that you have crossed the divide and become that second type of "outsider"? Or if there's even a difference between the two?

    In any case, Chaim, I say Shkoyach. May you continue to fight the worthy fight for greater inclusivity. You've a beautiful neshama and I wish you every success.

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  11. Chaim, I'm not bothered by the fact that you're gay, but to call yourself orthodox/a chabad emissary to the lgbtq community when you walk around without a kippa-the basic fundamentals of make Jewish orthodoxy, now that confuses me and gives me mixed messages. So please, explain it to me. This is not coming from a place of judgement, I want to understand. Perhaps you can write a blog post on this.

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  12. It's gay pride that Chabad won't, never has, never should and never will accept. Homosexuality is against the Torah, and the Torah even calls it an abomination. As a Chabad chosid should I embrace a gay man? Yes. If he's wearing a rainbow and Jewish themed shirt though, he won't be allowed into my home. It's like wearing a shirt with a magen david on it that says proud Jewish bacon eater. It's disrespectful to Judaism and highly offensive and unbecoming of any classy individual.

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  13. You said on a video. That being a Homosexual (I don't like the kidnaping of the word gay therefore it usage)is not assur min ha Torah. It is only the homosexual act which is forbidden. Yet you have a boy friend. There are plenty of normal frum men who have sexual desires and will go through life without ever touching a forbidden woman. I am sorry H-Shem has given the burden of this Tivah. I am thankful he did not drop it on me. Also, Halachicly a truly homosexual man cannot be responsibable for his desire. But the Rabbi's say there is no such thing a a truly homosexual person. They are all bi. Hang in there. You say you have plenty of friends who accept you. You are not isolated.

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    1. I have a boyfriend? Since when? I'd love to know who he is.

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  14. Thanks for sharing……………………..
    "gay men

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  15. Good for you, Chaim! You can no more change who you are than you can change your eye color, so live your life with the gifts HaShem has given you and spread the light! True Jews will love your soul and not care about your bedroom. ;-)

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