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According to every man's pleasure (Esther 1:8)

February 2, 2017

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There used to be fear of talking about gender differences in religious institutions. Now they are organizing conferences about coming out even in the high yeshivas. Nadav Schwartz on pride and religion

# Nadav Schwartz

When one talks of the link between the religious community and the LGBTQ community, one should remember one thing: Things take time. And that's hard, especially when there are such fast-paced dramatic processes taking place all around us. Not a month goes by without a celebrity coming out, an amendment proposal, a court ruling in favor of the community, etc.

But as we get to the delicate and charged encounter between religion and LGBTQ, sometimes it feels like coming to a screeching halt. People from the religious camp sometimes say: Well, there's nothing we can do. Judaism can not change "according to every man's pleasure". If we add some of the statements by leaders and rabbis of the religious public, we might see a rather gloomy picture.

Indeed there are LGBTQ teens and even adults who cannot hold this conflict and decide to leave religion. Such a decision is not necessarily the result of adopting a secular ideology. These young people are often given the message by society that they must choose: self definition or religious faith. On the other hand, there are those who choose to remain in the closet, which becomes a kind of golden cage. They receive the approval of their surroundings that "they are OK", since they no longer threaten the public and the communal way of life.

These processes are complex, but I believe they only constitute one side of the story. Below the surface, the iceberg is actually moving, and we, the activists in the religious LGBTQ community, are finally able to identify these movements.

As a religious person, I believe I should not be judged by society, but by God alone. It is our sages of old who said: Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. When a media delegation visited at my house, one of them said that she does not judge us, she "feels sorry for us". I told her: We don't need your pity, we need acceptance and inclusion. I said that we live a good life among our own and that we have built ourselves a strong and supportive community. I concluded by emphasizing that the question the religious community must ask itself is whether it wishes to excommunicate people, or to learn how to include them. 

Religious Zionism has always prided itself on the ability to connect between worlds, and to be accessible even for those who do not necessarily define themselves as belonging to it. There are rabbis and educators who understand this, who know that before anything else, there is always the need for "the right hand to draw near". These days more and more religious educational institutions who request guidance on the topic of gender identity approach me. A couple of weeks ago I received such a request from a yeshiva which has been avoiding the pedagogical discussion of the topic for years. Until now, they refused to consider the possibility of a conversation with the staff, but now, especially after several yeshiva students came out, they decided to try to look deeper into what it is they can do.

These requests come from those who represent the religious society that does not remain in the ivory tower and does not look at things only in terms of black and white. They are able to see their male and female students, their sons and daughters, siblings, friends and neighbors, as human beings, not as strangers. Not as "those you hear about", but as whole human beings.

And they can no longer ignore them.

So they are slowly beginning to ask, How can we help?  Not to pity, to help! The Ministry of Education, including its religious departments, holds conferences for educational staff whose titles changed from "How will we cope with the phenomenon?" to "How we can help our students with gender and sexual differences".

In the past, when I came to a conference on gender differences in a religious institutions, I would often be implored not to talk about it "outside", God forbid that people knew. Now they hang up signs with big letters outside the building, and invite the general public. True, there is still much work to do, but there is a feeling of moving towards egalitarian inclusion and acceptance for all of us.

*  Nadav Schwartz is Coordinator of Community and Education at the The Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and an activist in the religious LGBTQ community.