Coming Out Kosher?

Jun 13, 2014 at 9:36 AM ET

When the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade started rolling through the city’s streets on Friday, somewhere between the huge trucks carrying glimmering bodies and revelers in colorful outfits was a minibus surrounded by a group of religious orthodox Jews, wearing their kippahs and dancing to the beat of Hassidic music. Having found a way to combine the Jewish faith with homosexuality, the group says they now have a real reason to join the party.

“Ten years ago, this would be unthinkable, so many religious gays openly taking part in the parade,” says Daniel Jonas. “But even the religious community in Israel is changing, and what was once a taboo is now discussed. Rabbis may call it a ‘problem,’ but at least it means they acknowledge it’s out there—and in growing numbers.” Jonas, in his mid-30s, is one of the leaders of Havruta, a group dedicated to gays from religious families, many of whom still observe the Jewish laws.

Dror D., a 27-year-old now living in Tel Aviv, is one of them. Growing up in a religious family in Afula in northern Israel, Dror tried for most of his life to hide his attraction to men. He kept a newspaper cut-out of an Israeli celebrity coming out of the closet, but that was the only sign he allowed himself to give, so nobody knew. After his national service in the army, he found himself struggling so much with his feelings that he decided to try so-called “conversion therapy,” gathering the money from friends. The teacher instructed him to masturbate thinking about women and “kick out” thoughts about men. “I regret any moment I stayed there,” he says, “but I was so low…you look for anything at that stage.”

After joining a Saturday meeting of the Proud Religious Community, the LGBT umbrella organization for orthodox Jews, he started a process that led to him coming out, and to happiness. During that process, he broke the news to his aunt, who told his mother, with whom he then didn’t speak for seven years, during which time she was gravely ill. They have since reunited, catching up on all that has happened. As part of a graphic design project for university, he prepared a little message on a poster for her that says, “I am gay—but I am still religious.”

It’s not an easy task. Religious gays are repeatedly confronted with passages of the Bible strictly forbidding intercourse between men. According to Jonas, this leads some of the more observant gays in their community to avoid anal sex altogether. Others interpret the biblical directives as outdated—meant to make sure babies are born. Israeli gays are increasingly taking care of that with the help of surrogacy. And some, he says, just hope God will focus on the many mitzvahs (commandments) they follow, and not the single one they don’t.

Still, the community has to navigate through uncharted Halachic territory. This happens more and more in online forums and websites, where a few of the more liberal rabbis are willing to answer questions about how to apply God’s rules to gays. One such question posted this week on a website called Kamoha (Like You) touches on the subject of training in a mixed-gender gym. A gay religious Jew asks if it is kosher for him to train there, as it’s the only gym in his area. “Since I am not attracted to girls, is it still forbidden?” The rabbis offer conflicting views. While one writes that it is still not allowed, “because of the immodesty of the place,” another says it is fine as long as “you take off your glasses (if you have any), go to a side corner and focus on training.”

Jonas says the strengthening of their community happens in parallel to the overall loss of authority by rabbis in Israel. This is especially true after one of the most senior rabbis in the country—who, like his peers, called homosexuality a sin, an abomination and plague that has to be stopped—was convicted last year of sexually assaulting one his young male pupils.

Jonas shares his experience as someone who stayed Jewish and in contact with his extended religious family, and identifies some green shoots of tolerance for gays. “Having children played a major role in creating that tolerance,” he says. “Because we always used to hear, ‘What you are doing is unnatural. God intended women and men to be together, because that’s the only way they can reproduce.’ Well, now when so many straight couples are using IVF, we can say, ‘See, it’s possible.’”

But he is aware that his case is rare. Conversion therapies are booming in Israel, the 12-step system against addictions is gaining ground, and there are whole forums dedicated to ways to “avoid temptations”—gay impulses that are often called “reversed tendencies,” still shown in a very negative light by educators and rabbis.

From his own personal experience, Dror D. adopted the understanding that the community was key to the process. He recalls a certain event, where he saw gay Jews with their babies, as a changing point for him. He now leads a group of men ages 18 to 23 from religious families in activities and discussions about the meaning of being gay and Jewish. Over the last year, he says, the number in the group grew from 11 to 40. “I hope to see many of them out there tomorrow,” he says. “God bless.”

Gilad Shiloach contributed deep web reporting to this article.