JQY (Jewish Queer Youth) is a nonprofit organization based in the United States that aims to support and empower LGBTQ+ Jewish youth with a special focus on teenagers and young adults from Orthodox, Hasidic, Sephardic and Mizrahi communities.
As the nonprofit says, “JQY fights to ensure the emotional and physical health and safety of this population. Our goal is for all these individuals to know: You are a valued member of the Jewish community and you are not alone.”
Almost a year ago, JQY launched The LGBT Logs delving into four topics, or chapters, with six individuals writing about their LGBTQ+ Jewish experiences.
Ezra, Daphna, Daniel, Noa, Gittel, and Judah share their stories of queer awakenings, navigating queer and Jewish identities, the intersectionality of queerness and mental health, and queer joy.
Niv has selected five entries from the series. You can read the rest here by signing up.
Chapter 1: Queer Origin Story
Although I have been out to myself for over a year now, I still have a hard time processing my coming out experience. I grew up in a Yeshivish community where homosexuality was never discussed. I was introduced to the concept of homosexuality via Shabbat table whispers; stories of men who had sexual feelings for other men. These stories were told in hushed voices after the children had gone off to play. I remember sitting, absorbing the stories, feeling the thrill of knowing that the adults had forgotten I was still at the table. I was intrigued to hear that if a man felt these feelings, he must go to his rabbi for help and hope the rabbi can “fix” him, but that it doesn’t always work. What happens then? I wondered. I knew better than to ask. Long before I even understood what being gay meant, I was filled with a sense of irrational fear towards the topic, a fear I internalized from the world I lived in.
That avoidance became a part of me. I didn’t really think about it again until a few years later, when I began to experience strong feelings toward a girl in my sixth-grade class. I wished with my entire being to become her best friend, the person she confided in. These feelings filled me with fear; I had never felt anything like that before. I was sure that what I was feeling was wrong. My mind kept drifting to the whispers I had overheard my entire life: being gay is bad. With a cold dread I told myself repeatedly, I can’t be gay, I am not gay, and even if I was gay it wouldn’t matter. I believed if I ignored it, it wouldn’t bother me. No one would ever have to know about the feelings I had.
In an effort to convince myself that I wasn’t gay, I would pick a neighbourhood boy and decide that I had a crush on him, and that therefore I coudn’t be gay. I told myself constantly that I don’t have a crush on Huvi, I just want to be her friend; in fact, not only do I not have a crush on Huvi, I have a crush on Shloimy. There is no way I could be gay and have a crush on Shloimy. I said this over and over to myself until I learned to associate having feelings for a girl with a reminder that I liked a boy and was not gay. For years, this is how I lived. I would have feelings for my female friends and would automatically remind myself that I couldn’t be gay; I liked guys. I deeply believed there was no scenario in which I could be gay. It just wasn’t possible. My world had no gay people in it and there was no way I would be the first.
By the time I got to college, I began to recognize with slightly more urgency that my feelings for women may not be as false as I liked to think. No worries, I assured myself. Even if I did have feelings for women, it wouldn’t matter, because I definitely liked men. However, as my world expanded, the fear I associated with being gay started to dissipate. I had gay friends and strongly believed in advocating for my queer Orthodox peers. But I still believed staunchly I was not gay, and I rationalized my way out of every feeling I felt for a woman.
I did this for quite some time. I did it even as I began to fall in love with my best friend. After years of repressing my emotions, I was so out of touch with my sexuality that I didn’t begin to recognize my feelings for her until I was deeply in love and struggling to repress my true feelings. At times I felt a desire to raise children with her—platonically, of course. When we hung out I secretly wished it was a date, but, “no homo here!” I knew I wanted her to be a part of my future, but I did not allow myself to consider that I wanted her to be more than my friend.
After a year and a half of these feelings, something inside of me finally broke and all of the years of locked-away emotions came pouring out of me. I was a mess. I spent a week trying to process my sexuality and finally, with one last crash of emotion, the love I felt for my friend became clear and I knew with certainty I loved her. Recognizing that was terrifying for me. I knew I could lose my community and family as a result. For the last time, I tried to rationalize my way out of this situation. Loving her didn’t mean I was gay, I told myself. If I were bisexual, I could still have a chance at the life I’d always idealized. But deep down I understood that my time of pretending was over. I knew that if I had to give up love for religious reasons, I would not be able to remain religious, as the pain of what Orthodoxy cost me would supersede my love for it. Instead, I made a choice that would allow me to remain part of my culture and to embrace my identity: I chose the difficult path of being an Orthodox queer Jew.
While I decided to be true to myself and to allow myself to explore the feelings I had repressed for so long, I simultaneously prayed I wouldn’t lose the people and institutions I loved along the way. Now, a little over a year later, the pain and fear of what I might lose no longer cuts me like it used to. While my path forward feels murky at times, I am working to find a balance between my identity and religious observance and find my way as a queer Jew.
Gittel (she/her) is a strong young adult who refuses to compromise on her identity as both an Orthodox Jew and queer person. She recently graduated from college and plans on attending a PhD program following her gap year of research. Gittel recently began listening to guided meditations and planting a vegetable garden as a way to destress. Although she is not one to get vulnerable with strangers, she feels passionate about sharing her story with you in the hopes it lets you know that you have a place.
Chapter 1: Queer Origin Story
Something I always found interesting about my friends’ coming out stories was that I never fully related to them. For a lot of my friends, their sexuality was something they discovered later in life. It came on slowly, with aspects clarifying themselves as time went on. The journey of their queer awakening was one of mindfulness, curiosity, and self-awareness. For my other friends, the evidence of their homosexuality was just so . . . evident. They remarkably lacked any feelings of ambiguity and there simply was no denying it. For them, the sky was blue, the grass was green, and they were gay. They didn’t always come out right away, but it was always a matter of finding the right time. For me, however, it was more of a battle of whether the words even had the right to be said.
I grew up in a small Modern Orthodox community in Long Island. I probably wouldn’t have described myself as a teacher’s pet, but I usually found myself cleaving to my rabbis. I’d sit at the front of the class and occasionally schmooze with them afterwards. My after-school activities were heavily involved within the Yeshivish community, so most of my friends outside school were also religious. Back at home, my siblings and I grew up in a traditionally Sephardic Orthodox household and were instilled with congruent values. Our dad, a rabbi in our local synagogue, and our mom, a ba’alat teshuva who found religious and observant Judaism on her own in her teens, tried to model Orthodoxy in its finest light. And it worked! To this day, my Jewishness and my commitment to Orthodoxy have been at the core of my identity. However, there seemed to be no space for a queer identity.
It was not something I heard often, but thoughtless and unkind comments about “the gays” crossed my ear in the places I most frequented: school, synagogue, my home, to name a few. And when I was prepubescent, I really didn’t think anything of it. I was in the in-crowd, I thought. The subject of these comments were very much a part of some distant other, a group that I, by definition, had nothing to do with.
Naturally, when the first hints of all attraction came to light for me, the experience was more than unsettling. I was developing crushes on boys while the other boys in my middle school were busy talking about the girls. The sorrowful pain of not enjoying my first kiss at a middle school party broke me. It wasn’t because the kiss was bad (it probably was), but because it was further proof that there was something wrong with me. Was I the subject of the mindless chatter from my family, fellow congregants, and classmates?
“But this is just temporary,” was what I’d often tell myself. “I’m not gay; that’s not an option. I will find the right girl one day who will make me happy.” And until that day came, I was determined to deal with this on my own. But I spent many nights turning over in bed. Any wrong moves, and my struggle could be found out. I feared I’d be ridiculed and excommunicated. This anxiety stayed with me throughout all of high school, an unrelenting internalized fear of exposure and rejection. It ate away at me.
It wasn’t until my year in Israel that I allowed myself to say the words for the first time. I said them to a rabbi from my gap year program, who, thank God, showed me nothing but love and support, but I remember my apprehension so vividly. I had intended to speak with him a few days earlier, but feigned illness instead. When I finally mustered up the courage to speak with him, the sheer effort it took to rip the words out of my mouth felt unbearable. But he was patient and he was sincere. He told me that no matter what I said, he would view me no differently afterward. Tears rolled down my face as I laboured the words out.
I had never heard myself say those words out loud. They were the truest words I had ever spoken. There was no denial. There was no doubt. It was only for an instant, but when those words eventually left my lips, the weight of the past seven years lifted off my shoulders.
Recently, my rabbi and I nostalgically revisited that moment during one of our monthly phone calls.
“Rabbi, I can’t even begin to recount the difficulty I experienced saying those words for the first time. Uttering them felt like such a struggle. I swear, it must have taken me like twenty minutes to come out to you!”
“Well . . . that’s kind of the point,” he said. “You aren’t the first person I’ve had that conversation with. I obviously could tell where the conversation was going during your preface, and could have easily offered the words to you to save us the twenty minutes, but in doing so, I would have taken away your moment to say the words yourself. We all deserve the opportunity to define ourselves to ourselves. How else do you get to truly know someone if you do not speak to them?”
Ezra (he/him) is a student, a poet, and a singer. He grew up in Long Island in a Sephardic household and a Modern Orthodox community. Since starting graduate school, he’s been set on fostering environments where all Jews can feel welcome. When not writing blog posts for JQY, you can find Ezra studying, hanging out with friends, or babysitting his adorable nieces and nephews.
Chapter 2: Queerness and Religion
“I kissed a woman last year,” my sister whispers to me at a family sheva brachos. “It was really nice.” I smile wider than I have around my family in years. Chavy, my Hasidic sister who is married with four children, has just come out to me. Once she reveals her secret to me, she cannot contain her queer jubilance. Her curly black wig flips back and forth, her perfectly painted foundation and concealer are creased with happiness. She tells me how sweet the kiss was, how empowering, how freeing. However, I know she will do nothing with that experience.
Chavy is not the only family member who has come out to me since I’ve left the community and become openly queer. When I first came out to my parents as pansexual, my mother came out to me in response. She looked at me with a combination of love, contempt, and fear when she said, “Noa, I understand attraction to women. I am also attracted to women, I find many of them attractive, but that doesn’t make me pansexual. You cannot be pansexual either. You need to choose. You need to make your family proud—our way of life proud.” Her refusal of my identity never quite made me angry, but it has always made me overwhelmingly sad. I am sad for her; that she is forced to live a life in denial. I am sad for me; that I cannot be supported by those who claim to love me. Above all, I am sad that I was almost Chavy and my mother. The could-have-beens haunt me.
I nearly married a Hasidic man and had many children. I often think about the person I could have been, a Noa who almost was. I often think of myself as 23 years old, pregnant belly swelling, two other children at my feet, cooking dinner for my husband, living a life that suffocates me. Then I come back to myself. There is no belly, there are no children, and there is no suffocating life. There almost was, and this almost-was angers me. I am angry that I almost did not leave, and that there were those in my Hasidic community who did everything in their power to stand in the way of my happiness. It can be difficult for me to recognize that I am now free, and that I am no longer tethered to those restrictions. It is most difficult when I face my family’s queerness. They are the Noas who almost-were.
Unfortunately, when I left Hasidism for a more liberated life, I also left Chavy and the rest of my family behind. I know it is not my fault that I have left and that I can be proudly queer in a world that mostly accepts me. But the guilt remains. I feel guilty for leaving them behind and part of me feels guilty for leaving.
I left the community and its sexual and gendered repression years ago. I now live a religious life devoid of constraint, but not devoid of guilt. I am free to explore queerness through Torah study, egalitarian davening, and progressive Jewish communities, but religion has scarred me. I yearn for comfort in Judaism. I want so badly to feel safe, accepted, and embraced by a Jewish world, but my past haunts me. There are moments when I can revel in the spiritual love of an egalitarian Jewish space, standing in my colourful tallis, swaying to the hums of traditional niggunim as a non-binary, pansexual Jewish person. Yet those moments are interrupted by my own thoughts. “You don’t belong here. You are perverted. You are wrong. You call yourself Jewish? You call this Judaism?” I am on a journey that I hope will end positively. I am uncertain, and uncertainty is terrifying.
I am learning that it is all right to be uncertain about religion. Religion is personal. It becomes a fundamental part of our lives. In communities like the one that raised me, all religious questioning was suppressed. “Whys” were not tolerated, and in many cases their askers (including myself) were punished. But the “whys” of life are essential, as they give us meaning, beauty, and spiritual grounding. After years of searching, I have found Jewish communities that embrace the “whys” and show me how to question Judaism from within without giving up on it entirely. These communities encourage me to be uncertain. They push me to question, contemplate, and be angry with my circumstances. They also push me to love more deeply with every part of myself. They have taught me that religious practice is about growth and choice, not perfection or compulsion, and this distinction has made all the difference. I lean into uncertainty, and the freedom it provides, and I know I am honouring my younger self, the Noa that might have been. I know they honour me as well.
Noa (they/them) is a graduate student, foodie, and beach lover. They grew up in the Monsey Hasidic community and now finds meaning in egalitarian Jewish communities that blend social justice, tradition, and queerness. When Noa isn’t reading the dozens of “to be read” books on their bedside table, they spend hours at local museums.
Chapter 2: Queerness and Religion
As a bi person in Orthodox spaces, I am often confronted with a particular mindset: the idea that, since bi people can be attracted to many genders, we should simply “choose” straight-passing relationships to better suit a more traditional Orthodox lifestyle.
I first heard this perspective verbalized among my seminary friends while we sat on the floor of a friend’s dorm one night. My friends, some queer and some not, expressed their anxieties about fitting into the traditional image of Orthodoxy. After several minutes of ranting to one another, one of them raised the dreaded rhetoric: “Bi women have it easy. They can just choose to like men and live their lives with the easier option.” My friends nodded in agreement. I pretended to yawn and retired to bed, shaken by the notion of being rejected by my own peers. That evening, as I lay in bed, I formulated my response to this line of thinking—if not for others, then at least for myself. I realized that my friend’s perspective, choosing the “easier” option, had never occurred to me. Since realizing that I was bi, I have understood that I will love who I love, whomever that may be, and I can be Orthodox at the same time. Queerness is not about ranking identities as easy, medium, and hard. Queerness is about accepting a self that looks a little bit different from what you’ve been taught, and learning to see that self as beautiful.
Finding love in any form is not easy, no matter the identity. Plenty of people spend their whole lives seeking it. If I have the ability to experience romantic attraction toward people of all genders, why should I close doors that I believe I can keep open? If Orthodoxy can accept me with a man, the so-called “easy option,” surely Orthodoxy can accept me with anyone else. After all, aren’t I the same person, no matter who my partner is? Meanwhile, if the queer community can accept me for my attraction to women, surely they can accept the rest of me—bi, ace, Orthodox, and proud. Having dated people of all genders, I have found that the hardest course lies not in dealing with the challenges of an openly queer relationship, but in suppressing so much of the love I have to give. The most natural option for me is not to only date men and stay closeted, but to let myself be open, happy, and free—to let my love exist in the world. I believe that my love is aligned with Jewish values, especially in comparison to the hatred of homophobia and the discomfort of identity repression.
So for every person who has told me that living as bi and Orthodox is the easy option, allow me to make this clear: I do not “choose” men. I do not “choose” other genders. I choose myself. I choose love.
Daphna (she/her) is a dreamer and a doer with a passion for activism and a love of poetry. In her spare time, she loves writing and exploring with her friends. As of a few years ago, she has lived by a simple but effective mantra: “Why not me?”
Chapter 4: Queer Belonging, Queer Joy
In previous chapters I’ve highlighted my pain, but I’ve also had so many instances of joy. As Jews, we know you can’t have one without the other. Joy: the first time I took one of my dad’s kippot to wear. The first time my mother called me her son. Getting shaving advice from some cis friends at a Shabbat meal. The first time that someone from Chabad asked me to wrap Tefillin with them, which actually happened right by Stonewall.
The number one queer Jewish moment for me was when I got my first shot of testosterone. The nurse who gave me the shot heard me saying the Shehecheyanu bracha and, even though he wasn’t Jewish, he said amen and was witness to and part of a very special moment in my life.
When I had top surgery, I had visits from family and friends and video calls from my JQY community. I’ve had Jewish LGBTQ+ people involved in every step of my career and personal life, cheering me on and supporting me for years now
And I’ve been able to show up for other simchas in my queer friends’ lives. I have made a point of having at least one meal with queer Jews around Pride season for years now. And for those of us like me who are still single and waiting on the settling down side of things, we find ways to celebrate outside of the cis/hetero framework of what is a simcha. I have been to shabbatons and parties and trips and I never have to be alone. Since my first time at a JQY event, I’ve had lonely moments, but I’ve also known that I’m not alone.
Sometimes, I do feel like I need to be married and have kids in order to be actually “normal” and “happy,” but not having those things yet doesn’t diminish all that I do have. I have a chosen family, I have many people in my family of origin who have stuck by me this whole time and a few more I’ve since reconciled with. The beauty of being a queer Jewish person comes from taking things from both cultures and making them work. We have such incredible people out there who are like us. None of us are exactly the same, but we have so many shared experiences.
Queer joy in a Jewish context, to me, is belting out Yeshiva Boys Choir music knowing that someone will sing and dance along with you and be equally triggered and flamboyant. It’s works like Torch Song Trilogy and Falsettos. It’s being mad that NYC DragCon is on Yom Kippur, which really almost happened once! We are part of two communities that deal with a lot of pain, that love to argue, and that have made and continue to make really beautiful contributions to culture and society.
Use that fire and that flair. That specificity is a superpower that will help you find people who will accept you as you are.
Daniel (he/him) is a 23-year-old queer man of trans experience who considers himself on A derech, not necessarily THE derech. He grew up with a Jewish day school education followed by secular school. He is an artist and works with queer/trans Jewish youth.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
JQY (Jewish Queer Youth) is a nonprofit organization based in the United States that aims to support and empower LGBTQ+ Jewish youth with a special focus on teens and young adults from Orthodox, Hasidic, Sephardic and Mizrahi communities.