To say my identity puts me on the other end of the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities is an understatement. Reform Jews are seen by many in the Haredi world at best as misguided and at worst, ideological enemies. And gay people, well, are seen as much worse. Not every Haredi person is a homophobe. I’ve met some, including through my blog, who see themselves as allies or in the case of one secret Facebook group I’m in, as gay themselves. And yet a tremendous number of Haredi Jews condemn homosexuality in the most severe terms, making it nearly impossible for someone in their community to come out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, let alone come out of the closet as queer. Something which is slowly but hopefully changing for the better.
I share these observations not just from my intuition or news articles, but from lived experience. Among all my progressive Jewish friends, I have by far spent the most time in Haredi communities. To the extent where I have two “go-to” restaurants in Bnei Brak, including one where I get the greatest hugs. I have explored the largest Haredi city in the world many times, and even found things to like. I even met Hasidim who watch Game of Thrones and boxing on YouTube. And more perplexingly, actually met Bedouin and chatted in Arabic on the streets of the world’s largest shtetl.
My adventures have taken me outside Bnei Brak as well, including to a cave of Lithuanian misnagdim in Tsfat, a conversation about marijuana and gay identity in Modi’in Illit, I’ve visited Haredi communities in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Antwerp, Me’ah Shearim, and more.
The adventures sometimes go well and sometimes don’t. I once told a Breslover Hasid I was Reform and it didn’t register even the slightest expression of disapproval. I once told a Yiddish teacher I was Reform and he berated me- during the lesson I was paying for. I rarely have felt at ease as a gay person and often felt the need to be closeted when entering this community, which made me deeply uncomfortable. And one Chabad rabbi’s wife I know identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
All of this is to say that when we see attacks against our Haredi sisters and brothers on TV these days (of which there have been a lot), I understand why this is complicated. Far too rarely do these communities stand in solidarity for my well being and human rights. And yet- some do. And furthermore, the philosophical question arises of whether we should only stand with those who stand with us. Or whether we have an obligation regardless. And perhaps, through some positive interactions, can even bring people together in new ways.
As a gay Reform Jew, I feel my tradition obligates me to stand with Haredi communities battling seemingly endless anti-Semitism. Not just because it affects me as a fellow Jew (we should be realistic- hatred never stops at one community’s door), but because our tradition asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves. To be brave. To lock hands with someone different from you, and hopefully open all hearts involved in the process.
It is ideologically easy for liberal American Jews to stand with refugees, with immigrants, with the queer community, against climate change, and a whole series of other issues that fit neatly into our ideological profile. Into my ideological profile as well.
It is much more challenging, and equally important, to push ourselves to extend our solidarity to our brethren whose politics, dress, and approach to faith differ from our own.
So in the end, that is my hope. That liberal American Jews such as me can find it in our hearts to extend a hand to our Haredi brothers and sisters. And that they will grasp it. We both have much to gain from such a partnership. And much to lose- for the people who hate us will hardly care how we pray or what we wear. They care that we are different. We are Jews.
The cover photo is one I took while visiting and learning at the Breslover Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.