By Sarah Casteel
On Tuesday, November 13, Yeshiva University College Democrats hosted an event on the Beren Campus featuring Ben Katz, YU alumnus and prominent LGBT advocate in Israel. The event, titled “Dancing At Two Weddings: Tales From the Front Lines of Israeli Religious LGBT Dialogue,” aimed to educate listeners about the often invisible and underrepresented religious LGBT community. Katz, who works for Israeli organization Shoval, came out as gay after graduating YU with a psychology degree in 2011.
Despite complications with planning and only days to advertise the event, there were more attendees than space in the room. 70 people including students, alum and outside visitors, sat in desks, stood in the back, and even sat on the floor to hear from Katz. Katz spoke about his own story, his organization’s work, and his goals as an advocate for the religious LGBT community, before opening the floor for questions.
Katz’s work with Shoval includes traveling to oversee conversations hosted in homes all around Israel, with the goal of starting a dialogue about the existence and struggles of the religious LGBT community. He also works with administrators and heads of institutions including schools to discuss ways to make the environment better for LGBT people who are part of the Orthodox community. Through education, conversations, and sharing stories, Shoval aims to give visibility to this underrepresented community and to help provide the future these LGBT people dream of within the religious world. As a recognition of the reality that LGBT people do not necessarily fit into the “framework” of Orthodoxy, Shoval pairs with other LGBT organizations in Israel to host events for Pesach Sheni–a holiday intended for those wanting to observe Pesach but limited from observing the primary holiday due to complications within their own lives. While Shoval is specifically dedicated to “increasing awareness of Orthodox LGBT Israelis and their unique issues,” Katz is familiar with similar struggles in the American Orthodox community, including at YU.
It is crucial, Katz emphasized, to understand that there are people who are both LGBT and observant. Issues such as mental health and hopelessness about a future in the Orthodox community are common among this group, as they are given messages that they do not have a place within the Orthodox world. He asked the audience: “How many people walk around the room thinking they are the only one like them? That is objectively false!” He explained to the listeners that, not only may closeted LGBT people feel this way–people thinking about the inevitable reality of there being LGBT people in the religious community may feel this way as well. The importance of giving religious LGBT people the opportunity to tell their own stories, and to take back control of their own narratives, is something Katz says is necessary for the visibility and inclusion of this group within the Orthodox community.
In his presentation, Katz explained the different ways to advocate, including the “salon” movement where LGBT people congregate and share their stories, the institutionalist or “suits” perspective, and taking issues “to the streets.” He encouraged members of the audience to consider whether they are doing enough to make LGBT individuals in their communities feel safe, and if they are interested in advocating, what type of advocate they would be. Katz’s sensitivity to the nuances and complications of the issue was clear when he mentioned that he knew some members of the audience may not be in support of inclusion of the LGBT community in Orthodox circles, and thanked them for coming out to the event despite that.
This event is especially noteworthy given that it has been eight years since the last official LGBT-themed event, a panel entitled “Being Gay in The Modern Orthodox World,” was hosted by Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Tolerance Club. The event garnered some support, but also vocal disapproval by some important Rabbis and other members of the school. It is unclear if an event regarding the LGBT community has ever been hosted by an entity within the undergraduate school.
While the Office of Student Life has been working with students to give visibility to the LGBT community within the YU undergraduate schools, complications with planning this event prove why it has been hard for LGBT students’ voices to be heard, and for their existence in this school to be acknowledged publicly. After submitting the event request, it took the almost two months before it was approved. Known to be a controversial topic at YU, LGBT issues are not often discussed openly and LGBT students at the school often feel alienated. Members of the College Democrats, as well as other students and student leaders, met with various staff and administrators to make their case for the event, and were ultimately glad to have been granted the opportunity to host the event. OSL staff, including the director, Dean Chaim Nissel, have been working with students to make the school a better and safer place for LGBT students while navigating the religious standards of the school.
With recent controversy over LGBT issues at YU just this year, including an op-ed which was accused of being homophobic and garnered multiple responses, the school’s rejection of a Model UN topic paper about “State-Sponsored Legal Discrimination and Violence Against Sexual Minorities,” and even a incident of homophobic and transphobic bullying in Nagel that was reported Thursday night, the fact that this event was approved is an important step forward in the school’s recognition of its own, largely hidden, LGBT community. It is the hopes of the hosts of the event, and many students and staff at the school, that more events focused on the LGBT community will come from what proved to be a wildly successful event on Tuesday night.
Students are currently in the process of attempting to start an LGBT-and-allies club at the school, and are working with the schools’ administration to find a way to make it happen while staying within the institution’s religious framework.
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