Jewish Queer Youth: Who are They and What is Their Endgame?

By: Benjamin Gottesman  |  January 1, 2023

By: Benjamin Gottesman, Editor-in-Chief

I first heard of JQY when I started college. The drama with the Pride Alliance had already been brewing for quite some time and JQY, or Jewish Queer Youth, was the mystery organization that was purportedly supporting the banned club. JQY became a more relevant organization as the lawsuit manifested itself, offering to sponsor clubs during the freeze this past Autumn. Clinical Director and Founder of JQY Mordechai Levovitz and Executive Director Rachel Fried graciously agreed to sit down with me two months ago to discuss the history, theology, and mission of the organization.

 The JQY website describes a “nonprofit organization supporting and empowering LGBTQ youth in the Jewish community… with a special focus on teens and young adults from Orthodox, Chasidic, and Sephardic communities.” Interestingly, they never claim to be a Jewish institution despite their name. When prompted, Fried explained that, in her mind, JQY was not a Jewish organization at all. What makes them Jewish is the “cultural competency” to deal with the challenges facing queer youth from religious homes. In Levovitz’s words, JQY “focuses on these communities because of the risk associated with LGBT youth from these homes,” not because of any theological underpinnings or objectives. Their staff is equipped to understand Judaism and its sensitivities and offer support to those in need.

This stance, or lack thereof, is surprising to some. “People ask me all the time what we think of the pasuk,” quipped Levovitz,  referring to the Biblical prohibitions against homosexual cohabitation which is the primary driver of the tension in the Queer Jewish community. Levovitz is quick to remind inquirers that he, in fact, is not a Rabbi. JQY is an organization dedicated to community building and support, not theological doctrine; its staff and clientele have a diverse array of opinions on just about everything. When describing his staff’s personal approach to the intersection of religion and sexuality, Levovitz remarked that “you’ll find some are much more right-wing than you could have possibly thought, and some are much more left-wing.” But that’s not the point. “It’s just not our area of expertise,” explained Fried, to which Levovitz added, “go ask a Rabbi. Why would you ask a social worker?”

While they may not be experts on halakha, both Fried and Levovitz intimately understand the challenges their clientele face. Levovitz describes his experience as a queer child in an Orthodox world not yet equipped to handle the LGBT population as “lonely” and replete with bullying. When he came to YU he asked himself the following basic question: “why aren’t the adults helping?” He took it upon himself to create a “more formal resource” to provide support for a community that, until that time, had struggled in silence. 

Fried, who spent over a decade in YU institutions, described her youth as “super involved in the YU community and super-closeted,” an ironic assessment of being invested in the maintenance of a society that did not support her.  Levovitz’s fledgling support group was the only organization of its kind and so she started attending meetings. Since then JQY has expanded into what it is today.

As the interview drew to a close, I asked Levovitz how he addressed the ostensibly obvious conflict between Queerness and Orthodoxy. His answer was as simple as it was striking: “When you’re dealing with a person, who exists, with all our contradictions… what are you gonna do? Not exist? We are here with all our contradictions. Just by being here, we are entitled to self-worth and love… Does that involve conflict? Sure, but honestly… it involves conflict for everyone. I mean the word Yisrael literally means to struggle with God.”

JQY is not trying to, in Levovitz’s words, “reinvent the wheel.” Orthodoxy is defined by internal, confounding struggle. The plight of Queer Jews, he explains, is par for the course of centuries of spiritual grappling.

Levovitz and Fried are supporting the Pride Alliance because they believe that YU students deserve to build a community of their own. “Pride is just self-esteem. It’s a feeling of self-worth,” Levovitz explains. He attests that nearly every queer person who has grown up Orthodox has had a moment where they felt that their existence could cause pain to loved ones and jeopardize their standing in the community. “What is there to counter that?”, he asks, “we need something to counter this worthlessness, shame, and anger-turned-inwards.” This, he remarks, is the purpose of Pride. It isn’t about sexual preference, partners, or desire. Levovitz calls such an assessment “ridiculous” and finds it rather inappropriate, saying that just discussing it makes him “uncomfortable.” Pride reminds him “that I share a narrative with other people… we’re creating a sense of self-worth.”

Levovitz and Fried are genuine. They are not interested in changing points of religious policy or thought. They simply recognize their own experienced pain and have committed themselves to ensure our children don’t go through the same. That is something I can respect.

Photo credit: Jewish Queer Youth logo