A once unimaginable movement is emerging from within Israel's
insular Orthodox Jewish community: Homosexuals demanding to be accepted and embraced, no matter what the Bible says.
Living alongside a secular majority that has largely embraced the Western gay rights movement, Israel's religious gays are increasingly rejecting age-old dictates to ignore their attraction, abstain from sex or undergo therapy that supposedly will make them straight.
A decade ago, says Yuval Cherlow, a heterosexual Orthodox rabbi, he would have dismissed the phenomenon as "two or four crazy people that are assimilating into Western world culture."
Then he was invited to a meeting of Orthodox homosexuals. More than 50 people turned up, nearly all graduates of Orthodox religious seminaries. Cherlow said he began to realize the issue had to be addressed, and he now advises religious gay groups.
In Orthodox Judaism, as with traditional streams of Islam and Christianity, homosexuality is generally frowned upon. Gay observant Jews may be ostracized by their families, while in the Muslim world, gays can face violence. In Iran, for instance, homosexuality is punishable by death.
Yet in Israel, homosexuals openly serve in the army, same-sex couples get some benefits, the country markets itself as a gay-friendly tourist destination, and Jerusalem has an annual gay parade. More liberal streams of Judaism embrace gay couples and even gay rabbis.
Now, the idea that one can be both gay and religious is catching on even at the fringes of Orthodoxy, a socially conservative, entrenched culture that prides itself on its differences from the modern secular world. Today, there are gay Orthodox prayer groups, support services and a large web presence.
In March, a religious gay group called Havruta celebrated Purim at a gay-friendly nightclub in central Jerusalem with a reading of the Megillah, the traditional scroll read on this Jewish religious holiday, drawing implicit parallels between the persecution of Jews in ancient Persia and the struggle of Jewish gays against intolerance today.
The event attracted about 40 yarmulke-clad men, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, and a handful of women. Like secular Israelis who celebrate Purim
by dressing up, they donned elaborate costumes and sipped beer.
But religious gays know that to be taken seriously by rabbinical authorities, they must carefully frame their demands within the boundaries of Halacha, or traditional Jewish law. Most steer clear of asking for religious recognition for their relationships.
As a result, the movement is fractured and bogged down by internal clashes over where to draw the line between respecting tradition and appeasing intolerance.
Most conservative is decade-old Atzat Nefesh, "soul counseling," the first Israeli group to openly address same-sex attraction within the religious world. The group operates a hotline and website, and believes same-sex attraction can be overcome by so-called conversion therapy.
Its CEO, Rabbi Shlomo Goldreich, claims it works for more than 80% of those the group refers to therapists. But critics note that not all of its providers are licensed or trained, and that all major medical and psychological associations reject conversion therapy.
"We know of three people who tried, and eventually took their lives," said Ron Yosef, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi from the coastal city of Netanya.
In 2008 Yosef created Hod, a Hebrew acronym meaning "religious homosexuals," and compiled a referral list of therapists who are religious, licensed and compliant with modern mental health guidelines. The group's principles say gays shouldn't be blamed, ostracized, forced to marry women, or discouraged from observing other Jewish laws.
Yosef said Hod has received 3,700 phone and email inquiries – the vast majority from people 25 or younger. He added that no one left his congregation when he declared his sexuality in April 2009.
Although Yosef fervently rejects the notion that gays should be "cured" or ostracized, he also insists that Jewish laws be respected and that gays abstain from biblically forbidden sex acts and same-sex marriage.
That approach has gained praise from some conservatives who previously avoided addressing homosexuality, and support from of Aharon Feldman, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi. But it also stirs criticism from liberals that Yosef is caving in to homophobic rabbis.
A third group is Havruta ("fellowship"), which is trying to create a more pluralistic sense of community by holding social, cultural and religious events for Orthodox gays such as the Purim event.
"We stay religious because that's who we are, the way we were raised and want to raise our children," said Daniel Jonas, a 29-year-old board member. "But we won't stay in the closet, because we want to live."
Havruta considers itself a religious organization, but accepts all who respect Orthodoxy. It says more than 400 people subscribe to its email list.
Some, however, think Havruta goes too far. One of its founders recently broke away and founded a group called Kamoha ("like you").
The man, requesting anonymity, said that although Havruta was his home for years, he felt estranged once it started pushing Orthodox Judaism's boundaries by participating in a mixed-gender prayer group and Jerusalem's gay parade.
"I don't say that you need to stay in the closet and hide it all your life, but there is nothing to be proud of," he said.
Kamoha has about 100 members on its email list and is averaging 25 attendees at events.
In March it launched a therapy fund to help young Jews identify if they can become straight – and if not, to help them cope with their homosexuality. It also hopes to offer a matchmaking service for gay men and lesbians seeking a normative family.
Havruta and other groups consider those types of services to be potentially harmful to the cause and bordering on self-hating.
One factor common to all the groups navigating the intersection between homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism in Israel is a robust Internet presence, with web forums, email lists and online libraries.
The rise of the Internet has offered an inexpensive, uncensored and anonymous tool to organize a population that knows that being publicly outed could lead to rejection by their families or communities.
"These are people in our society who are really in trouble," Cherlow said. "This is a new question. We didn't face it before, and as rabbis, we are searching for the real thing to say."