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‘Where do I stand?’ Queer Modern Orthodox teens navigate a changing world



This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — Until recently, Jacob Feldon considered Yeshiva University a serious candidate for his college education. As a senior at a Utah high school who has embraced Modern Orthodoxy and harbors dreams of potentially becoming a rabbi, he said he was drawn to “the idea of going to school in an observant community where I can study Torah and Talmud with some of the smartest people doing such a thing today.”

But Feldon is also bisexual and serves as a Jewish youth ambassador for Beloved Arise, a national interfaith support organization for queer youth. So Feldon took notice when Yeshiva University declined to officially recognize a Pride Alliance group on campus, and then pressed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court when mandated to do so.

“As a queer man I can’t see going into that environment right now with everything happening,” Feldon told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I’m getting a pretty clear message that I won’t be welcomed, authentically welcome.”

Feldon is not the only high school student who identifies as Modern Orthodox to have complicated feelings about Yeshiva University at the moment. As the main Modern Orthodox university, the school blends secular and religious instruction and values. Its attempt to navigate a balance between being welcoming and inclusive and fighting for the right to control LGBTQ students’ official expression on campus has made national headlines — and caused some Modern Orthodox teens to question whether they would feel comfortable attending.

For LGBTQ teens, the lawsuit and other controversies around gender and sexuality in Modern Orthodoxy have created “a little hopelessness,” said Rachael Fried, executive director of the support nonprofit Jewish Queer Youth.

Fried described the mindset of Modern Orthodox LGBTQ adolescents as, “I’m trying to live an Orthodox life. I’m trying to build my future as a queer Orthodox person, and this is what the main, flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy thinks about me. Then where is my future and what’s the hope for me and what are my dreams?”

For queer teens, the Y.U. saga is just one high-profile touchpoint in an ongoing grappling with their place within Modern Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodox communities range widely in many ways depending on their history, geography and leadership, meaning that some queer Orthodox teens say they have found acceptance and support while others say they’ve had more challenging experiences.

Rachael Fried is the executive director of the support nonprofit Jewish Queer Youth. (Courtesy JQY)

Often teens say they experience both. Like many of the queer teens interviewed for this article, Rivka Schafer and their parents first thought it best to keep their queer identity private due to the repercussions they feared with being LGBTQ in a Modern Orthodox community. When they did come out in middle school, Schafer said they received mixed reactions in their Jewish day school.

“The kids had a lot of stigma and the administration did too, but they tried to be really accepting and really supportive which was also really, really beautiful,” Schafer told JTA.

“Currently I identify as Modern Orthodox because Judaism is a really important part of my identity and I find Judaism to be really meaningful to me,” said Schafer, who is nonbinary, from their home in Teaneck, New Jersey. “So although I struggled a lot with the acceptance in the Jewish community, and stigma within the Orthodox community, I really ultimately believe it is and should be a strong part of who I am.”

But while Schafer has remained committed to their religious identity, Fried, of Jewish Queer Youth, said the Pride Alliance lawsuit and other LGBTQ-related controversies sometimes “pushes people away from Orthodoxy in a really unfortunate way.”

This is what happened to Mattie Schaffer. “I would describe it as [having] a religious identity crisis,” said Schaffer, a student at Lev Miriam Learning Studio in Passaic, New Jersey who uses he/they pronouns and identifies as queer. Schaffer, 16, said their neighborhood is a more right-wing Modern Orthodox community, colloquially called yeshivish, though his family is not.

“A part of all the alienation and isolation comes from a feeling of not having a place anywhere,” Schaffer said. “And as much as you try to conform, there just isn’t really a place for you to fit unless you want to be sticking out or be bending yourself in half.”

Modern Orthodox queer teens’ feeling “of not having a place” can be quite literal, particularly for those teens that are non-binary or transgender, said Schafer, the teen from Teaneck.

Schafer finds their nonbinary identity sometimes at odds with even the most basic rules of the Hebrew language, which assigns a gender to nearly all words, and of their synagogue. “Where do I stand? On the mechitza?” they asked, referring to the divider separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues.

The question of LGBTQ individuals in gender-separated prayer spaces recently reared up at Y.U., when one of its leading rabbis decreed that a transgender woman could not pray in either the women’s or men’s section of her university-affiliated synagogue.

But while recent months have been abundant in controversy, the last decade has shown tremendous progress for LGBTQ Modern Orthodox teens, according to multiple people in and around the community.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who was ordained by Yeshiva University before coming out as gay in 1999, heads the Orthodox queer advocacy group Eshel. His organization surveyed approximately 240 Orthodox synagogues and rabbis and found that 74% of interviewees were “high welcoming,” meaning that “inclusion is explicit, principled and broadly acknowledged” and queer families’ life cycle events other than marriage are celebrated. Another 22% offered “moderate welcome,” while 4% were “low welcoming/inattentive.”

Nadiv Schorer, right, married Ariel Meiri in 2020 with Orthodox rabbi Avram Mlotek officiating. (David Perlman Photography)

Approximately 10 rabbis said they were willing to perform same-sex marriages, according to Eshel’s research.

“They do their best to make it possible for LGBTQ folks to belong to Orthodox environments,” said Greenberg. “And it’s grown.”

The head of school at North Shore Hebrew Academy on Long Island, Rabbi Jeffery Kobrin, said he believed that growing conversations about LGBTQ issues in Orthodox communities has had benefits.

“I think it’s easier to be a queer teen now than it was in 2012, just because it’s more out there,” Kobrin said. “People talk about it more, people try to be more accepting of it, and people, community-wise, seem to less feel this contradiction between Orthodoxy and alternative lifestyles.”

Some teens say they have witnessed change in just the last couple of years. Benjamin Small, a gay teen who graduated from SAR High School last year and now attends Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa in Israel, said his rabbi, Chaim Poupko, of Congregation Avahath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, has advocated for queer members of the Orthodox community in his synagogue.

“That would be unheard of two or three years ago,” Small said.

Few Modern Orthodox schools in the New York area have an LGBTQ support club. But Fried, JQY’s executive director, said students are learning how to organize and build community independently, in the absence of recognition from their schools and synagogues.

“That comes with people choosing themselves, feeling empowered to build their own communities and to step-up and create the groups that others are not creating for them,” she said.

Before the Y.U. court case, “the messaging that I heard from the Modern Orthodox community was ‘your identity is not wrong, and we want to support our queer members of the community,’” said Fried, whose organization gave grants to student groups affected by the Y.U. case.

But now, she said, the message that queer Modern Orthodox teens are hearing has shifted.

“Actually, your queer identity is what is problematic. It’s not just the sentence in the Torah that is about behavior, but actually your identity,” she characterized Modern Orthodox institutions as saying. “You want to gather and build community that is based around identity and that, in and of itself, is problematic, and it’s inherently a threat.”

For its part, Yeshiva University has tried to thread a narrow needle.

A person walks by the Wilf Campus of Yeshiva University in New York City, Aug. 30, 2022. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“We love all of our students including those who identify as LGBTQ,” Y.U. said in a FAQ after it launched a school-sanctioned LGBTQ club. “Through our deep personal relationships and conversations with them, we have felt their struggles to fit into an orthodox world that could appear to them as not having a place for them.” (The YU Pride Alliance called the new club “a feeble attempt” at compromise and said they were not involved in its formation.)

There was no consensus among teens who spoke to JTA about how much the Y.U. saga would affect inclusion in other spaces. It’s also unclear the degree to which queer Modern Orthodox teens and their allies are incorporating the situation in their decision-making about college.

Y.U. declined to share student enrollment and admissions data, saying that the university does not generally release that information. But according to a recent Y.U. advertisement, last fall the school had “the largest incoming undergraduate class in over 20 years.”

Still, the school’s lawsuit and rhetoric has been a turnoff for 19-year-old Penny Laser, a queer student at a secular college who had envisioned possibly pursuing graduate studies in Talmud at Y.U. and grew up in a non-Orthodox household. (Laser asked to be identified using a pseudonym because she is seeking a giyur lechumra, a conversion for Jewish individuals to remove any doubt of their Orthodox Jewish legal status, and feared the Rabbinical Council of America would not grant her one if she was quoted in this article.)

“I’m not sure how I can trust or engage with Y.U. in the future,” said Laser. “A. I don’t know if it’s going to be a safe place for me, and B. I don’t want to align myself with an institution that has values like this.”

Schafer, from Teaneck, and Schaffer, from Passaic, are both not considering Y.U.

And the consequences of the Y.U. litigation goes beyond influencing the decisions of individual students, according to Fried.

“What the Y.U. situation is doing right now is forcing this conversation into the spotlight,” she said. “So different institutions and leaders are forced into having this conversation, or even thinking about where they stand. People are asking them to communicate where they stand.”

Feldon, from Utah, has hope. He thinks that the Modern Orthodox world needs queer rabbis to lead the conversation on inclusion from a halachic perspective — and he thinks that can still happen, despite the push by Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship university to block the Pride Alliance.

“I choose to believe,” said Feldon, “that we’ll get there. My dream life is where I can bring my boyfriend to minyan [prayer services] three times a day. And I choose to believe that we are on that path.”

The post ‘Where do I stand?’ Queer Modern Orthodox teens navigate a changing world appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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