Living in society demands living among many different types of people, including those whose norms, models of a good life, and moral imperatives may differ from our own—for example, with respect to family, gender, and sexual orientations. How can we live harmoniously among people with different political ideas, moral beliefs, religious commitments, communal loyalties, and sexualities? How do we accommodate such difference, and when does the social fabric of belonging stretch beyond the breaking point? In other words, how can we engage the other with compassion, while also sustaining the group boundaries that define us?
Attempting to address such questions is uniquely challenging in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, especially when perceived threats touch upon basic human needs, the vulnerabilities of the body, and specifically gender and sexuality. One group’s sexual expressions are seen by another as a sign of corruption and decadence. One community’s commitment to holiness and self-restraint is taken by the other as an invitation to pathological hatred. For gay teens and young adults growing up in Orthodox Jewish environments, the crucible of crushing guilt can lead to mortal danger. The conflict between longstanding religious norms and emerging social and scientific realities has occasionally resulted not only in suicide but also in violence in the streets.
Eshel is a nonprofit organization in the United States and Canada that works to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox Jewish communities. Increasingly over the past few years, CEDAR staff have been working with Eshel leadership toward developing programming for an open and inclusive place in Orthodox Jewish communities where LGBTQ individuals can feel welcome as full members of the community, able to live their lives according to their own choices and preferences.
Eshel’s approach to matters of sexual preference embodies CEDAR’s philosophy regarding the importance of accepting difference, especially from and within more traditional social, cultural, and religious parameters. Eshel’s work in schools, families, among individuals, and in Orthodox synagogues aligns with CEDAR’s pedagogy for living with difference, and we are pleased and honored to play a role in its development. Thus far, collaboration has revolved around programming events, though we are looking forward to expanding our collaboration in the development of shared projects and pedagogies.