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Orthodox LGBTs talk about coming out, staying visible
by Matt Simonette

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When Zehorit Sorek, an Israeli Orthodox Jew, realized some years back that she was a lesbian, she told herself that she was faced with three possible choices.

She could be an out lesbian, and become a secular Jew, denying herself the meaning she garners from Orthodox practice. Conversely, she could deny her lesbianism and live as a straight woman might, marrying a man and essentially lying to those around her. Or, she could try to build a bridge between her religious beliefs and practices and her sexual identity, constantly struggling with the contradictions between the two.

Sorek chose the last option. "There was no choice for me," she said in a visit to Chicago the week of Jan. 16.

She calls herself a "professional lesbian" in her native Tel Aviv and has volunteered in a number of LGBT-rights organizations there. She also founded the Pride Minyan Group for LGBT Israelis in 2009, after her synagogue's leadership would not allow her to celebrate a symbolic marriage ceremony with her partner in its building.

"There isn't any nice way to say it—they kicked us out of the synagogue," Sorek recalled. We needed a place to pray."

A friend told her if they did not have a minyan—a prayer group—she should start her own.

"Forty percent are gay, 60 percent are straight—totally equal," Sorek noted. "I pray there every week."

Sorek, along with activist Daniel Jonas, visited several U.S. cities, among them Chicago, in conjunction with the organization A Wider Bridge, which promotes understanding about Israel within the LGBT community. Sorek is the chairperson of Havruta: Religious Gays, which was founded in 2007, to support gay men in religious communities and educate the religious public about LGBT issues.

A native of Jerusalem, he said that his family's acceptance of his homosexuality inspired him to work towards reconciling his orthodox principles and identity as a gay man.

"Twenty-four hours after I came out to them, after we all had time to breathe, process and adjust, I told my father that one of the most frightening things for me was that he would become an issue of gossip in his synagogue," Jonas recalled. "…He was honest and brave enough to tell me that he was thinking the same thing, but that he doesn't care."

A year later, Jonas published an article publicly stating his homosexuality and joined his father in the synagogue.

"I came in and I looked around, and was sure everyone would whisper and gossip about us," he said. "I was in a way quite disappointed, because no one did."

Sorek and Jonas maintain that its most important for Orthodox LGBTs to be visible in their communities, noting that its easy for rabbis and other religious personnel to deny discussion of their issues by simply saying that they have no LGBTs among their constituencies. As such they have been involved in an extensive advertising campaign that publishes the faces and stories of other orthodox LGBT individuals

The first publications came via social media, but they got subsequent ads in print, including in a religious newspaper intended to be read during the Sabbath. The newspaper said that they had fielded complaints. As Jonas noted, "They couldn't use the phone for 24 hours, but [readers] were mad enough to call."

"But at least they saw it," added Sorek.

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