Modern Orthodox college students (and now egalitarian/Conservative college students, after the founding of Mechon Hadar,) speak of moving to New York after college as if it’s a necessary step toward attaining life satisfaction. New York is the only place where you’ll find a wide variety of kosher food. New York is the only place where you’ll have a vibrant community on Shabbat and holidays. New York is the only place where you’ll have a dating pool and meet your b’shert. Everywhere else is like גלות, exile.
Last summer, I went through this thought process and came to the conclusion that there was only one acceptable graduate school to go to, and I had better want to work for people there. At the time, it was comforting to realize that all of my Orthodox friends felt the same way. This was one of the few things I spent time thinking about that didn’t feel like a uniquely queer issue.
Whether or not New York is currently the best place in the country to be an observant Jew is of less interest to me than this question: do we want to perpetuate this perception (or reality) for the next 20 years? We have an opportunity to stop the madness. I can only offer my perspective as a queer Jew, but I’d imagine that many straight Jews feel the same way.
The queer aspect of this discussion is tied in with the organizations that have been created in New York to support the gay Orthodox community. There is no all-encompassing gay Orthodox organization like JQ Youth anywhere else in the country, and there are practical reasons why this kind of resource could only be created in New York City. I have read along as gay observant Jewish bloggers accepted the necessity of moving to New York and then found a way to get there. But that acceptance of the status quo is a problem.
Accepting that a critical mass of queer observant Jews exists only in New York City means accepting that most queer observant Jews will not find groups of people like themselves until their mid 20’s — if they can even get to New York. I find this idea so unacceptable that I’d like to not move to New York simply out of protest, because plenty of queer Jews are born and raised in other places. To tell them that they can only be fulfilled by living in one city in this entire country is absurd, and perpetuates the problem that led so many queer Jews to gather in New York in the first place. Is it any surprise that being gay or coming out can seem like such miserable and lonely propositions?
A recent article in Tablet Magazine examined the history of LGBT synagogues and their strategies in planning for the future. As I read this article, I couldn’t get past the huge disconnect between needs and providers. The gay kids raised by the people who belong to LGBT synagogues or vocally LGBT-inclusive synagogues are not the kids who need the institutional support provided by those same synagogues. They would get that support from their parents anyway. The people who need that support are those who won’t be able to get it until they leave their parents’ homes and are of a synagogue-joining age. The LGBT synagogue model seems to accept the same premise as New York centric gay observant Judaism — that the first few decades of any queer Jew’s life will be a struggle.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been checking out graduate schools around the country. The decision has come down to this: Boston or the San Francisco Bay Area.
At Harvard, I asked my hosts (at Shabbat lunch, again) if they knew any queer people who davened at Cambridge Minyan. They thought for a few moments and couldn’t come up with anyone, but expressed their surprise at that fact. Then they told me about their gay friend who is currently studying at Pardes. At Stanford, Hillel’s graduate student life coordinator spoke favorably of gay Jewish life in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the city is about an hour away from the campus. She then told me about a gay Stanford Ph.D. student who had also studied at Pardes.
OK, so I picked the right yeshiva.
I like both of these communities because they contain young adults who are serious about Judaism but who also don’t buy into the “New York or bust” mentality. I’m confident that I can play a part in helping either of them grow, and hopefully in finding some more of those elusive queer Jews.
As I see it, we really don’t have a choice here. As long as Jewish life continues to exist in all these different places, we need to make all these different places good places to be gay and Jewish. A gay-positive Judaism requires that self-acceptance for queer Jews can come as early as the first realizations of sexual orientation and without the years of pain that are still often present today.