• Chaim Levin

On Growing up gay in the Chabad community

A Chabad Facebook group that I am part of recently had quite a few discussions about LGBTQ issues with thousands of responses. I decided to open up about some of my own journey while growing up as a gay person within the Chabad community. I am beyond overwhelmed by the response from so many Chabad people. I am grateful to have come from a place where many people are increasingly open minded and understanding of things that are different to them. Quite a few people have asked me to publish this somewhere and I decided to post it here for anyone who is interested in reading it or sharing it with someone they think can benefit from it.

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Dear brothers and sisters (and everything in between), There have been quite a few posts recently about the topic of homosexuality and LGBTQ people in the Chabad community. I want to address some of the things that have come up and hopefully clarify some misconceptions that people have about people like me and others within the LGBTQ community.


First, some background about me: I grew up in Crown Heights. I went to Oholei Torah for most of my life and after that I was in Yeshiva in Tzefat (tzeirei) and then spent a year in Brunoy. My years in Yeshiva were probably some of the most difficult of my life. I was constantly confused about who I was and who I was supposed to be. When I confided in a friend about an incident that happened between me and another guy in yeshiva, word got around relatively quickly and for the rest of that year in Brunoy I interacted with maybe five people. I was harassed and humiliated publicly on multiple occasions. Surprisingly, Zalman Segal, the mashgiach at that time, treated me with more dignity and respect then some of my fellow peers did.


After leaving Brunoy on my own volition, I tried getting into other yeshivas but their doors were slammed in my face. One yeshiva wanted my therapist to confirm that I wasn’t on drugs or a danger to other students (I wasn’t). Even after following all their requests, the only yeshiva that would accept me was a Russian Baal Tesshuva program in Migdal Haeemek. It was a very painful few weeks for me and my parents and at that point I was ready to go to any place that would accept me. I was desperate to be “normal” like my other peers who were already well into their zman by that time. To make a long story short, I went to that Russian Baal Teshuva program. After about a month, one of the guys tried hitting on me and when I complained about it I got kicked out. I was 17 and that was the last time I stepped foot into yeshiva.


When I got back to New York, I became more and more painfully aware of the fact that my attraction to other men wasn’t changing or going away. My frum therapist then told me that she couldn’t give me the help that i needed and recommended I seek out other “treatments” to fix this so called problem. This led me into conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy. These “therapies” were being administered through a group called JONAH. I was referred to JONAH by a Rabbi who I trusted but who admittedly didn’t know a lot about them or what they did. All he knew was that they had the “hechsher” of many Rabbis, including Chabad rabbis.


During my 18 months in conversion therapy, I was subjected to various forms of “therapy” that were anything but therapeutic. I was forced to reenact a traumatic incident from my childhood that involved sexual abuse. I was taught to blame my parents for not loving me enough which they believed was one of the many reasons that one could become gay. I was forced to take off my clothes and touch myself, alone in a locked room with one of their “life coaches” who himself admitted to being attracted to men. Part of the reason I went along with along with many of these bizarre activities was because I was desperate and didn’t feel like I had any other option. One of the most manipulative aspects of the conversion therapy industry is that when their therapies don’t work, they blame the patient for not trying hard enough. I was determined not to be the guy who didn’t try hard enough, I was determined to be straight.


As you probably guessed by now, it didn’t work. Not only did it not work, it caused some serious other problems in my life that I am still dealing with today, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse related issues.


What I didn’t know at that time, was that there was a large community of Jewish gay people who were both frum and formerly frum. What I didn’t know was that many of these people found a way to make peace with their identities as gay people and as Jews. Had I discovered this community before I ended up in conversion therapy, my life would be drastically different today.

Now, ten years later, as I reflect on my own journey, I think it’s important for the people in this group to understand a few things:

1. Being gay is not comparable to something like kleptomania or any other compulsive behavior. Being gay doesn’t cause any documented harm, the other comparisons do.

2. None of us chose to be gay. I promise you. A lot of the comments on previous threads seem to imply that it’s a matter of choice. It’s not. The only choice some of us have made was the choice to look past this part in ourselves and make peace with it. That is a choice, and a very good one. In my case, it was a life saving choice.

3. BEING gay is not a sin. Even acting on it is not necessarily considered sinning, unless it is one very specific act. With that said, I don’t see people asking straight people if they keep taharas hamishpocha (the laws of family purity). That same courtesy should be given to gay people who choose to remain frum. It’s no one’s business what goes on in their bedrooms. Adding to that, if you think that by declaring our sexuality means we are telling you what we do in our bedroom, you couldn’t be more wrong. By telling people that we are gay, we are sharing a massive part of our identity. It’s not just about what our sexual desires are, it’s about who we love. It’s more than just sex, it’s emotional too.

4. When discussing halacha, people frequently bring up the comparison of people who don’t break shabbos. I believe this comparison is very misguided. People don’t commit suicide because they want to eat a cheeseburger or want to have a cigarette on shabbos. People DO commit suicide when they feel like there’s no place for them in the society and world that they grew up in. But beyond that, someone who breaks the laws of shabbat or kashurs are doing a specific action that in many cases are done publicly. Not so with being gay. There is no act that is being done. Unless you see two people having anal sex in public (and i hope you don’t), you have no right to assume that they are breaking any halacha. There are many gay people who aren’t religious who don’t engage in anal sex for their own reasons.

5. Telling people that they have a responsibility to live a life of celibacy is cruel and very very impractical. Are we not worthy of being in love? Of having a family? Why did god give us sexuality if he didn’t want us to use it? It’s VERY easy for a straight person to tell us that this is our test from Hashem but that’s not practical advice and is very illogical. Nowhere does it say that we can’t love someone of the same gender. Maybe the real nisayon is for straight orthodox people to get past their seemingly absurd obsession with our sex lives and just give us the same benefit of the doubt given to straight people?

6.Coming out is important! It is important for people to be able to be authentic about who they are without the fear of losing their family and friends. No matter how many times I hear them, It’s still so shocking to hear stories of people who came out in Crown Heights and lost everything. If you think straight people don’t come out all the time, you’ve never been to a Jewish wedding. I’ve never heard a straight person being told not to talk about their spouse or their relationship yet for some reason I constantly hear orthodox Jews implying that we should just keep this part of our lives to ourselves. What do you think will happen when someone ends up in a relationship? You think that person will stick around in a community that doesn’t wish to acknowledge their BASIC identity?

If you are a parent of an LGBTQ person, I am sure that this is difficult for you, but think how much MORE difficult it is for your child? This isn’t about you. It’s about your kid. Your child deserves to be loved and respected by you. I cannot stress enough how traumatizing it can be when your family who you’ve known your whole life rejects you and compares you to a criminal who has a “stealing problem” or some of the other lovely comparisons that have come up recently. You may think you’re doing the right thing now by rejecting your child but I can promise you that one day you will look back on this decision and regret it for the rest of your life. I am extremely proud of my parents for how far they’ve come. I can say the same for quite a few other Chabad parents who I’ve met along the way.

People should also realize that I am not the only person from the Chabad community to have ended up in conversion therapy. I speak for many when I tell this story because many of them can’t or won’t share their stories publicly and I respect that. Before you suggest that someone can just change their orientation, remember that you likely know someone who attempted this “change” but didn’t succeed.

If you are LGBTQ and are in the closet, know this: You are perfectly fine the way you are. You might feel like the world is very lonely right now but I can assure that it won’t be that way forever. There are lots of incredible resources out there like JQyouth (jqyouth.org) or Eshel (eshelonline.org) or LGBTQ Chabad - all offer support to people who are in similar situations. I know that some of the comments in this group have felt hurtful and scary, but, for every negative and idiotic comment, there are many more smart ones. You have a lot of allies in the Chabad community and that number keeps growing every day.


Finally, in terms of the Rebbe and homsexuality: As I’ve stated previously, I don’t really agree with some of the things the Rebbe sid or the advice he gave to some people to get married and just ignore it. With that said though, every single LGBTQ person I know who had the honor to meet the Rebbe recounted nothing but respect and warmth from the Rebbe. If you really believe that the Rebbe was a moral compass, follow his lead and treat others with dignity and respect, no matter what you think about some of their choices. Be kind when speaking about LGBTQ people. Remember that we are at your shabbos tables, in your shuls and in your yeshivas. We are paying attention, we hear everything. Your words can make it or break it for someone who already feels like they don’t belong in this world.


If you made it this far, I thank you for reading. If anyone has any questions or concerns that they want to discuss with me personally, my door is always open, just shoot me a message.