During Pride Month, Repair the World is featuring interviews with the people and organizations who are on the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. This week: New Yorker, Justin Spiro, talks about his role as facilitator for a teen support group with JQY – a nonprofit organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in the Orthodox community.
Tell me a bit about your own background in the Jewish and queer worlds.
I grew up in the Conservative movement, and became more observant in college. I had come out as gay in high school, and started the gay-straight alliance at my school. So I had that part of my identity, and then my Jewish identity became more central later. After college, I moved to NYC which is one of the few places that has a critical mass of queer Orthodox people. I got involved with JQY as a member and occasional volunteer. Many of the friends I have today I originally met through JQY.
And what do you do with JQY now?
I am a facilitator for a monthly teen group in the Five Towns, Long Island. It’s a safe space for LGBTQ people who are currently or formerly religious to discuss about the issues they have, and realize that they are not the only ones facing those issues. In my professional life I have a masters degree in social work and work as a therapist with teenagers in the Bronx. My experience with that age group plus my own personal experiences in the queer and Orthodox communities made me a good fit for this particular program. The group is still pretty new, and its founding was one of luck and circumstance. We got a grant from Federation to put something like this together, and Five Towns, which has a large Orthodox community, seemed like a great place to jump in. We’re hoping it eventually spreads to other communities.
What unique challenges do queer Orthodox teens face?
One issue has to do with their internal moral compasses. Since they were young, they were taught that whatever the Torah says you have to do. More liberal movements can be more interpretive and open about Jewish law, but in Orthodoxy there is a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong, as well as punishment and reward from God.
But as upsetting as that might sound, that feeling often pales in comparison with the social and community pressures the teens face. By far kids say they are more stressed out about how their parents or peers are treating them rather than about halachic (Jewish law) issues. It may be a matter of kids making jokes in the hallway, or rabbis and teachers who try to be helpful but say unhelpful or hurtful things. That’s what really stresses them out.
Do you think the Orthodox world is becoming more accepting of LGBTQ people?
I see a lot of movement in that direction. On the one hand, if your goal is to have an Orthodox rabbi perform a same sex ceremony, that is unlikely to happen. But in the Orthodox world, and particularly the modern Orthodox world, people are talking about the issues, which is ground breaking. It doesn’t change halacha, but it does acknowledge that these issues exist and that life can be a real struggle. Allowing people to share their full selves with the community is a step in the right direction.
Interestingly, the Five Towns group is endorsed and sponsored by two Orthodox rabbis in the community – without that, we never would have gotten it off the ground. So these changes are not across the board – they’re not happening in every synagogue – but it’s starting.
The most important thing is exposure. In any community, knowing someone in your family or friendship circle who is gay makes a huge difference. Then it becomes not a foreign concept, but something that impacts people just like us. Enabling people to come out safely in their communities is the single most powerful way to foster acceptance.
How has being a part of JQY impacted you personally?
It makes me feel good to see kids make progress in their lives and feel better about themselves. Personally, I am at a good place in my life – I have stable identities as a Jew and a gay individual. But many people are still unstable in one or both identities, so I feel like this work lets me give back. It’s my duty and I’m happy to do it.
Find out more about JQY’s work at their website.