Observant Jews Ignore HIV

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 16, 2013
Observant Jews Ignore HIV
  (Source:Thinkstock by Getty Images)

Over the years, I've known some masseurs in New York City. All of them told me that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, nearly all of them married and the heads of large families, constituted a part of their client base. For some, especially the ones located in near ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn, these men provide their entire customer base.

In 2001, the documentary "Trembling Before G-d" opened a hitherto firmly shut window on the lives of gay men and lesbians who had realized (if not completely accepted) their sexual orientation, but wanted to remain part of a community that sees them, in the famous description from the biblical Book of Leviticus, as an "abomination."

Many LGBT ultra-Orthodox succumb to parental pressure, marry and have children while hiding their guilt and shame. Some of the men are on the down low, like the ones who patronize masseurs and escorts. Some visit bath houses or highway rest stops. A very few who can afford it even support lovers or keep a second home.

They all fear exposure, which would mean severing all ties with the only world they have known and a way of life centered around religion. Worse still, the powerful community can effectively sever all communication with children.

Religious courts are the ones that issue rulings this community observes. When someone leaves, everything possible is done to ensure that person is cut off from all family members. The suicide of a woman who left her ultra-Orthodox community and collapsed under the grief of her alienated children cast a light on the way ultra-Orthodox are able to undermine legal rulings for joint custody.

There are those who brave rejection from their families and ostracism from their community. They enter into the wider world with little preparation. Some may join a gay-friendly synagogue, but these don't follow the same religious practices that they grew up with. Not only that, but they have to learn the basics -- everything from casual interactions with potential sexual partners, to how to behave in a bar -- things that the rest of us take for granted.

It should be noted that most observant Jews fall under various degrees of "modern Orthodox," which means they study non-religious topics; go to sports events; enjoy entertainment on the TV, plays, movie and dance recitals; and are openly affectionate with their partners. The ultra-Orthodox, in varying degrees, reject modern society in all its forms, some even refusing to study secular subjects.

The pull of family and tradition always remains strong, no matter how bitter the break. Some are so torn that they ultimately recant their sexuality, return to their families and even marry and start families.

One man in "Trembling Before G-D" is the son of a rabbi who, after having been thrown out of yeshivas (religious schools) for acting on his impulses, became a drag queen. After contracting HIV, he returned to his parents and a yeshiva. "I wouldn't be HIV positive if I had stayed in Yeshiva," he ruefully observes.

Shahar Hadar, an Orthodox Jew, transitions into his drag queen persona of a rebbetzin  (Source:ODED BALILTY/Associated Press)

Several support organizations have arisen in recent years but they are small, even in New York, the center of ultra-Orthodoxy in America. Many (if not most) members prefer to remain quiet about their involvement, although they certainly appreciate just knowing that there are others like themselves. Members of these groups remain torn between their religion and their sexuality. Some advocate celibacy; others argue for the religious legality of certain sexual practices but not others -- especially anal sex, specifically proscribed in the Talmud, the collection amassed since Jesus’ times of the laws governing Jewish conduct in all things.

The Internet has certainly been a boon to fighting isolation, but it should be remembered that ultra-Orthodox consider the Web so dangerous there was a rally at a baseball stadium in New York of ultra-Orthodox men just to condemn Internet use, and to encourage each other to stay away from it. The very tool that would allow these deeply closeted people a way out of their profound isolation is thus closed to them.

Two years ago, the Rabbincal Council of America, the main ultra-Orthodox governing body, issued a statement "in light of the extensive media coverage concerning the attitude of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism towards homosexuality." More recently, 223 rabbis and community leaders sent out a "Torah Declaration" on the subject, which restated that "homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a genuine identity." The declaration went further than the Rabbinical Council to maintain that homosexuality is changeable behavior, and to advocate for reparative therapy.

Not surprisingly, the ultra-Orthodox communities do not welcome safe sex messages or prevention campaigns of any kind. The New York City Health Department have no campaigns targeting this population, which may be a result of the well-known penchant for the ultra-Orthodox to vote as a block.

Since, for Ultra-Orthodox Jews, HIV is the result of immoral behavior, most believe that HIV is a mark of disgrace, if not divine punishment. For those who try to maintain a secret sex life, HIV only makes them feel even more isolated. Compounding the problem, since they have never learned how to prevent HIV, they become highly susceptible to it.

  (Source:Thinkstock by Getty Images)

There are no accurate statistics on the number of HIV-positive ultra-Orthodox. Scott Fried is an HIV-positive traditional Jew (although he attends services at New York’s major LGBT synagogue) who lectures youth about sexual matters. He personally knows several ultra-Orthodox who are positive. He came out to his parents as both gay and positive. He has called their response "supportive but clandestine."

Currently, there is no HIV service organization catering to the needs of this community. The Tzvi Aryeh AIDS Foundation was founded in New York City to serve Ultra-Orthodox Jews suffering from AIDS. Tzvi Aryeh attempted to navigate HIV prevention education in such a way that ultra-Orthodox rabbis would approve. But the organization worked in almost total secrecy. The organization does not have an active website and the phone has been disconnected.

It appears from any perspective that, however its apologists may want to soften it, the ultra-Orthodox view of HIV reflects the view of homosexuality: It is wrong. Any community that refuses to accept sexual identity as an immutable part of human nature is going to have trouble dealing with HIV.

When that community has so ingrained its members with a sense that life outside is profane, unworthy and empty, it offers those who are struggling with their inner feelings "my way or the highway": Conform or leave.

Many rabbis profess compassion for those suffering from HIV-related illnesses. Ultra-Orthodox charities fund various programs outside the community that deal with the problem. But until they realize that HIV cannot be ignored -- and that sexuality cannot be prayed away -- they will continue to offer HIV-positive brethren nothing but more isolation and despair.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

HIV Minority Report

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