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Reconciling sexuality with religion

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One would be hard pressed to find instances of Orthodox Judaism and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) occupying the same sentence. Yet for the women whose stories appear in the anthology, "Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires," reconciling the two is a familiar task.

After coming across "Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence," a collection of stories from women in convents coming to terms with their sexuality, editor Miryam Kabakov was inspired to publish the first Jewish equivalent of the anthology. She began by conducting an experiment to elicit responses from Orthodox Jewish women as to how they build integrated religious and sexual or gender identities. Kabakov connected with 13 women whose stories comprise "Keep Your Wives Away from Them." The contributors boast a range of backgrounds and lay claim a host of different experiences, yet each of their essays affirms the possibility of being a member of both LGBTQ and Orthodox Jewish communities.

Still, that's not to say they effortlessly continued practicing Judaism without sacrificing their sexuality or gender identity. As a lesbian or transgender individual in the world of Orthodox Judaism, struggles inevitably ensue.
One contributor, reflecting on her initial brush with lesbianism, admits that if she were to say she liked girls, the backlash would have felt like a "permanent door was closing on her religious community." Another author reveals the difficulties of being transgender and coming out as female when living in the all-male environment of Chabad. Certainly, the women given a voice in the anthology each attest to feelings of fear and deprivation when first approaching the intersection of religious and sexual or gender identity.

"When you come out in the Orthodox Jewish world, a lot is at stake," Kabakov says. "An adult could lose his or her family and lose status in the community."

The essays in "Keep Your Wives Away from Them" give consideration to life after the struggle to come out, when Jewish LGBTQ men and women are faced with the task of integrating religion and sexuality. A number of the authors seek out and form support groups where they can continue practicing Judaism in a familiar, Orthodox environment and connect with one another, keeping religious communities alive.

Eshel, devoted to creating understanding and support for gay and lesbian people in Traditional and Orthodox communities, is one such group. Formed in 2010, it offers educational initiatives for its members, including training and empowerment of Traditional and Orthodox speakers. Safety and confidentiality are essential components of Eshel, as people involved in its programs are taking a risk by showing their faces and may not be comfortable divulging their sexuality to the greater Jewish community just yet.

Urging Traditional and Orthodox communities to welcome gay and lesbian members is fundamental to Eshel's mission. Kabakov, a member of the Eshel board, says, "It's hard to be different in the Orthodox world. Other Orthodox Jews who are ostracized should show empathy for gays and lesbians."

Eshel is also introducing its first summer vacation retreat this year. The Shabbaton will be held on July 5-8 in Watervliet, Michigan and feature a weekend of educational excursions, prayer, singing, dancing, painting, and leadership projects, in addition to an appearance by gay Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist Y-Love.

"Keep Your Wives Away from Them" and support groups like Eshel are taking the lead in giving LGBTQ women and men opportunities to speak where they have previously been silenced. "We have to show members of the LGBTQ community that Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality are compatible," says Kabakov. "If we don't provide a model for them, they won't maintain religious observance."

 For more information about "Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Unorthodox Women, Orthodox Desires," visit www.keepyourwivesawayfromthem.com. Go to www.eshelonline.org to learn about Eshel and its upcoming Shabbaton retreat.

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