Israel’s religious Kibbutz movement, HaKibbutz Hadati, hosted a national summit on November 30 about the intersection of Orthodoxy and LGBTQ identity, in which leaders of the movement publicly engaged with a religious LGBTQ activist group. The event was a first for the movement, one of the most influential, religious Zionist groups in the country which has 10,000 members and serves as an umbrella organization for religious kibbutzim around the country.
About 75 people attended Monday’s conference at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak in central Israel, which included a series of speeches given, including one by Meir Nehorai, a prominent rabbi who chairs the Beit Hillel group of Orthodox rabbis. Each orator addressed tolerance and inclusivity surrounding LGBTQ issues within the religious community, which fell in line with the inclusivity principles delineated by Beit Hillel in August, “on how to contain people with a homosexual orientation within faith communities.” The day would culminate with an open conversation with two members of Shoval, a religious LGBTQ activist group based out of Jerusalem.
This event comes on the heels of controversial comments made last week by Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, in which he called the LGBTQ community a “cult of abomination.” Amar came under fire from LGBTQ and human rights groups, but there were no tangible results to the protests. Though Israel prides itself for being the only LGBTQ friendly country in the Middle East, for those living outside of the Tel Aviv area, it has been an uphill battle for rights and recognition, especially in more religious areas.
This summit, then, was a step in a different direction that itself has some momentum. On Thursday night, the gay rights activist group Havruta along with South Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue, led by Rabbi Benny Lau, the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one), organized an evening of conversation between Rabbanit Malka Pioterkovsky and families of religious LGBTQ people about religious families of people who have come out. The event was hosted in the synagogue.
During his speech at the summit, Amitai Porat, the director of HaKibbutz Hadati, summoned the guidance of the Torah “regarding those with ‘backwards tendencies.’ We must treat them as the Torah says in the commandment to ‘love your neighbor…[and] find ways to allow those who wish to be part of the religious community to do so,” he told Kipa, a religious news outlet.
Being gay, Porat continued, is “not evidence of bad character,” a statement which shows a marked dissonance with the discourse in other sectors of the a less accepting Orthodox community regarding LGBTQ issues, and inclusion. “These people should not live in darkness,” he said. HaKibbutz Hadati schools around the country work to minimize bullying and increase tolerance and understanding of the LGBTQ community.
However, Porat said that he believes homosexuality is “practically…against Jewish law.” But he said he appreciated meeting face to face with members of the religious LGBTQ communitiy, something he deemed a learning experience. “This helps give people strength to understand—parents, teachers—it helps people understand that there are Orthodox LGBTQ people [who care about Jewish law and Judaism].”
Senior Shoval board member Ben Katz said that even the mere fact his organization was invited, and that they engaged in conversation, was a good step forward. “It was a major statement on behalf of the [HaKibbutz Hadati’s] leadership that we should make sure that any conversation about a group of people needs to be had with them…[and] not just about them.”
Hakibbutz Hadati’s Porat explained that he felt this week’s summit was successful as a start. Still, on a practical level, he said, “We don’t know exactly how we’re going to take tangible steps, but we need to open our hearts and we are opening our hearts.”
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.