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In Brooklyn, a Shabbat Tradition Gains Momentum

A dispatch from Grindr Shabbat, a service and dinner that embraces LGBTQ Jews

Rose Kaplan
January 27, 2016

A shirtless beefcake wearing a yarmulke, crudely Photoshopped in front of a challah. Gay Hasids on iPhones. Talmudic jokes about Grindr. These all feature prominently in previous coverage of “Grindr Shabbat,” a monthly-ish Shabbat service and dinner for LGBTQ Jews in New York. And maybe Grindr Shabbat is asking for it—it does, after all, take its name from the wildly popular gay hook-up app. But to sensationalize Grindr Shabbat around the apparently continued shock value of “gay + Jewish” would be a mistake.

Last weekend, I attended a Grindr Shabbat, my second, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which was hosted by Repair the World, an AmeriCorps-style volunteer fellowship program that works to build connections between community service and Jewish life. I was early, so I sipped a shot of whiskey from the extensive liquor offering and took in the scene. The first-floor gallery area was spare, all white walls and hardwood floors, and works by local artists addressing gentrification in Brooklyn were on display.

As the room filled up, Grindr Shabbat’s founder Matthew Green led us through an inspired Shabbat service with the help of a few other regulars. Some folks skipped the service altogether, and probably just as many didn’t show up until after it ended, just in time for a lively dinner—salmon, roast chicken, rice pilaf, two kinds of kugel, and, of course, challah—that kept most guests engaged far past the time when, as a kid, I would have already begged my leave.

In December, Green made the Jewish Museum’s annual list of movers and shakers for his work with Grindr Shabbat. But when he began hosting Shabbat over a year ago, all he was hoping to do was create space for Jews with little involvement in Jewish life. Green had mentioned his rabbinical work on his Grindr profile, and soon it seemed to be all that other Grindr users wanted to ask him about.

“They had a lot of questions—about Israel, about Judaism, about rabbinical school, about the intersectionality of being queer and being Jewish,” Green explained. “I kept hearing the same thing: a lot of people grew up in a Jewish community but no longer had any formal involvement.”

Initially settling on the name “Milkl’s Minyan”—a play on milkhl, the Yiddish word for coffee grinder—he applied for and received a small grant from his rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which enabled him to continue hosting Shabbat get-togethers. Over time, attendance has swelled. On average, said Green, about 50 people attend each Grindr Shabbat event.

With a name like Grindr Shabbat, it’s probably not surprising that the crowds tend to be more gay men than anyone else—Green expressed some disatisfaction to me about this state of affairs and said he’s been talking to attendees about ways to remedy it. But as a queer Jewish woman who will probably never use Grindr, I was surprised by how comfortable I felt at this Grindr Shabbat. While it might not be perfect for everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella, Grindr Shabbat and more events like it are definitely necessary and will likely only become moreso in the future, as more and more Jews begin to feel comfortable melding their Jewishness with their gender and sexuality.

Toward the end of the evening, Ryan Mendías found me on his way out the door and wanted to set the record straight, after being quoted in a previous Grindr Shabbat story that he felt had not done it justice. Mendías has attended every Grindr Shabbat. He first met Green on Grindr, showing up at that first Grindr Shabbat back in December 2014, one that Green characterized as “an awkward but fun dinner of twelve people, most of whom had never met one another.”

“Finding a community of gay Jews who are deeply interested in Judaism, however they define it, has been profoundly meaningful,” said Mendías, who is converting to Judaism. “It’s not always so easy to be in a Jewish community, especially one that honors your queerness, but Grindr Shabbat is a place where Judaism is very queer, where being Jewish entails being different in a lot of ways.”

Jonathan Cohen, a current Repair the World fellow, echoed Mendías. “As a gay Hispanic Jew, it has been an amazing feeling, being surrounded by so many different groups of people who celebrate and value that diversity.”

“If you’re queer and your observance is flexible, there are tons of things for you in New York,” added Nechama Levy, a frum bike shop owner living in Crown Heights. “But if you’re gay, Jewish, and observant, there aren’t a lot of options.”

“[This is] the most diverse bunch of Jews I’ve ever been with in any Jewish space,” Green said. “They’re all over the place, religiously. There are Jews who consider themselves only ethnically Jewish and also Jews-by-choice, there are white Jews and Jews of color, there are Israelis, French, and Russian Jews, alongside North Americans. And they’re across the spectrum of L,G, B, T, Q, and straight. The fact that it’s a predominantly queer space has not turned off a variety of straight people in the neighborhood for joining us most Shabbatot. I love that.”

He’s also exploring new locales: a friend hosted a Grindr Shabbat in Los Angeles last year, and Green himself will travel to Washington, D.C. this summer for a rabbinic internship, where he and a few queer Jews there have plans to use Grindr to help build their own local queer Shabbat community. Moving forward, Green wants to grow and spread the Grindr Shabbat concept, while continuing to foster the community in Brooklyn. He’s exploring other funding options—Shabbat dinner startup OneTable, where Green is an official “Shabbat Coach,” helped with a recent Grindr Shabbat—as well as new ways to engage.

“I’d love to see the Grindr Shabbat community get together to do a service project on a Saturday or Sunday,” Green said. “The goal would be to cultivate a similar vibe: diverse, young, and casual, but seriously Jewish.”

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.

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