(Reposted as part of our staff picks from 2009, originally written by Laura Gilbert on 8/4/2009)
On Monday, August 3rd, there was a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at a support group meeting for LGBT youth at the Agudah LGBT community center headquarters in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of people gathered in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC at sunset. You can download the event press release in pdf format.
One of the speakers was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, from the Orthodox Ohev Shalom-the National Synagogue in Washington, DC. While the shooter hasn’t been caught yet and they know nothing about his motives, some bloggers suspect that he was an Orthodox Jew fueled by religious motivations, to which the Rabbi stated, “Within the Orthodox community, it is time to do some internal accounting.” This statement garnered applause and agreement from the crowd. "What I think we need to do, in the Orthodox community, is to create a communal pledge for synangogues and schools to sign onto, to declare that we will not create a climate of gay-bashing, a climate of hatred, a climate that willingly or implicitly condones these types of murders. And once we create such a pledge, we need to enforce it and we need to live it." When we asked him why he felt obliged to attend this event, he told us that it is important to recognize that the shooter's actions are a desecration of God’s name, and in a proactive sense, make sure none of this happens again. The Rabbi ended our interview by saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I believe homosexuality is prohibited according to the Torah, but it is wrong to create an environment of belittling and fostering hatred… I challenge you to find me anyone who is one thousand percent pious.”
Alex Greenbaum, one of the organizers that helped plan the event and Vice Chair of DCJCC Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement (GLOE), lived in Israel for a couple of years. When he found out about the shooting, he was moved to tears and felt that he needed to do something. He said that he wanted the event to be really personal, where people could show emotion. "Tel Aviv likes to think of itself as the Jewish, intellectual city. That’s why everyone is so shocked…I think we are especially shocked it happened to youth." He went on to say, “the Jewish community cares about queer youth and cares about any youth” . He is planning to set up a helpline for queer Orthodox youth through an organization based in New York City called Footsteps.
Zvi Bellin, another event organizer, is the Engagement Associate for Nehirim, an organization that "creates authentic spiritual community for GLBT Jews, partners, and allies." Zvi told us that he wasn’t able to come out in the US because he knew too many people and was "ingrained in the culture of living in the closet." In Israel he was more comfortable taking a personal look at himself. In search of support, Zvi went to Agudah, the place of the shooting. Agudah got him in touch with a group of religious gay men in their 20’s. It gave him a safe space. There he found a community who “would listen. Bear witness to my story.”
We asked Zvi what message he wanted people to take away from this vigil: "No matter what one’s opinion is, the way of dealing with it is not through violence... When it comes to our youth’s rights to explore, to not be certain, to weed out their identity, we support them.”
Jack Moline, the Director of Public Policy for the Rabbinical Assembly said, “Personally I take offense when anyone is persecuted for something that is part of their God-given nature. In the capacity of my job, it is important that people know that religious Jews are not only offended by tragedy but supportive of the diversity of human nature.”
Cheryl Saferstein, age 21, summed up the message of the vigil, simply saying, “Stay strong. Stay proud. And stand together.”
Photographs by Laura Gilbert