This Sunday, December 17, JQY will be hosting a Chanukah Benefit Concert for the entire Jewish community featuring Matisyahu, Eli Shweibel and Neshama Calbach , along with many other performers. Ticket sales and more information can be found here.
What surprised me most about talking to Mordechai Levovitz was the joy and hope that bubbled up through his voice. After having read multiple accounts of the despair that many gay Jewish teens have experienced in the Orthodox world, I’d expected him to be more somber, or perhaps even angry; instead I was delighted by one of the most enthusiastic, optimistic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.
Mordechai is one of the founders of JQY, an organization that is devoted to providing support for LGBTQ youth, many of whom grew up in Orthodox homes. This Sunday, JQY is holding a benefit concert featuring big names such as Matisyahu, Eli Shweibel and Neshama Calbach to raise much-needed funds for these young people and Mordechai is convinced that this will be a historic moment for both the LGBTQ kids and the greater Orthodox world.
“This event is really meaningful for us. It’s really the first time where we looked into the mainstream of Jewish entertainment and asked them to help us spread the message that LGBTQ youth are a group that the entire Jewish community should be thinking about… including Orthodox people. And both the performers and the Orthodox community have really answered that call. So far, about 35% of the people who are buying tickets are people outside the JQY community, most likely from the Orthodox or general Jewish community. A lot of teens are bringing their families which is very beautiful. Some families bought whole tables and grandmothers and grandfathers and grandchildren will be sitting at tables together. That is a major shift from where we were 15-20 years ago.”
His words made me think of my own family. When I was younger, one of my relatives came out as gay. Unfortunately, his parents were not able to accept him and he ended up with no real support system. His life took a downward spiral after that and he ended up dying of a drug overdose. It made me wonder how much different his life would have been if he’d have had the kind of support that JQY is providing these young people.
I asked Mordechai what it is that the teenagers most need to keep them healthy and emotionally supported.
“Most of the teens that we deal with are predominately worried about feeling like they belong in their families, feeling safe, like they have friends, that there’s nothing wrong with them and that they have a bright future with happiness. So, we provide them with as many services as we can to meet those needs. We have a drop-in center, crisis hotline, clinical resources, and an advocacy initiative that includes mental health training.”
Despite his secular upbringing, none of these resources were available to my relative when he came out. It made me think more about how scared and alone he must have felt and to think again about all those stories I’ve read about how being gay in the Orthodox world can be even more isolating. I asked Mordechai if the situation was really as bleak as it seemed.
“It’s been hard, I’m not going to sugar coat it. A lot of schools and parents and family members don’t really know how to react because it raises religious questions and cultural and communal questions. So, not everyone has been great. But I can say that almost everyone who has come out has found people in their community that will give them love and support. So, yes, rejection exists in this community, but it’s important to always remember that love and support almost always exist also. The challenge is not necessarily that everyone needs to love and accept you, the challenge is to find the people in your community who will love and accept you. And if you look hard enough, that’s there… even in Ultra Orthodox communities.”
Once again, Mordechai’s optimism took me aback and made me believe in a world where LGBTQ youth, like my relative, could find the support they need to have bright futures… even within the Orthodox World.
It’s with that vision that JQY is moving forward and continuing to reach out to the entire Jewish community for support. This concert is one of many steps to take care of these teens, who are ALL of our responsibility.