Nadav Schwartz knew he was gay by the time of his bar mitzvah.
The problem? He grew up in an Orthodox family and didn’t think it was possible to mix his Judaism with his homosexuality.
After many sessions of conversion therapy and trying to “pray the gay away,” Schwartz couldn’t understand why the older men in his support group were so depressed.
“I was [thinking]: What’s the problem? You marry a woman and everything disappears.”
But as a newlywed, after experiencing the conflict for himself, Schwartz began to realize that his feelings were not going to change, and he divorced his wife just four months after getting married.
Now, Schwartz combines his love for Judaism and his identity as an openly gay Orthodox man in an effort to help other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, while working as a community coordinator at the Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Jerusalem’s LGBT organization.
Last week, ahead of Thursday’s Jerusalem Pride Parade, Schwartz and activist Irene Rabinowitz spoke on a panel at the Jerusalem Press Club about the conflicting identities of being a religious Jew and a member of the LGBT community.
Rabinowitz grew up in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and later worked in New York. She was used to being in a very gay environment – until she immigrated to Israel in 2014. Here, she experienced total culture shock. While it was much easier to be Orthodox in Jerusalem, it was much harder to be gay.
Rabinowitz spent more than 30 years working for an AIDS service organization in New York at the height of the epidemic, an experience that inspired her work for the LGBT community later on.
“The work that I did, especially in the AIDS community, made it even clearer to me... that the bias against gay men, especially in that period, was so visceral that this would be work we would have to carry on after the epidemic,” she said.
As the development director of the Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Rabinowitz said she often saw religious youths, both Jewish and Arab, who were terrified to come out to their families, an admission that is far less traumatic in the US.
“What we learned is that people just want respect, and the young people just want to feel safe,” Rabinowitz said.
Schwartz said he is hopeful that change is coming within Orthodox communities, something he can see happening already.
A survey published earlier this month showed that 60% of Bayit Yehudi voters support the Surrogacy Law, Schwartz said at the panel.
Many Modern Orthodox Jews are supportive of LGBT rights, which is exemplified by the attendees at Jerusalem Pride Parade in recent years. Rabinowitz said she sees Jerusalem Pride as being more diverse than Tel Aviv Pride.
“Tel Aviv Pride is a party,” she said. “But Jerusalem is a little different.”
Rabinowitz said Jerusalem Pride reminds her of the civil rights marches in America in the 1960s. People still have a good time, but “it’s more of a civil rights issue,” she remarked.
As opposed to gay rights parades in other countries, in Israel, “If you’re not marching, you’re not in.... So that’s very important, because it gives people the feeling that they are the change,” Schwartz said.
He also added that the difference in name is important when comparing the Tel Aviv Pride Parade with the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance.
“Those two names have a lot of meaning behind them. Here [in Jerusalem], it’s actually a demonstration,” Schwartz said.
The message, Rabinowitz and Schwartz said, is that the LGBT community in Jerusalem should be accepted as people like everyone else.
Unfortunately, as past events have proven, that is not always the case. Schwartz said the stabbing of Shira Banki in 2015 was a turning point for Israel’s LGBT community.
“I don’t think it influenced just the Jerusalem community
but the whole Israeli community,” he said. “People felt this is something one cannot be silent about.”
Schwartz said he feels an obligation as a gay person and as religious Jew to make the march as inclusive as possible and to “accept people because they’re different.
“There is a very fundamental principle in Judaism saying that whatever God does, it’s for the better. Therefore, if God made me gay, and whatever he does is for the better, means that God thinks the best thing for [me] is to be gay,” he said. “The question that I have to ask myself is: ‘How do I make the world a better place with the gift that God gave me?’”
Still, many religious LGBT kids struggle, Rabinowitz said. “There’s so much work to be done around here.... We can be religious and be part of the LGBT community.”
With tensions high surrounding the recent Surrogacy Law and with the murder of Shira Banki in the 2015 parade still fresh in everyone’s memory, security at Thursday’s event will be extremely tight.
Hundreds of security personnel, including police officers, undercover officers, Border Police, other backup forces and volunteers will be deployed to protect marchers and preserve public order.
Thursday’s march is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. in Liberty Bell Park, proceed up Keren Hayesod Street onto King George, then turn onto Hillel Street and wend its way to Independence Park, close to the center of town.
For security, entry to the march will be permitted only from Liberty Bell Park or Paris Square, the junction of Keren Hayesod Street and King George Avenue. Entry to the final event in Independence Park will also be allowed only to those who entered from either of those two points.
Police will also conduct security checks on parade participants at Liberty Bell Park, a step coordinated with parade organizers.
The streets on the parade route will be closed off to traffic from 3 p.m., as will major roads leading to the march.Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.