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Young, Gay and Devoted to the Cause

April 9, 2009 By:
Gail Shister, JE Feature
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Jonathan Gilad Photo by Penny Jeannechild

 Jonathan Gilad, 24, works on Capitol Hill, studied at yeshiva in Israel, attends Orthodox services at least twice a week and has never tasted a cheeseburger.

Cornell freshman Annie Bass, 18, prays throughout the day -- including before and after meals -- and is known around campus as "the girl in the kippot."

Matt Feczko, 21, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, spent a year in Israel, debated the Talmud through high school and doesn't like to date gentiles.

So what do these young Jewish adults have in common?

They are as passionate about their Judaism as they are about their homosexuality.

They, along with 75 others, gathered over the weekend at Penn Hillel for the 13th annual conference of the National Union of Jewish, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Intersex Students, known as NUJLS.

The group's leviathan name is a mouthful of marbles, acknowledges Vanessa "Vinny" Prell, executive director since 2007. "People often ask me if I was hired because I can say it in one breath." Pause. Giggle.

Equally breathtaking is this statistic: At least 15 percent of NUJLS' 200 informal members are Orthodox, according to Prell. For many mainstream Jews, "gay" and "Orthodox" in the same sentence is a novel, if not oxymoronic, experience.

For others, however, there is no contradiction between the two.

"I embrace both," says Gilad, a Queens College graduate from New Rochelle, N.Y., who plans to attend law school. He says that he's been out "to himself" for eight years, but told his parents less than a year ago.

"Orthodoxy is an evolving, complex movement," says Gilad. "It has a lot of traditions, and it vigorously protects those traditions. There is a natural resistance to homosexuality, but I think it will eventually change."

Gilad has endured his share of homophobia. One of his yeshiva roommates in Israel told him that he couldn't sleep in the same room with him. Several life-long friends dropped him. His parents said that he was doomed to a lonely, loveless life. (They are "evolving," he says.)

Ironically, Jewish men often won't date Gilad because "they assume I must be miserable and closeted as an Orthodox Jew," he says. "Not true."

Non-Jews, on the other hand, tend to be more supportive: "They wish they could have that relationship with their religion."

Executive director Prell, 25, a Los Angeles native, was raised in a Reform congregation. NUJLS' only full-time staff member, she works out of a rented cubicle in Hillel's international headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Even with its miniscule overhead, NUJLS depends on foundation grants, individual donors and synagogues.)

As an undergrad at University of California-Santa Barbara in 2003, Prell felt isolated and alone. All that changed when she heard about a NUJLS conference at nearby UCLA. The moment she arrived, she says "I felt like I had found my tribe."

The eldest of five -- her siblings are all boys -- Prell says that Judaism "is the foundation of my ethics and spirituality. It feeds my soul. I look to the Torah and Jewish traditions for ways to understand the world and do the right thing."

Prell and her girlfriend, elementary-school phys-ed teacher Sami Holtz, 28, are members of Congregation Bet Mishpachah ("House of Family"), a gay synagogue in Washington.

Cornell student Bass, whose father is Jewish, came to Judaism relatively late in life. At age 5, she and her mother converted from Catholicism and joined a Conservative synagogue. Bass spent two summers in high school at New York's Drisha Institute, a women's yeshiva.

She came to her sexuality early, at 13. The first people she confided in were two female rabbis, both heterosexual. Her family was supportive, she says.

"Everything I do is through a Jewish lens," says Bass, a native of New Haven, Conn. "For me, it's very much a way of life. It has a set of guidelines that different people interpret in different ways."

Draping his arm around his boyfriend, Drexel senior Emil Cohen, 22, Penn's Feczko insists: "I'm a queer Jew, and I'm happy."

Feczko, 21, from Newton, Mass., is Orthodox. In the fall, he took over as co-leader of Penn's organization for gay, lesbian and bisexual students.

"A gay identity doesn't preclude one from Judaism whatsoever, because Judaism is about celebrating who you are," says the speed-talking Feczko. "The most important thing is finding a medium where you can have that Jewishness and your queerness, and be secure in your identity."

Feczko says that he definitely wants children, adding that it's important his partner be Jewish.

"When I was on a Holocaust tour in Poland with my mother, she said, 'If we don't continue the Jewish line, then Hitler won,' " he recalls. "Whether homosexual or heterosexual, it's important that the traditions continue." 

 

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