A monthly Shabbat gathering in New York that aims to offer a ‘unique traditional and Orthodox space’ for members of the community proves unexpectedly popular.
By Brian Schaefer | Dec. 22, 2014 | 6:56 PM
NEW YORK – When Oliver Rosenberg moved back to New York last February, after a year-and-a-half hiatus in Los Angeles, he immediately got to work on two startups. The first was Prealth, a mobile app that allows consumers to compare costs of doctors’ visits and offers helpful health-care information. The second was Or Chayim, an independent monthlyminyan (prayer quorum) for traditional and Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, which concluded the year with a special Shabbat Hanukkah celebration last Friday.
For Or Chayim’s first event in February, which he advertised on social media, Rosenberg said he hoped for about two dozen attendees. Instead, more than 50 people showed up in the events room of his apartment building on the Upper West Side, where the minyan continues to gather. Each month, Or Chayim consistently attracts between 50-75 participants, who daven a traditional service and then nosh on cholent and kugel, followed by a kosher catered dinner.
“I don’t really know what the magic ingredient is but I feel like he found it,” said Jared Arader, a regular attendee, of the community that has been created by Rosenberg.
More than 200 people have attended Or Chayim Shabbat events to date, and the group boasts over 400 followers on social media. The popularity of the minyan suggests that Rosenberg has tapped into an under-served niche in the city’s Jewish community, which has surprised even him.
“I’m shocked by how successful it’s been,” he told Haaretz.
The past decade has seen extraordinary progress in LGBT inclusion in the American Jewish community, mirroring increasingly widespread acceptance in the country. Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues have led the way, with the Conservative movement coming around in recent years as well. Though the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox remains largely impenetrable to this momentum, some modern Orthodox communities have taken steps to open the door to LGBT individuals.
American organizations like JQ Youth, founded in 2001 to support young LGBT Orthodox Jews, and Eshel, founded in 2012 to support parents of LGBT Orthodox children, are helping to shape a generation for whom embracing one’s sexuality and experiencing a traditional religious upbringing are no longer mutually exclusive.
‘This is not a bar’
Rosenberg, now 28, came out when he was 22 and a student at Yeshiva University. He spoke in 2009 on panel at the university called “Being Gay in the Orthodox World.” Following graduation, he explored a variety of synagogues and congregations on both the West and East Coasts, including Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, but found that he was missing the structure and liturgical traditions he had grown up with.
“It was so rich within me, this very traditional Orthodox spiritual style,” Rosenberg explained. And yet he saw that an Orthodox shul, even an inclusive one, didn’t offer the sense of freedom and camaraderie that a gay space provides. So he created Or Chayim to bridge the gap, contributing to the DIY independent minyan trend that has shaped American Judaism in the past decade. Apparently, others were looking for this as well.
“I know [that] as an openly gay man I can go to most of the minyanim on the Upper West Side and in New York,” said Arader. “But there’s something welcoming and open and safe in being in an environment where gay is normative and you don’t have feel as cautious about it.”
While the Or Chayim environment is certainly social and, for some, its appeal is primarily the mingling, the group’s roots are firmly religious – “centered around Shabbat, centered around a service,” Rosenberg said. “There are a ton of gay Jewish parties in New York, but this is not in a bar, it’s not in a club.”
The group’s Shabbat service follows Orthodox guidelines and a lowmehitza (barrier) separates men and women – when there are women: Approximately 90 percent of attendees to date have been male.
“We all hope more women will attend eventually,” said Arader, who pointed out that some transgender men have attended as well, which is also welcome. The age range is from 16 to 80, with a sizable contingent between their twenties and fifties. In terms of religious affiliation, Rosenberg says that about one-third identify as Orthodox, half grew up traditional but left the fold, and the remaining 20 or so percent don’t come from a traditional background but are, as Rosenberg put it, “traditional-curious.”