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April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
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Surviving Bullying, Silencing And Torment For Being Gay In The Frum Community


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Photo Credit: © Katja Heinemann/Aurora Select, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

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It’s been more than six months since The Jewish Press published an op-ed titled “Orthodox Homosexuals and the Pursuit of Self Indulgence.” In the article, the writer, while not mentioning my name, calls me shameless and self-indulgent and suggests that I learn to suffer in silence. He was referring to an anti-suicide video I made for the “It Gets Better” project. In the YouTube video I talk about the endless bullying in my childhood, the trauma of reparative therapy and my suicide attempt as a result of a frum community that seemed to not want me to exist simply because I was gay.

My message was that, with time, with understanding friends and with self-acceptance, it gets better. I hoped to tell other kids who may be on the brink of suicide to stick it out, because life gets better; even for gay Jews growing up in the Orthodox community. This video never talks about private behavior, never mentions any assur activity, and certainly does not divulge anything about what I do behind closed doors. However, simply because I talk about how I was bullied for being gay, the author tried to make me feel horrible for simply sending a message of hope. He succeeded in embarrassing me and making me feel unwanted by this community.

I wish I could say that this is the exception. But the truth is that despite the fact that I would never talk publicly about private personal behavior or engaging in sin, the frum world seems to see me as part of a “gay agenda” simply because I won’t stay quiet.

My name is Chaim Levin. I grew up in a heimishe family in Crown Heights. I love my mother, my father and my family. I had always felt different and was the subject of relentless bullying by other boys for “seeming” gay. When I was 17 I confided to a friend that I was attracted to men and not sexually attracted to women at all. When it came out, I was thrown out of yeshiva. For the longest time I felt so alone because I truly believed that I was the only person battling this secret war. My older siblings were getting married and having kids, and all I ever wanted was to be a part of the beautiful world my parents had raised me in. My dream was to marry a woman and live the life my family hoped and dreamed for me. I would never have chosen to be gay; I could not imagine anyone growing up in the Orthodox world who would choose to be someone who doesn’t fit into the values and norms of everyone around them.

So do I think that I was “born gay”? I don’t know and I am not sure how important that is. What is important is that it certainly is not something that I chose or had anything to do with. And I felt immense pressure to somehow change who I was.

After much time and research I found a well-known organization that “specialized” in reparative therapy. This organization had endorsements from a wide range of rabbanim and I was sure that it was the answer to all my problems. The organization’s executive director told me that he believes everyone can change if they simply put in the hard work. I would have done anything to change, and this message was just the hope I was looking for. I spent two years attending every group meeting, weekend, and individual life coaching sessions they offered. My parents and I paid thousands of dollars. Every day, every session, I was working and waiting to feel a shift in my desires or experience authentic change. That moment never came. I didn’t change, I never developed any sexual desire for women, and never stopped being attracted to men. Instead, I only felt more and more helpless because I wasn’t changing. The organization and its staff taught us that change only comes to those who truly want it and are willing to put in the work. So if I wasn’t changing, I was seen as someone who either really didn’t sincerely want it, or would not put in the necessary work. In other words, there was no one to blame but myself.

The worst part of my experience in reparative therapy came at the end. In a locked office, alone with my unlicensed “life coach,” I was told to undress, stand in front of the counselor and do things too graphic to describe in this article. I was extremely uncomfortable, but he said that I must do this for the sake of changing and that if I didn’t remove my clothing I wouldn’t be doing the work it takes to achieve change. I would do anything to change, and so I did what he asked me to do. It was probably the most traumatizing experience of my life.

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208 Responses to “Surviving Bullying, Silencing And Torment For Being Gay In The Frum Community”

  1. Rich Dweck says:

    I could not have said it better. I went through 2 years of X-Gay therapy 13 years ago and at the end I was devastated, and yes thoughts of suicide did come to the forefront. Chaim has a lot of courage. If more of us spoke out, maybe we will see change and tolerance! If I can stop anyone from going through what I have, I will! I don’t care who thinks that I should not say a word and if I WANT to be gay, then I should just do it silently!
    My question is why are rabbis not working and seeing where they can find within the torah a way to understand homosexuality different. Where is the LEADERSHIP today? I feel like it is a “Boosha”that we do not see more rabbis standing up for the minority. It is an issue that is not going to just vanish!
    I don’t think it’s fair for any woman to have to go through being married to a gay man. Where is the “Sechel” of our leaders? I write about many issues such as these and list support organizations around the world. Please know that you are loved and no matter what anybody says, you have a bright future ahead! “It Gets Better” is a bit misleading to people going through this. It does get better, but only after it gets worse!
    Rabbis and leaders please do what you were chosen to do, LEAD! Thank you for reading this and see more at http://richdweck.blogspot.com/.

  2. You do realize your relationship with Hashem requires no rabbinic intermediary, and you needn’t remain in any community–religious or otherwise–just because you were born into it. It’s a wide and wonderful Jewish world. Spending your life arguing with Klal Yisrael’s most closed-minded elements just gives them more power to control your life and the lives of others. Better to find more loving religious Jewish pastures. Many more Jews (including religious Jews) will accept you unconditionally as a gay Jew than will reject you as a gay Jew. The decision is not the community’s. It’s yours.

  3. Daniel K. says:

    I appreciate you sharing your story but I feel that you are, in many ways, legitimizing institutional homophobia in the Orthodox communities.

    While you courageously speak at length about the harm and ineffectiveness of “reparative” “therapy,” you fall short because you do not mention that the unanimous medical and psychological view is that reparative therapy is only harmful, is junk science, and goes completely against accepted medical and psychological practices. Indeed, it is believed that the so-called therapy is responsible for more suicides than heterosexual marriages.

    Moreover, I understand that you are trying to be respectful of the homophobic readership of the Jewish Press. However, there is no benefit in obliging their animosity against gay people by declining to talk about homosexual relationships or accepting on its face the common argument by Orthodox community members that homosexuality is utterly incompatible with a religious life. Yes, gay Jews have sex. Gay Jews have loving, beautiful, Jewish relationships. Gay Jews are much like everyone else, only they understand that man is created by God as an imperfect being. Gay Jews are blessed to be free of insufferable righteousness that so permeates other pockets of the community. There is no need to mention the many worse “sins” than engaging in gay sex that so many active and proud Orthodox Jews commonly engage in.

    So my point is, it is about time the Orthodox communities accept that gay Jews exist, cannot be changed, and are not a problem. As well, gay Jews should feel free to be proud and open members of an Orthodox community; behaving otherwise only advances and legitimizes homophobia.

  4. jeffeyges says:

    Chaim, your courage is extraordinary, and I’m so sorry for your suffering. However, I must agree with Michael Doyle:

    “Spending your life arguing with Klal Yisrael’s most closed-minded elements just gives them more power to control your life and the lives of others. Better to find more loving religious Jewish pastures. Many more Jews (including religious Jews) will accept you unconditionally as a gay Jew than will reject you as a gay Jew.”

    In short – why remain within Orthodoxy?

  5. M. Weinstein says:

    This man should be treated with the utmost kindness and generosity by everyone. You don’t like what he has to say well too bad. Does he crave attention? Probably, but he is a product of this culture and has endured a great deal in his young life and is one of us. Sadly he will continue to endure and not because the frum community is so unjust, cruel or “homophobic” but because no matter what this man will never have children with a person he loves. How very sad. Think about it, while his former classmates move on through the various stages of life he will only be invited to Simchas but will never have one of his own. And I am sure he is smart enough and feeling enough to know this.

  6. Geoff-down under says:

    I commend this young man Chaim for telling and sharing his painful story and struggles. I agree with his questioning/opinion that who would choose this way of life especially in a frum community? Demanding he change is just not realistic, as he quite clearly has demonstrated and if one accepts that there is a Creator we must accept all of His creations even when they are dis-similar. As the deaf were once excluded from a minyan it is high time for authorities to “get with the programme” and get on with the business of legislating equality and to leave sarcasm, bullying and name calling behind and do something positive like seeing a way forward. If this Law is not in heaven and too far because it was revealed there lies the authority for Rabbis to act.
    I wish Chaim continued courage,luck and happiness in the years that lie ahead.

  7. Chaim Levin says:

    You both fail to notice the main point of this article being published:this isn’t about me anymore. Whether I remain orthodox, am orthodox or am not orthodox doesn’t take away from my experience, which until today, wasn’t ever acknowledged on such a public level. The point of this gesture is to send out a message of hope to the lost and confused people who think it’s not ok to come out, or think they’re trapped and will never find inner peace just because of who they are; i say this as this was true for me when I was younger and sure that something about myself was different, I felt so alone and I never felt any sense of inner peace until I met others like myself. When I was younger i would look to the jewish press every weekend for some mention of this topic, but to no avail, this topic was never discussed, until today. So in turn just think about the thousands of people reading this who are somewhat inspired and might even feel a little more hope simply because of this article being published and this experience becoming a reality.

  8. Josh Feigelson says:

    Kol hakavod for your courage, Michael. And kol hakavod to the Jewish Press for publishing your words. Chazak v’amatz.

  9. Jessica says:

    First of all I have to commend Chaim on his incredible strength in writing this article. I am sure that it took more courage then any of us will really be able to understand.

    Second to those who read this and think why would a person continue to identify as Orthodox after experiencing such things? I think it shows an incredible amount of maturity and faith in G-d. It would be easy to say if I can’t be who I feel like being here then I am not staying. In fact, many nonreligious Jews react like that to most Orthodox practices. If I can’t drive on saterday, eat a cheese burger, have sex before marriage etc then forget it! But I think that we, as human beings, make very poor judges of right and wrong. In the recent past (i.e. last 150 years) there have been many empowering social and political movements that have allowed previously marginalized minorities fair rights – However, the movement towards acceptance has move so far to the left that I believe we have lost an incredible amount of refinement in our modern society. (I am not speaking specifically to the gay issue addressed in the article but more of a general comment about Chaim’s choice to remain connect to the Orthodox community.)
    We could all take a page out of Chaim’s book – he clearly has a deep faith in G-d! This is a very difficult challenge to be tested with in one’s life. One we can not even begin to imagine! Despite being mistreated so consistently Chaim maintains faith in both G-d and the Jewish people. (That Orthodox people will wake up and deal with this issue – homosexual Jews – with the grace and support they deserve as Jews!)
    G-d should bless Chaim, and all of us, with the answer to his prayers and help him find the strength to overcome his tests.(Which should be very very few!)

  10. Sabina says:

    I don’t know what I am more impressed by: Chaim’s personal journey (and the guts to put it all out there) or the Jewish Press’s decision to publish it knowing it will anger many in the community who don’t like seeing any perspective but their own. But wow. It’s terrible what happened to Chaim at the hands of his “therapist” so I especially appreciate his bringing that issue to light and hope the practice of trying to brainwash the gay away can be stopped.

    An interesting followup piece to this might be why Chaim chose to remain in the Orthodox world, despite having been made to feel so unwanted.

  11. Happy Gay says:

    oy nebech

    first i think mazal tov is in order.

    chim is married why is that a secret ???

    tell everyone about your wife or husband.

    and i think when this happy kid was born he should have been institutionalized .. immediately.
    but how is this inteligent site copy such garbage from the jp ?

    enough telling people what to do.

    id you want to me married to a men you free to do it just Start your own religion
    and be a new Yoshke or call it “the chaim happy religion” maybe you be very lucky and they nail you to the cross and than you can be the messiah for this site
    so you can call your new religion “the chaim happy religion of failed messiah inc.”
    maybe if you were not born in a dysfunctional family you would have the girls interested in you.

    NEBECH.

  12. shem says:

    “In short – why remain within Orthodoxy?”

    i think you are missing chaim’s point. he is using his personal experiences as a call for a shift in attitude on behalf of the people who are unable to make the decision to not “remain within orthodoxy” – they are the children who, as we speak, are being tormented sometimes to a point of suicide.

  13. Gella says:

    Jeff, what do you think it means to “remain within Orthodoxy” first of all… are you asking why Chaim continues to identify as Orthodox, or why he wishes to remain within a certain community? The answer to the first should be obvious. A person’s religious identification is not predicated upon whether or not others who identify similarly accept said person or not. As for the community question, have you ever been kicked out of your home? It hurts. It really really hurts. I am not saying that it is right to stand for abuse, but the solution is not always to run away. Besides, the Orthodox will never progress to acceptance if all of the queers move out, or to the left. In fact, it would serve to reinforce the negative view of queerness, that it is incompatible with a “religious” lifestyle, which is patently untrue. It is a sign of love and compassion not to leave… we hope one day to help the Orthodox world see what they cannot, and thereby improve it, and its members. Leaving the Orthodox world “Queerenrein” is not helpful.

  14. Ya Ya says:

    While I agree with your question in some respects, to give up orthodoxy may be as challenging for some of us as it is to ‘give up’ being gay.

  15. Leah says:

    Chaim,
    May Hashem continue to give you the strength to live your life honestly among the orthodox community. I hope that you continue to use your voice to give support and hope for those that may feel alone and hopeless.
    I too grew up in Boro Park and went to an all girls orthodox school and thought that I was crazy as every classmate was getting engaged, married and building a family in klal Yisrael. I wanted nothing less as well, I tried it all, I went out on plenty of shiduchim, until one day I realized the truth about me. I too would NEVER have CHOSEN to be gay, all I ever wanted was to make my mother proud and fulfill her dream of me being under the chupah, I lived with a remendous amount of guilt for years…..Until I met this incredible person who directed the movie “Trembling Before God” and was fortunate to be in this outstanding documentary about the struggles gay orthodox jews have to endure in/out of their communities.
    I wish you the best of luck and yes, may we be zoche to live in a world free of suffering and shame.
    Leah

  16. sf says:

    Shame u went down that path. The reality is that when you die, you’re going to see how badly you failed at life. You know what the torah calls you? An abomination. You were not born into being gay you chose to be it. If you were not attracted to women its because you didn’t see the one that was meant for you to be attracted to. You were “attracted” to men because your yetzer harra knew exactly what was most difficult for you, and you failed that test.

    I hope that one day you can repent before you die.

  17. Zalman says:

    BS”D

    that was one of the Best write ups of the subject I’ve seen yet. beautiful, heartfelt and respectful.

    One thing that I hope all this leads to is an actual drive to real, scientific research into possible therapies that may have some affect.

    As with any other issue that we deal with, it would be immature to simply say that we can change. at the same time what Daniel K references in his comment is the utmost in unscientific statements. what else has science ever given up on? what is much more realistic is to accept the challenge that HaShem clearly gave us, and to work to do what we can. some may never be able to change at all, some my change so dramatically as to be able to marry a woman, be a great father and husband and most will likely fit somewhere in the middle.

    I am not talking about x-gay therapy, I am talking about long-term hormonal, psychological, etc. research which is simply not being done. is this the best that we can do? simply say “it gets better”? (although I applaud you for the help you give others in your situation by doing it in the respectful way that you do).

    As long as there are youth who want nothing else then to be like their parents, and as long as this desire runs as deep as it does, we owe it to them to work every angle spend any money until we can help those who would like the help.

  18. Havah says:

    I applaud Chaim’s courage and the courage of all of the brave young men and women in JQY. HaShem is not nearly as homophobic as certain parts of the Jewish community are. It is my sincere hope that before people in the frum community open their mouths to speak about gay people in general or a particular gay person specifically, that they will think about the averiot of Ona’at D’varim, Lashon Hara and Motzei Shem Ra.

  19. Sam says:

    Wow, brave man. “All Great Truths Begin as Blasphemies”. Keep telling your truth, keep loving yourself, and being aware of the incredible person that you are. If I could turn every negative message that will be on here into a positive I would. I grew up in a frum household too, am not religious anymore, but have found a pride and a sense of self that such a restrictive environment could not afford me. It does get better and for anyone reading this in the throws of it all, keep smiling and never forget that your truth can not be changed, shamed, or feared away. :)

  20. Vicki Polin says:

    Chaim, I want to thank you for writing this article and speaking out. You are a hero to so many.

  21. Havah says:

    I am so disappointed to see so many people encouraging Chaim to leave Orthodoxy. People who are Orthodox cannot just decide one day to go to a Reform, Conservative or shul of any other denomination. I know you may find this hard to believe, but we really do follow all of the mitzvot (that we can) because they are just that, MITZVOT. Commanded of us. I once heard a JTS professor speak and he said, no one actually believes in the literal interpretation of Matan haTorah! I was shocked, because I do. I was shocked not that he did not, but that he thought people like me were a myth. I also could not, and still do not, understand why he kept kosher. Keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat are not easy things to do. If I did not believe that God required those of me, I would not do it. I do not understand why someone would go to all the trouble to keep kosher if it was not required of me. But it is, by the Highest Authority there is.

    Switching denominations is not merely an issue of going to a different shul. It is a different way of thinking. I would hope that Chaim can stay in his chosen community and not have to deal with homophobia, rather than be forced to chose a different community.

  22. Leon Gefen says:

    I have read a few similar articles to the one that is published in the Jewish Press. They all have one clear point that they all seem to sneak in . “We don’t want to discuss what we do behind closed doors” “We are not telling u what we do and we don’t ask what regular frim married couples do in their bedroom”.
    This seems to be the crux of the whole issue !! The two are wound together and very hard to seperate. If you have a gay orientation, and meet other gay’s and socialize with them, one thing leads to another. Only the biggest Tzadikim can refrain from such a temptation !
    Don’t get me wrong, I too am a gay frum person. In fact I was once a Rav. I could not avoid the temptation. I have sinned.
    This is where the Rabbonim are coming from. It is important and vital “what goes one behind closed doors”. Being gay is synanomous with gay sex. Don’t fool yourself. It’s difficult for any Rav to give a “Hechser” on “being gay” when that automatically will lead to grave sins.
    However I do agree with the writer of the article in respect to showing friendship to all members of klal yisroel. No one deserves to be “kicked out” or put in cherem , unless he is a danger to society.

  23. yael dvorah says:

    it is true that a person cannot change their own desires … private desires and yearnings are very often impossible to change … and should not be expected to change with the person’s own will … i recently read that the Chofetz Chaim cried to Ha-Shem daily to remove his hidden anger … even anger deep inside was impossible for the Chofetz Chaim to remove … your article is beautifully written and articulate … and your knowledge of yourself is tremendously admirable … to be true to ourselves is a tremendous goal, as we cannot function fully in this world without self-knowledge … including knowing our limitations … being abused and bullied can never help a person … it will push a person away … people, even well meaning people, are not the answer … if you want to be what you are not … if you want to give up what you feel you are or what you have … it is only Ha-Shem … he gives us our desires, sometimes the wrong desires … because without His help, we are trapped by them … the Chofetz Chaim was trapped by hidden anger, and he wanted it removed … Ha-Shem gave him that hidden anger … as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it was, Ha-Shem gave it to him so he could go back to Ha-Shem to ask Him to remove it … Ha-Shem works in very mysterious ways … you might not really be who you think you are … and with Ha-Shem’s help, you will become who you are meant to be ……

  24. Michael says:

    It is exactly because of the the above comments that “coming out” essays are not encouraged.

    Simply put, acceptance is the first step to legitimacy. And the act of homosex will never be OK according to the Torah (not according to one denomination or another. It’s Torah).

    Now you have people advising you to leave Torah, transgress Torah, and expect Torah observant Jews to accept the act (and if they don’t, let’s call them narrow minded).

    Thus, your important point was totally lost on those who wanted you to take the next step in your essay and put your stamp of approval on mishkav zachor.

    I do think your letter was a courageous one with many valid and important points. Your struggle has much worth.

  25. Tuvye R. says:

    Yasher koach for publishing this most heartfelt article.
    All of our children–straight, bi or gay–deserve our full love.

  26. Mordechai says:

    Thank you Chaim and the Jewish Press for sharing this amazing personal story. It took strength, courage, bravery and tremendous heart to allow this story to be heard. The entire Jewish Press deserves credit. I know so many gay and lesbian youth growing up in the Frum world. Whatever you think about some private actions being hallachically problematic, the only message should be that: WE LOVE YOU, WE WANT YOU, and THERE IS NOTHING SHAMEFULL ABOUT WHO YOU ARE!

    I am so saddened that some in the Orthodox world have pressured our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into dangerous psuedo-therapies that send negative messages to those most vulnerable.

    Hashem should forgive us.

    It is us as a frum community that should do the Teshuva!

    -Yasher Koach Jewish Press for helping us all be a true Or Lagoyim

    Mordechai
    5 towns

  27. Yehuda says:

    Beautiful article.
    I was once a closed minded homophobe, but as I spent more time in the real world, I realized that gay people are just like everyone else.

    The whole argument that G-d wouldn’t create someone who was gay is stupid. Adultery is a sin, yet G-d creates men who can’t help but chase every skirt they see.

    Good luck to you, Chaim, and to every other gay Jew struggling for acceptance.
    I hope the age of acceptance is right around the corner.

  28. Moshe says:

    I know Chaim and I know he tried to change, its unfair to say he did not want to.
    I believe that every Jew whether gay or not must be accepted into the Jewish community.
    Its not like he asked to be gay or have same sex attractions.
    Bad things happen to good people, how many times we have said that.
    May be it’s a bad thing to be gay, may be its not.
    I have to respect Chaim as he does not talk about how and what he does he keeps that private, if you saw him in the street you would just think he another guy, just like the guy sitting at the computer next to you in the office, have you ever wondered if he’s gay, put the thought out of your head, he’s a human being and that’s what’s important.
    He did not rob a bank and did not kill or hurt anyone he has just got hurt in the system.
    I agree if you can change then try, but its not the end of the world if you can’t.
    If you want to change then there is no harm to try out therapy with organizations that do this, Chaim fell through the cracks and did not have luck on his side, there is no need for bulling him just because it did not work for him, but it may work for others.
    If there is a frum Jew or any Jew who wants to change, and he’s in the closet then its time you do something about it, its time you talk to someone.
    I wish Chaim all the best.
    Just one more thing I feel its fine to still remain frum and still be “gay” as long as you follow the guide lines.

  29. E says:

    SF, you make being gay seem to be the worst sin in the Torah! and its not and people fail to understand that. None of us are perfect Jews and each of us sin and don’t keep to every single law commanded to us. We as humans have desires and sometimes we just can’t control ourselves no matter how hard we try. Aren’t we commanded to love our fellow Jew?? Well, those who detest, dislike, hate another Jew for who they are is a sin unto itself.

    Being Gay isn’t a choice and it can’t be wrung out of someone. Try as they may people can’t just make themselves gay and develop feelings for someone of the opposite gender. Its innate. If it was a choice do you think everyone would choose to be gay? They suffer a lot for who they are and if they had a choice to undo their gayness they would (pending the person) so they wouldn’t have to be tortured, bullied, rejected, and hated by others.

  30. Yoreh Deah says:

    There are plenty of people with innate mental illnesses they can’t control such as schizophrenia, manic-depression, personality disorders, etc. That doesn’t and shouldn’t make their actions under the influence of their illness right or socially acceptable – just to a certain extent, understandable.
    As long as they don’t harm others, they shouldn’t be forced to undergo treatments to heal their disease – if they accept or want to live with that illness and assuming they can comprehend they are ill and can make that choice.
    But that doesn’t make their mental state or related actions normal either.
    We should have sympathy for those who suffer from mental illnesses.
    We may choose to ignore or have sympathy for the screaming cursing bag lady in the subway, but we shouldn’t get confused and say this should be considered socially acceptable and normal behavior.

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