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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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About the Author: The author can be reached at magazine@jewishpress.com


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

  1. morah yoheved says:

    i truly feel sorry that you have had the horrible experiences of the ‘rehabilitation therapy’ … i actually did not know that it existed in the frum community and it was probably very traumatic … i can see it has warped your view of anyone frum … i know you feel every frum is out to condemn you … but i do try to hold every Jew with respect and loving kindness …even if it is not coming across, that also pertains to you and all Jews ….

    it is not the person but the act that i have issues with … i am sure you are a good, kind person, fully deserving of all the best in this world that G-d can give …

    and i personally feel that anyone who has defined themselves as ‘gay’ should never be ‘rehabilitated’ … it is a life choice, and as long as you don’t hurt anyone with it, who can judge? what ever you do is between you and Ha-Shem …

    if you think that the anecdote is forcing gays into straight relationships … get this … spouse abuse is the leading cause of death for women in america … something called mysogny (hatred of women) exists in millions of ‘straight’ relationships and marriages across the globe … and this is from men who would never even dream of doing anything ‘gay’ … do i think that ‘straight’ relationships are the answer? anything harmful and dysfunctional hurts everyone, and that goes for men, women, children … everyone … no matter what …

    just remember that this is the beginning of ‘gay’ acceptance in america … and in many countries, including Israel … secular laws change …. 50 years ago a 14 year old black child (emmett till) was killed and grotesquely mutilated by a mob of whites in mississippi because he said hello to a white woman … and his killers were considered heroes … now we have a black man in the white house … what i am saying is that accepting new sexual orientations is in its infancy … and from past experience and history … acceptance of gays might only be the beginning … what would you say if in 50 years from now laws to accept brother/sister unions were accepted and considered normal? what if father/daughter or mother/son unions become protected and legal in the future of the world? being gay has nothing to do with it … it is a society that is at risk of throwing out ancient and historic relationships in favor of replacing them with frivolous and temporary things that have little value and gross moral issues.

    you, as a person, just like all good people, deserve all that society can give. what you do in your private life, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, including yourself, is not the issue … what is the issue is that in a society that changes its laws to accommodate the preferences of its citizens … i would bet that brother/sister unions will become all the rave in years to come … it happened in egypt centuries ago … it’s happened in the history of the world numerous times … and, reiterating what was said on this blog regarding the innate nature of homosexuality, sibling love and lust is also an innate basic human desire …. for many people, the love of one’s siblings or parents is extremely strong … who is to say that this love won’t turn sexual in the future … protected with all sort of rights and legalities …. only time will tell …

  2. Jessica says:

    It seems to me that there are two issues here:

    Is it wrong to be homosexual?
    How does the Torah view homosexuality?

    The first question has to do with a personal opinion. Just like at one point in history people with Black skin weren’t considered to be human beings these opinions change and are sometimes WAY off the mark. Why is a picture of a woman nursing her baby so inappropriate but a picture of the same women in a string bikini is acceptable?

    The Torah is constant. The values and morals in the Torah do not change. The mitzvos in the Torah do not change either. The thing that changes is how society sees certain issues. Yes at one time homosexuality was considered a psychological illness; now it is not. That is irrelevant according to Torah because just like eating a cheese burger engaging in homosexual activity is assur.

    I don’t know if anyone is actually reading my posts but as I mentioned before the human element involved in the practice of Orthodox Judaism is where we really run into trouble.

    Hashem commanded us to love our fellow Jew.

    What people find so upsetting is that there are Orthodox Jews who would reject, bully and hurt Jews who have homosexual feelings.

    Now I hope to never have to deal with a frum person who identifies as homosexual in my personal life. (As in its a huge challenge – I am not homophobic, grew up totally secular and had gay friends etc.) I would not wish it on anyone! I have no idea what it is like to be in such a position.

    Without separating society’s views from Torah this argument will go one forever. Torah is not a personal attack on homosexuals! There are people who are attracted to small children. That is not acceptable in Torah either… that said if it was acceptable in society everyone would be outraged by that. I hope the discrepancy is clear here. Basically, people are not enough to judge right and wrong. People are imperfect, selfish, prideful and so on. The Torah was given us for the purpose.

    It really breaks my heart to read the posts of people who are so disenfranchised with the Torah. Each Jew as a special soul regardless if they have homosexual feelings, angry feelings, or other assur urges. I am so sorry for those Jews who had such a terrible experience with Orthodoxy. I feel very blessed to have become religious among supportive and accepting people. Just like there are people who make mistakes in the world there are Orthodox Jews who make mistakes!

  3. Yosef says:

    Jessica,

    That was really nice comment.

  4. Yosef says:

    In all fairness reparative therapy does work for countless people.

    All therapies have a success and failure ‘rate.’

    Listen to this psychologist who deals with this on a daily basis:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_GLo3hD964

    Lets keep some perspective.

  5. Chaim Levin says:

    Yosef, you neglect to answer one very important question that I asked in my article: How can you help people on the backs of hurting others?

    You need understand that these “therapies” cause real harm to some people, many people, and the fact that they aren’t backed by any legitimate scientific body is another reason to be wary of these techniques.

    As someone who was personally hurt by these practices with many friends who endured similar pains from our experiences in reparative therapy, it’s about time people understand that these ideas of changing people so that they fit to our society norms or some people’s “norms”, is harmful can’t be sanctified by any god governed body of people.

    Everyone’s relationship with god is special, and the god inside me, the god that i know, the god that i love, the god that gave me the strength to get here loves me as I am; one is always acceptable to his or her god the way they see and feel. God is love.

  6. Andy Marcus says:

    First of all, I appreciate the Jewish Press’ publication of Mr. Levin’s piece, not to mention Mr. Levin’s courage. The hateful words and actions that is institutionalized against gay people in some quadrants of the frum world, epitomized by the venomous op ed piece to which Mr. Levin is responding must stop. The kind of abuse that is meted out in yeshivot and day schools is prfoundly sinful. And it is people like Chaim Levin and many others who are finding their voices who are helping to eliminate this scurge from our communities. And I would like to echo Lisa’s comments to say that gay and lesbian people who chose to remain frum or to become frum go to great lengths to harmonize our lives with the mandates of the Torah and halachah. We do not abaondon halachos that are inconvenient. Just like every other observant Jew, we do as many mitzvot as we can. Every single day. You show me somebody who says he or she does all 613, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and I will show you a liar. I think we should all encourage each other to keep all of the miztvot, and remind each other that Hashem expects our repentance when we miss the mark.

  7. Andy Marcus says:

    It is you who need to repent, sf.

  8. Andy Marcus says:

    Dear Anonymous Crown Heights Resident –

    I wish that you had the pride of authorship to publish your name. That you hide your name implies that you are not proud of your comments. If Mr. Levin no longer obeserves Shabbos, do you think calling him sick, telling stories about his family and other things to shame him will help him come back to observance? Or do you think the abuse he has suffered in Crown Heights by people who have the same views as you could be one of the reasons he has no place in an observant community? I’m going with Door No. 2. I pray that you learn what ahavas Yisroel means – and learn to love all Jews. Just as I pray that all Jews do more and more mitzvot every day, including keeping the Shabbos.

  9. Lisa says:

    Well, I can’t agree with that last paragraph, Chaim. Sorry, but that isn’t how Orthodox Judaism works any more than some of the hateful things that have been said here. God isn’t love; God is God. And one is *not* always acceptable to God. If one violates God’s commandments, that’s not okay. Even if one feels otherwise.

    Please don’t give people the impression that every frum Jew who is gay feels the way you’ve just expressed. It isn’t true.

  10. Havah says:

    Dear Crown Heights Resident,

    Maybe Chaim is no longer frum, but I am. I am gay and frum. I keep shabbes, kosher, tzniut, my children attend Orthodox day schools, I go to an Orthodox shul and pasken by an Orhtodox rabbi. NOT MO light either.

    Is it easier because I am a lesbian and not a gay man, of course it is. But there are frum gay people out there.

    It is possible to believe in Torah MiSinai and be gay and not do anything assur.

  11. Mark Roth says:

    Lisa, so well said! Bravo!

  12. mm says:

    …And it’s their personal nisayon in this world to go against what their desires are telling them and do what Hashem and the Torah tells us to do, or not to do. Just because a person does something or behaves a way that is against the Torah because he feels the desire doesnt mean he should go with this desire and ignore the fact that Hashem unequivocally forbids certain things.

    I’m just waiting for the day when bestiality becomes the norm, when people will fight for recognition that it’s ok, and they will tell us that they are predisposed to this condition, and they still want to live an observant life, even though they engage in this abhorrent behavior.

    Lisa, it’s not about doing things that are sinful, its about the very nature that you are accepting this behavior or slant as your fate. Whether you agree or not Gd forbids these relations/relationships but yet created many of you with this desire…that means there is a way out. period. He wouldn’t have forbidden something without a way out. Lashon hara is sooo hard to refrain from, yet, it MUST be possible to accomplish because Gd expects it from us.

    I know people who had addictions to certain things and were able to go against their desires and change, it’s hard work, but it can be done. I believe this is no different. No different than any other forbidden behavior/act in the Torah.

    I’m so sorry for the torment the frum gay person must go through, I wish you success in finding your way out.

  13. Mark Roth says:

    Don’t be fooled people! I know the author and I know many people like him in JQY. I also tried reparative therapy(a group called JONAH) and it’s not as bad as he makes it out to be, not by a long shot. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t about the possible merits or demerits of reparative therapy. The REAL GOAL of people like Chaim and his friends is for the Orthodox Jewish world, and indeed the entire world to fully accept and embrace homosexuality as a lifestyle fully equal to hetherosexuality. They believe in legalizing gay marriage and that gays should raise children and be fully welcomed in your local shul. Every year they march with tzitzis and kippahs at the gay “pride” parade where the most disgusting and repulsive displays take place, things too graphic to mention here. Unlike tthe author who is misguided but who means well and who I trully sorry for, I have not given up. I will NEVER give up. I am still fighting my yetzer hora, but they don’t think it’s a yetzer hora. They think it’s just that “god made me this way” and it’s actually their yetzer tov.

  14. mm says:

    Batya and Sf and other haters, no one asked your opinion and not only that, you have no right to tell anyone what they are doing is right or wrong. God and every human have their own relationship. I don’t considerit a struggle either.. I think we need to look back at the text and figure out all possible meanings. They say any bet din that kills even one person in 70 years has blood on their hands, but how could they say that if the Torah says you should kill anybody.
    Now, stop the nonsense and leave others alone.
    I do not think God puts a struggle in front of someone that they can’t handle. I do believe that is not a struggle and came to the realization after it couldn’t change that god created me this way and wants me to be happy. I’m sure he really doesn’t care about your opinions. God created diversity for a reason! That is what makes him great! We are not all the same and we all have different paths. You may not think someone else is doing wrong, but you should know God is taking care of everything! No one needs your pity prayers either. Don’t mock God! Thank you Chaim for bringing the pink elephant to people’s attention!

    Richie,
    How could God -forbid something outright in the Torah, create you with those tendencies and then, while you transgress them want you to be happy??? How could He want you to be happy when you are disobeying His laws????
    Wow, maybe He shouldn’t have forbidden homosexuality altogether because He created so many people like this, I guess He made a big mistake, I mean He probably didn’t realize how many people would end up with this slant-oh, but wait, He did, because HE created them! And HE forbids behaviors like these outright…no mistake here, He gave you guys these nisayonot to overcome, (wow, how you’ve bought into the theory that it is not true). So, does He just give us things that we cannot overcome, we should just indulge in every forbidden thing in the Torah because we came to peace with it that this is what we desire and gave up trying to control it/overcome it? Should I speak lashon hara all day because God gave me a big mouth? Should I come to peace with the fact that I’m attracted to my dog? Should I lash out at my family and friends with anger because He created me with this insatiable anger? should I eat myself into oblivion because He created me with the ta’ava for food-OR should I work towards becoming the best Jew I can by fighting & refraining from engaging in the ta’avot He gave me. They may always exist, but isn’t it my job here on earth to overcome my desire to do wrong?? If not, then what are we here for?
    Someone compared this to addiction and I agree, without Hashem’s help you will not succeed, we believe that, The 12 steps work, truly it’s not about controlling your desires but of giving it over to God, to let Him help you find your way back.
    You have obviously come to peace with what Hashem put in your lap, the shame is that you gave up trying to overcome these desires given to you, to be able to observe Orthodox Judaism. And, even though you don’t want it, I have pity for you, that you gave up on using your opportunities to do Hashem’s will

  15. mm says:

    Kol hakavod, Mark!
    I admire your determination, May Hashem assist you quickly in your aspirations…Not easy, but so admirable…Hatzlacha raba!

  16. Rich Dweck says:

    It is so interesting that you few out there think you can judge someone. You defy the idea of God. Give God a little more credit is all I’m saying. You have no idea what and who God is happy with.
    http://richdweck.blogspot.com/

  17. spacedout BT says:

    The issue here is whether or not “reparative” therapy is effective or even professionally recognized as legitimate by the reputable health field.

  18. Chaim Levin says:

    Just so that were clear, aside from the fact that the content of your comment wasn’t very understandable, using my own mother’s name to post such a comment isn’t clever in anyway and doesn’t serve to effectively communicate any legitimate point.

    On behalf of my mother, Bella Levin, kindly refrain from using her name in any of your comments; if you really care about all the people you mention above, I think a good start would be by not pretending to be someone else while hiding behind the internet, let alone my mother.

    Thanks,

    Chaim Levin (author of the above article)

  19. Rich Dweck says:

    No need to get nasty. Though some people do not agree here, does not mean that we cannot practice love and tolerance. Where is the midot and where is the loving thy neighbor? Why do people think it is ok to judge others? Unless you have been in this persons exact shoes, you will never know what they have been through. An answer that would be correct here is ” Unfortunately I do not understand this issue or have ever been through it, so I cannot judge. The only thing I know is what I have been talk in school about the passage in the torah. This does not mean much because I am not a scholar. I know what is right for me and what I follow and interpret, but I have no right pushing that on to you!” Sometimes people have to look at how hurtful their words are. You never know if what you say might end someone’s life. I would be careful as it does say guard your tongue. People might want to focus on laws btwn man and man. Please put your focus in an area of love and kindness!

  20. bella levin says:

    There used to be a show in the sixties called To Tell The Truth, basically three different people would pose as a real person and the object of the game was to choose the real person. Basically I am the real BELLA LEVIN and I never made a single comment on my son’s Chaim article. But now I will.

    Chaim is my son, whom I love dearly and would do anything for him. I stand beside him, behind him and in front of him to anyone that will harm him again.
    For Chaim everyday when he wakes up he faces a moutain to climb of 90 degrees steep, and so far he faces this mountain fearlessly and courageously every single day.

    His being frum or not has nothing to do with the article, that has to do with the disappintment he got from the people he faced. The people that go to far ends of the world to open Chabad Houses to make other people frum outrightly called him a SHAYGETZ on Kingston AVE. THese are the people that are responsible for him not being frum.

    What Chaim has gone through in his life is undescribable and because of his strength and persistance he will succeed. He still has his ups and downs and probably will for a very long time, till he finds himself. But nobody has the right to judge my child, no one knows what he went through and no one should put him down. He is a son, a brother, a grandson and most important a HUMAN BEING and should be treated as such.

    THE REAL BELLA LEVIN his mother

  21. HW says:

    Thanks Chaim for speaking out and thanks to the Jewish Press for publishing! For anyone interested check out: International Association for Suicide Prevention and become a friend on Facebook. You won`t be the first frum gay person to join, that I can promise you!

  22. E and S Milch says:

    I know intelligent, caring “Frummies”…. I suspected there were the “others”!! How sad to read, and have confirmed, that suspicions were well taken!!
    Just as with the “extremes” in any belief, they are seldom, if ever, reachable….their “leanings” were learned, NOT INBORN, and, yet, they remain steeled against compromise. How ironic that these bearers of learned behaviors fight to alter those with natural behaviors! Kudos to any and all “lights” shed on such intolerance….. our wonderful family is a true spectrum of LIFE…. may we continue to love and adore each and every stripe in that spectrum!! Amen!!

  23. Rich Dweckcl says:

    This article inspired me to write an article yesterday on “I never knew ‘Baseless Hatred’ was inherent”. Take a look if you are interested

    http://richdweck.blogspot.com/2012/01/i-never-thought-baseless-hatred-was.html?m=1

    This might help somewhat explain why we have all these wars within and Btwn religions..

  24. Jon says:

    Chaim, I am sorry you have had such a negative experience in reparative therapy and I empathize with you. But I don’t think it is right, and I would even say it is harmful to others, to suggest and immediately assume everyone else will experience the same exact thing in the entire field of reparative therapy. You are being extreme by saying this, and you loose credibility by making such statements.

    The fact is, reparative therapy does work for some people, and some have gone on to live married and fulfilled lives. Those people exist. And you exist too, and sure your story should be heard. But to deny the other stories, and to act as if your experience should define the entire world is wrong to those who have a right to choose reparative therapy if that is what they want.

    This attitude is essentially very limiting. There are Orthodox individuals who simply don’t want to be gay. They want to fulfill every Torah commandment as best as possible. And you are basically saying to them, sorry, but you are screwed – either live the gay life and abandon your moral beliefs about Judaism or surpress your urges and live a life of celibacy. How fair is that? Don’t you think you are harming such individuals by saying to the world reparative therapy is not going to work for you and it will harm you because that is what it did to me? And do you actually believe wholeheartedly everyone who walks through reparative therapy is going to be harmed and it definitely won’t work for them?

    That is why you sound extreme with comments like your here and why you loose credibility. It makes your article here look much weaker than had you just admitted this is my experience and my experience alone, and that everyone has a right to choose what they want and for some, reparative therapy actually works. If you’d adopt this attitude, your message would go further than it already is.

  25. Sarah- and im not afraid to use my REAL name. says:

    It is sad that you dont even have the guts to use your own name, but its sickening that you would forge the name of his mother to post such horrible things. And who do you think you are to be telling people what they are doing is wrong? Last i checked tsinat chinam is also a sin, one that you are more than guilty of, clearly. So before you go around talking to people like you’re better then them maybe its time to take a good look in the mirror and self reflect on the disgusting human being you have turned out to be. You call yourself religious?! to be a good jew you need to be a good person first, something that you are not. Get off the internet and go learn something, you’re words are worth nothing you coward.

  26. Pinny Gold says:

    Chaim Levin is a hero!!!!

    No matter how much hatred any one will put out there, this is the truth.

    Chaim Levin has the courage to stand up for his bullies and whoever still wants to be a bully simply shows one thing: they are cowards!

    If you posted a hateful message in your comment, here is some good news: You’re the reason Chaim Levin has written this article, not vice versa.

    Get over your bullying sickness and start doing a “Mi SheBerach for yourself”

    Chaim, you’re wonderful person!!!!

  27. JB says:

    You are so brave to have written this. I hope this opens the eyes of those who are too sheltered and blinded by a false understanding of reality. You are a hero and will probably save the lives of many others in your shoes. May gd bless you today and always.

  28. Sabina F says:

    Kol Hakvod Bella to you and Chaim! I stand with you in support of your son, as I too am a mother of a gay son. I am very proud of my son and proud of his insistence on being accepted as part of the Jewish Community. And I am grateful to Chaim (and the Jewish Press) for sharing his story as it will give strength to other young orthodox Jews who may think they are alone.

  29. Gella says:

    I understand what you’re saying Jeff. However, I think that you are working with some false premises. Being rejected by a large number of, or even most of, a heterogenous population like “Orthodoxy” or “The Orthodox world” does not mean living in isolation. It does not mean that there is no support, no friendship, no accepting community *within* the community, drawn from different corners.

    Identifying as “Orthodox” also does not always hold, as a prerequisite, the belief that homosexuality is wrong, nor a perfect practice of halacha… as though there were such a thing. Jeff, I am not Orthodox myself, never have been, and have no intention of being so, but my experience of the Orthodox world has shown me just how widely varied its “membership” is in belief and practice. Your view of Orthodoxy is not completely unfounded, but I do think that it is unnecessarily and unfairly narrow.

  30. Gella says:

    *blink* I wish I could believe that this was a joke. :(

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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.

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