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After a gay Orthodox Jew died by suicide, disputes over community responsibility

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My friend Herschel Siegel died by suicide. Politicizing his death doesn’t help gay Jews. Siegel, 25, had expressed deep pain over the difficulty of being gay and Orthodox. After we published an opinion column last week in which Mordecai Levovitz, founder of a group called Jewish Queer Youth, questioned how strict interpretations of Jewish law may have contributed to Siegel’s death, some who were close to Siegel said his relationship with his Orthodox community had been misunderstood. Today, we share a new essay by Simon Italiaander, a friend of Siegel’s who is also gay and Orthodox.

 

“A refuge:” Contrary to its reputation, Italiaander says, an Orthodox life can be a gift for LGBTQ+ Jews. He “journeyed into Orthodoxy as a teenager” and “found comfort in the Orthodox community’s lack of obsession with my sexual orientation.” He noted that Siegel’s home in Atlanta was a teen gathering place for “charmers and misfits alike” and said the family’s farmhouse in northeast Georgia “was even a refuge for one of Herschel’s gay friends who had been rejected by his own family.”

 

“Far more harm than good:” Italiaander sees Siegel’s suicide as a result of his struggle with mental illness. Those who view it as emblematic of deeper issues in the Orthodox world, he argues, are overlooking the details of Siegel’s life and “sending a message of despair” to queer Orthodox Jews “who are being told, once again, that there is no place for them in their own community.”

 

“Not universal:” Italiaander acknowledges that many queer Jews do face challenges in Orthodox spaces. “The Torah that I study and regard dearly,” he writes, “has unflattering things to say about people who engage in gay sex.” But he thinks the welcoming experiences he and Siegel had are “increasingly common.” Read his essay ➤

ALSO FROM THE FORWARD

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President Harry S Truman meets with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Abba Eban, in the Oval Office on May 8, 1951. (Abbie Rowe/Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

The State Department told Truman not to recognize Israel. He did it anyway. This Sunday, May 14, marks the 75th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence — and President Harry Truman’s official nod to the new state 11 minutes later. Truman’s historic move, which set off a cascade of international acknowledgements, came as a surprise to Israelis, members of his own administration and, crucially, the Soviet Union, with whom the United States was competing for allies in the Middle East. Read the story ➤

 

Opinion | Rashida Tlaib held a Nakba Day event at the Senate. Why are some Jews so mad? For Palestinians, Sunday marks the anniversary of the Nakba, an Arabic word for “catastrophe” that refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians around Israel’s founding. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian, planned to mark the day with an event at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. But Jewish groups protested, and the event was canceled — until Sen. Bernie Sanders stepped in. Our deputy opinion editor, Nora Berman, questions why some Jews object to mentions of the Nakba, writing “if only one story about Israel’s creation is permitted to be shared, then there will be no way forward in which to work together for peace.” Read her essay ➤

 

But wait, there’s more …

 

• In newly revealed audio, Rep. George Santos imitates Jews and says “You sit in a room with a lot of Jews, you’re f—ed.”

• Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a vegan and animal-rights advocate, has issued a challenge: Debate him about veganism in front of your synagogue, and the winner will walk away with $5,000.

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The Jewish Studies graduate programs at Spertus Institute make advanced Jewish learning conveniently available. Taught by skilled and distinguished faculty, the programs are offered in a flexible, part-time format. Courses meet online and during seminars at our award-winning downtown Chicago campus. 

 

Our programs draw students who are involved and engaged. Are you ready to join them? 

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY

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Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system in the southern city of Ashdod. (JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty)

😞  Israel halted ceasefire talks after militants in the Gaza Strip fired a new barrage of rockets Friday morning, including some toward Jerusalem. There were no casualties reported, as most of the missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome and David’s Sling defense systems. The IDF continued airstrikes on targets in Gaza affiliated with the terror group Islamic Jihad. (Haaretz)

 

😢  Meanwhile, a military spokesperson offered Israel’s first apology for the fatal shooting a year ago of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering clashes in the occupied West Bank. Abu Akleh’s death sparked international outrage and led to multiple investigations that showed Israeli soldiers were likely responsible. A new report found she was the 20th journalist killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank or Gaza since 2001. (Times of Israel, Forward)

 

😨  A New Hampshire man whom authorities say kept a framed picture of Hitler and a Nazi uniform in his home was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on gun charges. Separately, in England, a man who shared right-wing extremist content in a Telegram channel titled “Hitler group” was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for possession of explosive substances. (New Hampshire Union Leader, Daily Star)

 

👀  An attack that killed five people near a historic synagogue in Tunisia on Tuesday was premeditated, according to the country’s interior minister. Two of the victims were Jews participating in an annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest, which the minister said was intentionally targeted. (AP)

 

📚  Florida’s department of education rejected two textbooks about the Holocaust proposed for high schools, as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on what he calls “woke indoctrination.” Separately, the Texas legislature passed a bill that would allow public schools to employ chaplains. (JTA, Religion News Service)

 

😬  Efforts to build what would be the largest cemetery in the U.S. exclusively for ultra-Orthodox Jews have run into an obstacle: Residents near its location in Rockland County, New York, contend the project, which includes a ritual bath and is already under construction, could cause an environmental crisis and jeopardize the area water supply. (New York Times)

 

 ✈️  A major European rabbinical association is moving its headquarters from London to Berlin. The Conference of European Rabbis said the move was motivated by Brexit. (JTA)

What else we’re reading ➤ “Hebrew wasn’t spoken for 2,000 years. Here’s how it was revived” … How British intelligence failures paved the way for Israel’s founding … Uncovering the ADL’s plan to bring down a far-right movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

 

SHABBAT READING

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In this weekend’s edition of our print magazine: The contrast between Justice Elena Kagan’s attitude to a gift of bagels and babka and her colleagues’ approach to judicial ethics; What Sen. Dianne Feinstein could learn from the biblical story of Moses; and the giant musical about Jesus that wants to make you — yes, you! — believe. Download your copy now ➤

ON THE CALENDAR

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Burt Bacharach at the piano in 1968. (Martin Mills)

On this day in history (1928): Songwriter Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Over his decades-long career, Bacharach composed pop hits with lyricist Hal David, including “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “I Say a Little Prayer” which they wrote for Dionne Warwick. When he died in February at age 94, our PJ Grisar wrote that Bacharach’s “effortless ear worms” are “anything by simple songs.”

Thanks to Benyamin Cohen and Rebecca Salzhauer for contributing to today’s newsletter. You can reach the “Forwarding” team at editorial@forward.com.

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