By: Shayna Herszage | News  | 

Ben Katz Gives Visibility to Religious LGBTQ Community

Yeshiva University and the College Democrats welcomed Ben Katz, a YU alumnus (YC ‘11) and LGBTQ activist, to the Beren Campus on Nov. 13 to speak about the dialogue in Israel regarding LGBTQ rights and inclusion within the religious community.

Every desk in Room 208 of 215 Lexington was filled, with students sitting on desktops and on the floor, as well as standing in the back. Over 65 attendees showed up to hear Katz speak. Katz explained much of what Shoval, the organization he works for, does throughout Israel.

Shoval, as Katz explained, is an organization that aims to educate religious communities about LGBTQ people. This primarily comes through three forms: hosting meetings and events to offer queer religious Jews a sense of community, traveling throughout the country to start a dialogue in the religious communities and educating school teachers and administrators about how to give support to LGBTQ students.

Katz, who studied psychology at Yeshiva University before moving to Israel, emphasized the effect of a supportive, visible community for LGBTQ people on the state of their mental health. If the LGBTQ community is not represented or mentioned in religious contexts, he explained, religious LGBTQ people feel alone in their experiences, and their mental health and wellbeing may be at risk. As Katz said during the event, “If you can not imagine a future for yourself, you get desperate, and do desperate things. And what people need to hear is, ‘There is a future for you, it is okay.’” Through organizations like Shoval, Katz shared, a positive dialogue surrounding LGBTQ members of the religious community is being created. Katz was proud to say that Shoval is helping queer Jews imagine their futures.

The event had a strong effect on the students in attendance. Rivka Reiter (SCW ‘19) said, “It’s the culmination of years and years of work by queer and allied students. I couldn’t help but get emotional, seeing the large turnout of students from all backgrounds and walks of life. It was groundbreaking, and hopefully just the first step toward helping our university and the faculty, administration and student body recognize and address the needs of the minority students contained within it.”

The issue of LGBTQ acceptance, inclusion and visibility in Yeshiva University has been a polarizing topic in recent years. While some have expressed a feeling of relief at the lack of homophobia upon coming out, such as Moshe Brimm in his article “Where Are the Pitchforks? Being an Openly Gay Student at Yeshiva University,” others, such as Josh Tranen in his article “Why I left YU, and Why I'm Writing About It Now,” have expressed feeling targeted or ostracized by the community. Particularly in the wake of YU Admissions’ rejection of a YU Model United Nations topic paper about “State-Sponsored Legal Discrimination and Violence Against Sexual Minorities,” many students felt that the visibility and representation on campus from the Ben Katz event offered a much-needed voice to a community that often may feel underrepresented. Matthew Haller (YC ‘19), the event coordinator and co-president of the College Democrats, stated, “We need to start actively representing the LGBT+ community on campus, rather than just ignoring it.”

The last time that an event like the Ben Katz speech took place at YU was in 2010, when Katz himself was a student at Yeshiva University. A panel entitled “Being Gay In The Modern Orthodox World” was run through the Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. At the time, the event was groundbreaking on campus and in the broader YU community. “I was at YU during a time when the community simply was not aware that you could be Modern Orthodox and gay,” Katz said. “We didn’t talk about LGBTQ people on campus because the public assumption was that they did not exist.”

With the occurrence in 2010 of the first undergraduate Yeshiva University event centered around the LGBTQ community, the marginalized community was acknowledged, according to Katz, but far from accepted. While many supported the event, others were scandalized or insulted by an event centered around LGBTQ people; particularly, there were some roshei yeshiva who called for a boycott in advance of the event. However, according to Katz, society is much more open-minded today than in 2010, and he has hope for the future society that is to come.

“In the history of the world,” said Katz, “there has never been a better day to be young, religious and LGBT. And, if you want to know about the future, you have to believe tomorrow will be a better day.”

Photo Caption: Ben Katz, left, speaks to over 65 attendees on the Beren Campus.
Photo Credit: The Commentator