By: Yitzhak Graff  | 

YU, the 1993 Israel Day Parade and LGBT Inclusivity

In 1968, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an article in the Jewish Life magazine titled “The New Dispensation on Homosexuality.” Lamm, at the time the rabbi of the West Side Jewish Center and a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva College, was responding to developments in progressive streams of Christianity that were beginning to accept “homosexuality” into their churches. The term “homosexuality,” which is vague in comparison to the array of words available today that describe specific elements of sexual and gender identity, referred to a general stereotype of identity and social behavior that was considered to be directly associated with specific sexual activities. I will use this outdated term to capture the vague and almost paranoid nature of its use in writing that attempts to argue against its acceptance. 

Though Rabbi Lamm built an extensive case for religious authorities to reject “homosexuality,” he conceded one point to the activists of his day who were working to decriminalize sodomy. Lamm posited that it was not the place of the secular government to control the private sexual behavior of its citizens. 

Though sodomy was only fully decriminalized in the United States in 2003 after the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, in the 1990s proponents of traditional sexual morality were becoming uncomfortable with the increasing social acceptance of LGBT identifying people in general society. Much of the leadership of the Modern Orthodox community felt that it was time to scrap Rabbi Lamm’s perspective. Instead, they proposed reactionary political advocacy to reverse the social acceptance of “homosexuality” and to actively oppose legislation that would protect LGBT rights.

This reactionary position was clearly articulated in an article authored by Rabbis Marc Angel, Hillel Goldberg and Pinchas Stolper in the December 1992 issue of Jewish Action. They presented a strategy of proactive advocacy to drive “homosexual ideology” out of Orthodox Jewish life. The first target of this strategy presented itself a mere three months later. 

In the 1990s and decades prior, the annual Salute to Israel Parade was organized by the American Zionist Youth Foundation (AZYF). The parade was fundamentally a youth parade, which meant only schools and youth groups could participate in the marching. The minimum size for a youth group to be eligible to participate was 35 members. This included social groups, Hebrew schools and day schools.

In 1993, the Hebrew School of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) had grown to 35 students for the first time in its history. Now that it was eligible to march, it applied to participate in the Salute to Israel Parade that year. Beit Simchat Torah was not a typical synagogue, founded by gay and lesbian Jews to serve as a religious Jewish space where they would be fully accepted. 

Beth Simchat Torah openly embraced the “homosexuality” that Rabbi Lamm had instructed the Jewish community to keep out of its spaces in 1968. Combined with the strategy of the Jewish Action article, the leadership of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community was ready to make a stand. Working behind the scenes, the major Modern Orthodox community organizations threatened to boycott the parade if Beit Simchat Torah was allowed to march.

To avoid splintering the Jewish community over this issue, the parade organizers sought to broker a compromise between the two factions. The Orthodox community had differing opinions of what they wanted out of the threatened boycott. The most moderate view, expressed by Rabbi Lamm, only wanted Beit Simchat Torah to refrain from expressing in any way that they supported gay rights. A more radical position, supported by many of the RIETS roshei yeshiva, demanded the Orthodox community boycott the rally if Beit Simchat Torah was allowed to march at all. 

In late April, the parade organizers reached a compromise, in which Beit Simchat Torah would march with the Association of Reform Zionists of America and refrain from publicizing their sexuality. Yeshiva University supported the compromise and authorized its schools to march in the parade, but many of the RIETS roshei yeshiva did not, with Rav Aharon Soloveichik declaring it a cardinal sin (yehareg v’al ya’avor) to march in the parade.  

The compromise did not satisfy the hard-line rabbis who represented the majority of Modern Orthodox schools. The Yeshiva Principals Council voted to boycott the parade shortly after the compromise was announced. The now official boycott threatened to collapse the whole parade since the core population of day school students and their families were not going to attend. With barely a week to spare before the parade, the organizers expelled Beit Simchat Torah from attending, succumbing to the demands of the Orthodox community. Despite the uncertainty of the attendance of the Orthodox day schools, the parade still garnered an attendance of over 70,000 people. 

In the long run, the boycott did not prevent Beit Simchat Torah from marching in the parade. In the following year Beit Simchat Torah’s Hebrew school marched under a joint banner of Reform movement youth groups. No one protested, because the Jewish community shifted its focus to addressing the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein (YC ‘77, AECOM ‘81) in February of that year. The parade organizers sought to prevent Kahanist groups from openly participating in the parade, allowing space for the comparably less controversial Beit Simchat Torah to march. Though the 1993 Israel Day Parade boycott failed to maintain its initial successes in subsequent years, it symbolically bolstered the Modern Orthodox community’s institutional homophobia. The community was now able to legitimize itself as a force that had the power to reverse social movements and restore traditional Jewish sexual morality.  


Photo Caption: The Pride parade in Tel Aviv, 2008

Photo Credit: Niv Singer / Wikimedia Commons