GLBT Orthodox Jews are often faced with a horrible choice: having to decide between being openly gay and potentially losing their family and religion, or hiding in a heterosexual lifestyle.
The beginning of reconciliation for these two seemingly separate worlds is highlighted in the independent documentaries Trembling Before G-d and Hineini: Coming Out in Jewish High School. Both films tackle the inner conflict of Jews who desperately want to be openly LGBT and religious, without being shunned.
The powerful Trembling Before G-d interviews an international group of adults struggling to come to terms with their identities. The film includes interviews with both rabbis and therapists, speaking from dramatically opposing viewpoints about being both gay and Jewish. The teenage perspective is captured in the inspiring Hineini: Coming Out in Jewish High School, which follows the struggles of 14-year old Shulamit Izen coming out as a lesbian.
The current state of religious Judaism in the USA is roughly divided into 5 categories, (with many variations) with wildly differing attitudes towards homosexuality. These include Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
The Orthodox is the most severely homophobic, with the most literal translation of Leviticus 18:22, which states “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”. The Reform, which is the largest group in the USA, and the Reconstructionists are the most liberal and accepting, holding the belief that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of sexual orientation”.
In Hineini: Coming Out in Jewish High School, directed by Irena Fayngold in 2005, Rabbi Lehmann at the New Jewish High School in Boston has a vision of integrating the different branches of Judaism. He wants the young, pluralistic, Jewish community to ”transform by living in the tension of our differences”.
Yet, he seems to be caught off-guard by Shulamit Izen, a charismatic lesbian student, who forces him to confront the potentially divisive attitudes toward being Gay and Jewish.
In the narrative, Shulamit comes out to her classmates and Rabbi Lehman, and it is heartbreaking to see her confusion over the negative reactions. Naively, she assumes Rabbi Lehmann will give total approval. Instead he tells her ”Judaism, over several thousands of years, has developed a negative view on homosexuality”. One student refuses to spend the night at a sleepover party (with Shulamit) because ”she did not want Shulamit to see her getting undressed.”
Shulamit refuses to let go of her quest to reconcile being Jewish and Gay and “holy”. Through her intense quest to find a Jewish community “that does not make me internalize homophobia”, she finds support at Keshet (a Boston based Jewish/gay support network) and within her school. With their backing she fights to create a Gay-Straight Alliance.
Shulamit creates a domino effect of change. Rabbi Lehmann admits he is still struggling with his attitude towards homosexuality and Judaism. Some previously closeted teachers must decide if, in support of the GSA, they are going to come out publicly to the entire school.
Director Irena Fayngold was forced to create this film completely through narrative interviews because she was banned from filming in the school. Yet the power of Shulamit's conviction keeps the film compelling and ultimately inspiring. Hineini: Coming Out in Jewish High School is important for all generations searching for their religious and sexual identity.