When Hillel Athias-Robles was a teenager, he would stand for a long time in the street outside the Aguda gay youth centre in Tel Aviv, scared that someone would see him go inside.
As a Charedi yeshivah student, he was terrified of being spotted by someone he knew. But it was worth the risk.
“I knew I’d found a refuge where I could be myself,” he recalled this week, in the wake of the gun attack on the centre.
“In the yeshivah in Jerusalem it was extremely difficult to cope. I couldn’t reconcile my religious convictions and believe I could be myself. I knew I had these feelings that were completely forbidden — an abomination,” he said.
“I hated myself. I couldn’t find any escape. I would pray for hours, cry, go to the Kotel. The only place I could talk about my feelings was a support group for gay Orthodox teenagers, but there they would tell me that I was sick and must try to be cured. It was like living without breathing. I felt as though I had a terminal illness. I couldn’t escape.”
At the Aguda, and a similar centre in Jerusalem, he found a refuge.
“For the first time I could feel gay and feel safe. But I was still unhappy. I still thought of myself as a sinner. It was the place where I felt safe to be a sinner.”
This week’s attack on the centre horrified him.
“The sanctity of this safe haven has been sadly desecrated, and in the process two precious souls became the victims of hate,” he said.
He pointed out that it was not the first violent attack on gays in Israel. In 2005 a strictly Orthodox man stabbed several participants at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem.
“He was a classmate of mine in yeshivah. When I recognised him, it was a complete shock. In this case I could understand the culture. It starts with throwing stones, shouting, mocking people and ends with an attack. In the town where this man lives, they have turned him into a hero, giving money to his wife.”
It took years for Hillel Athias-Robles to feel brave enough to re-evaluate his life.
Three years ago he became a Liberal Jew, and now, aged 29, is the assistant rabbi at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
“In Liberal Judaism I found a God that I could love, rather than fear. I found a community that would accept everyone the way he or she was. I am so fulfilled. I have a partner, and a life of incredible happiness.”