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The fight for LGBT equality in Israel's Orthodox community

Zehorit Sorek from lesbian campaign group Bat Kol describes the challenges she has faced

    Zehorit Sorek (left) at Limmud 2017
    Zehorit Sorek (left) at Limmud 2017

    One of the first sessions of Limmud saw a prominent Israeli LGBT activist discuss her ten-year fight for equality with a handful of early arrivals.

    Zehorit Sorek, from the lesbian Orthodox campaign group Bat Kol, said she and fellow activists feel the problem with LGBT rights in Israel is a social one, rather than a Halachic one.

    She told the audience that when she speaks with rabbis and other religiously conservative rabbis, she asks them whether they would prefer their children to be gay or secular.

    If they are secular they can commit a multitude of sins, she explained, but being gay means they only commit two at most.

    As an activist, her role is twofold: one aspect of her work is to communicate with the religious community to lobby for greater acceptance of LGBT Israelis in religious life, and the other is to raise awareness among members of the public.

    Her most visible campaign, titled ‘Our Faces’, targets young, in-the-closet Israelis who perceive a contradiction between religious observance and homosexuality.

    The campaign, launched two years ago, produces and publicises headshot collages of headshots of members of Israel’s Orthodox LGBT community in newspapers and online.

    The first year attracted 44 participants, with a set of 30 new individuals signing up last year. Next year’s target is 50.

    Mrs Sorek, 42, said: “At 29 I understood I was a lesbian. It felt very, very lonely. How can I combine my two identities – religious and lesbian?

    “I asked ‘Rabbi Google’ and researched online and immediately I felt part of a new club.

    “It’s a way of showing to people who are in the closet that they are not alone.”

    The spectre of violence looms over such a project. In 2015 Yishai Schlissel, a strictly Orthodox Jew, stabbed six people at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade, killing a 16-year-old girl.

    She said: “There are problems, yes. That is why we would never allow someone under 18 to take part. We just can’t be responsible for them. There are still some problems with some people.”

    Although progress has been made, Mrs Sorek said, her group has merely laid the first foundation stones so far.

    She and her partner, Limor, were forced to establish their own place of worship in their home city of Tel Aviv, after a minority of members of their previous shul took exception to their decision to have a marriage Kiddush at the synagogue.

    But when they left, they took many other members with them, including a number of heterosexual couples.

    The next frontier for Mrs Sorek is the abolition of conversion therapy – or the ‘pray the gay away’ practice – in Israel.

    She said: “We started on this but we have not got that done yet. We will not stop until we do, though. We will struggle on. We are still trying.”

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