Benjamin Cohen: being gay is no longer a bar to our communal life

Benjamin Cohen: being gay is no longer a bar to our communal life

Benjamin Cohen
Benjamin Cohen

By Benjamin COHEN, publisher of Pink News.

benjamin cohen
Benjamin Cohen

Four decades ago when the world’s first gay Jewish organisation, the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group was founded, being gay and Jewish was for the most part something that wasn’t spoken about.

I don’t think the founders of this venerable institution could have dreamt that another Jewish gay group, Keshet UK, will next week be celebrating Chanukah in the heart of the British establishment, in Parliament, at the first gay Jewish reception to be held in the Palace of Westminster.

They also would never have dreamt those lighting the candles and eating doughnuts would be celebrating the dawn of same-sex marriages, conducted in synagogues and solemnised by rabbis, as will be happening in Reform and Liberal shuls across England and Wales in just a few months.

Nor would they have imagined that this change in the law was helped through in no small way thanks to the courageous work of Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, who received very little dissent from his Orthodox Jewish constituents during the debates.

A span of four decades probably underestimates the speed of change in our community. In my view it has changed remarkably within just the past few years.

When I began the process of coming out as a teenager in the late 1990s, it felt as if I was forced to make a choice between being gay and being Jewish. Today, this could not be further from the truth. Across all the mainstream communities, including the United Synagogue, there is a growing recognition and understanding of the needs of gay people.

Most families do not want to be broken up by the truth that their child has fallen in love with someone of the same gender. Religious leaders too have a growing understanding of the importance of inclusiveness, seeing beyond a supposed sin and instead seeing the whole person and what he or she brings to the entire Jewish community.

In the Liberal and Reform communities, gay couples have a unique visibility and the percentage of openly gay rabbonim far exceeds the percentage of gay people among the British population.

A few months ago, I found myself in the odd situation of defending my sexual orientation in front of my shul, Borehamwood and Elstree United, during a debate on the issue of homosexuality.

Despite one or two rather ignorant comments from some participants, most of the community were perplexed by the biblical prohibition of a love that in reality affects no one but the couple themselves.

The rabbi leading the discussion then made a very public gesture in hugging me as soon as I finished speaking – a clear message to the congregation that being gay is no bar to communal life. When my boyfriend Anthony attended the following week, he was greeted with affection by the community as a whole.

Unfortunately, the experiences I have had are still not universal. Many young people face rejection because of a love over which they have no choice.

Some decide to suppress their feelings and enter into opposite-sex marriages, others try and fail to change their sexuality using widely-discredited ‘gay cure’ reparative therapy. Some who are honest about their orientation experience rejection by their communities and their families – something that needs to change.

While I don’t expect the United Synagogue to offer same-sex marriages, the fact they are going to take place between Jewish same-sex couples under different authorities will in my view make a huge difference to the way the community perceives homosexuality.

As couples engage in communal life, the Jewish community will start to see that being gay is nothing other than normal.

Gay Jews don’t need to hide in the shadows any more.

Benjamin Cohen tweets @benjamincohen

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