Areleh Harel: The Orthodox Rabbi Helping Gay Men Marry Lesbians

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Cindy E. Rodríguez

A gay male Orthodox couple live together in secret in Jerusalem

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But other religious gays say it's an unhealthy way to live. "I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it's about caring, loving and sharing," says Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man who lives in Jerusalem and is the spokesman for an Orthodox-gay organization called Havruta. "This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don't love each other, the kids will feel it. It's not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this."

The condemnation of homosexuality in Orthodox communities in Israel has historically been so strong that many gay Orthodox Jews have felt they had two choices: remain in the closet or stop being religious. That mind-set has changed in recent years as leaders of Jewish Queer Youth, an "Ortho-gay" organization based in Manhattan, began connecting with burgeoning gay-rights groups in Israel, offering support and advice.

Orthodox rabbis continue to point to Leviticus 18: 22 as proof that God does not accept homosexuality. The verse reads, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination." Harel concurs, saying, "You can't change the laws of the Torah. This is what God wants. If God wanted gay people to live together, he would come down and tell us."

In May, as part of a fellowship sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, this reporter found herself sitting in a car on a lonely road at 2 a.m. with Harel, waiting to meet one of the gay men he had matched with a lesbian. Harel received a text message. The man was ready. Harel pulled the car up to a man standing with his thumb out, as if he were hitchhiking. The man climbed inside and said he wanted to go by the name "Josh."

Josh, 30, was a rugged man with close-cropped hair. He wore a crocheted yarmulke — the kind Orthodox Zionists wear. We drove to a desolate park. Josh was hesitant at first, but once he started to talk, he opened up about what he called his lifelong struggle with homosexuality. He said he spent most of his 20s trying to force himself to be straight, but it didn't work. He'd have girlfriends as a front, while engaging in trysts with men. "I had a crisis with God," Josh said. "I felt like God screwed me." Josh desperately wanted to have a family and "feel like a normal man." Through an Internet chat group for gay men, he heard about Harel.

In 2008, Harel introduced Josh to an Orthodox lesbian. Six months later, they married. They now have an 11-month-old son. Josh admits to cheating three times, most recently in February with a former gay lover who is married to a straight woman. "I haven't told my wife, but I think she knows. She can see it in my face when I come home," Josh said. "But she gives me space. I really love her because she understands me."

Harel says he raises the question of infidelity when he's making a match and tells couples they should be clear on what they want. "If he will go with another man, it's his business. If she wants to go with another woman, that's her business. It's up to each couple," Harel says. "I don't accept it from the point of view of the Jewish law. But it's not my business."

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