I’m not going to delve into the content of Jewish Queer Youth’s (JQY) presentation nor my opinions on what the organization presented. I’m not going to pass judgement on the statements of Mr. Mordechai Levovitz during his presentation, such as when he said, “The way we make [LGBTQ] people feel good is to celebrate [LGBTQ] people’s identity.”
Rather, I want to focus on the suitability of JQY as an organization to present to an institution “guided by modern orthodox values and principles” (per the AJA Mission Statement) on a contentious halachically-connected topic, as well as the wisdom of AJA inviting them to do so.
As an Orthodox community in which the three largest shuls (Congregations Ariel, Beth Jacob, and Ohr Hatorah) are all members of the Orthodox Union (OU), it is safe to say that the Atlanta Orthodox community stands by the values represented by the OU and what it stands for. In such a community, Mr. Levovitz is deeply divisive. A 2017 Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) article covers a situation in the OU instructed a member shul in New York to stop congratulating members on their same-sex weddings. In response, Mr. Levovitz, the then-Executive Director of JQY and now the Clinical Director, informed the JTA of the high rate of kids who attend JQY weekly “Drop-Ins” who report being suicidal. The article then quotes Mr. Levovitz accusing the OU of “deciding to focus on congratulatory wording and not children and teens who are physically and mentally at risk” (“Liberal Orthodox synagogue will stop announcing LGBT weddings after OU complaints,” Ben Sales, Dec. 13, 2017).
Even ignoring JQY’s stance of supporting same-sex marriages (Bereshit Rabbah 26:5 states writing marriage certificates for forbidden unions sealed the fate of the Generation of the Flood), Mr. Levovitz is at best assigning blame to the OU for neglecting LGBTQ Orthodox youth, and at worst tacitly accusing the umbrella Orthodox organization in America of bearing responsibility for youth committing suicide. Mr. Levovitz and JQY are not a part of mainstream Orthodoxy in America, as represented by the OU.
“I question why AJA determined that JQY is a valid, qualified organization to speak to its students on a controversial topic featuring halachic relevance.”
That said, the Atlanta Orthodox community has not completely distanced itself from anything affiliated or coordinated by JQY. Ohr Hatorah Rabbi Adam Starr is listed as a signator on the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” which JQY on its website takes credit for “helping… formulate” (although its name isn’t present anywhere on the Statement).
However, the Statement utilizes much milder language and concepts compared to the “celebrate people’s identities” that JQY preached at AJA, likely due to the need to tone down their message in order to get Orthodox rabbis on board. Therefore, even though Rabbi Starr did sign on to the Statement, it is not necessarily true to say he would agree to other messaging and philosophies presented by JQY. JQY and its philosophy is not widely accepted in the Orthodox community, both nationally and locally.
I question why AJA determined that JQY is a valid, qualified organization to speak to its students on a controversial topic featuring halachic relevance. JQY lacks the backing of the widespread American Orthodox community, in fact blaming — if not outright accusing — its representing, leading organization. JQY might claim the support of one Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta on one of its projects, but its presentations to the AJA community went well beyond the level of the previously endorsed Statement — a Statement which doesn’t even reference the organization in the first place.
AJA decided that the hours students dedicated to listening to the JQY presentations were a valuable use of instructional time. I hope the school would only use its most important resource — time — in a way that aligns with the Mission Statement. I see no evidence that JQY as an organization qualifies as such.