Hello, I’m Lev, I’m 21. I was born and raised in Reading in Berkshire.
I’m Jewish. I was brought up within Liberal Judaism. My parents weren’t particularly religious, but the whole family was very involved in the Jewish community. We went to synagogue pretty much every week and participated in all the major holidays. The Jewish community in Reading is quite small, and the Liberal Jewish community even smaller. This meant that no one remained on the sidelines - everybody got involved in different parts of religious practice, in services and with the cultural life of the community. At the same time, while I got to know plenty of other Jews through the community, I was – as far as I know – the only Jew at my primary and secondary school.
I came out at quite a young age – I must have been about 14. Coming out for anybody is always difficult. It’s a struggle to come to terms with how you’re seemingly different from everybody else you know and then harder still to let everybody else know too. I came out to pretty much everybody at school and in my family at once. In a small place like Reading, you can’t tell one person something and expect everybody else not to know about it too.
I definitely experienced homophobia. I can remember getting a lot of abuse about my sexuality from my fellow students, and even from teachers. At that time, it was very unusual for anybody to be openly lesbian or gay at school, and I think people were very affronted by it. Later, a few of my friends who grew up and left Reading came out. So it wasn't really that rare, it's just that our home town wasn’t an environment where people could easily be open about their sexuality. It took a lot longer for me to come out to the Jewish community. I was worried by the notorious tension between religion and sexuality. I was well acquainted with the passages in scripture that seemed to condemn sexual relations between men and agonised over them for some time. I’d heard so much about Christian fundamentalists who denounced homosexuality as a sin and didn’t really have the guts to ask anybody what the Jewish approach to it all was.
I thought the reaction I’d receive would be even more hostile than I’d received at school. Plus there are some things Jews just don’t tend to talk about in public and sex is definitely one of them. In the end, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the reaction I’d receive from the Jewish community.
At this point, it’s probably worth briefly explaining the difference between the Liberal Judaism with which I’d been brought up, and other strands of Jewish tradition. Liberal Judaism was founded around 100 years ago in the UK by a group of people including a woman called Lily Montagu, with a strong emphasis from the outset on equality between all people, particularly on the equality between men and women. Today, Liberal Judaism tries to extend this emphasis on equality to lesbian and gay people. We have gay Rabbis and even a synagogue in London that specifically sets out to include lesbian and gay Jews. I wasn’t aware of this until after I came out. If I’d known how welcoming and understanding people in my small Jewish community were going to be, I’d have gone about things very differently.
Looking back there were lots of things in my experience that should have taught me that people would be accepting. But I can also remember, after I’d come out, I was at synagogue and heard a Jewish man complain about how wrong it was for a gay man to be running for parliament in Reading. That wasn’t exceptional – there was a bit of a witch hunt against that prospective MP. But what did shock me was that a Jewish woman sitting near him told him off for being homophobic. I hadn’t really heard many adults talk about homophobia seriously and felt surprisingly empowered to hear a Jewish person oppose homophobia.
Later, when I was about 17, I asked a Rabbi what the Jewish interpretation was of the offending passage in Leviticus that said men who lay down with men should be put to death. She told me that in Liberal Judaism there were two thoughts on how to approach that text. One group thought that it shouldn’t be read at all - because it was out of date and didn’t fit with how times have progressed. Another thought that we should still read it, and think about it, and work out what relevance it has today. Her thought was that this text referred to practices involving abusive sexual activity and had nothing to do with loving relationships between people of the same sex. I don’t know whether that interpretation’s right – although I’m told it’s quite a common one – but I definitely agree that we should read those texts and ask questions about them.
I began to realise that what was worrying me and hurting me wasn't my knowledge of Judaism – it was my ignorance about it. I hadn’t realised just how accepting Liberal Judaism already was of lesbian and gay people. So, those are just some of my experiences which have shown me ways in which Judaism has been positive and accepting. Before coming out to the Jewish community, I thought that my religion and my sexuality would be at war with each other. Actually, I’ve found that my Judaism has given me much better grounding to be open with my sexuality.
I know there are people who think that all religions are homophobic and even that all homophobia comes from religion, but it just isn’t true. In my experience, most Jews see working for justice as one of the most important aspects of their religion, so where they do take an interest in sexuality, it’s very often to defend lesbian and gay people, rather than to attack them.