The Bat Kol organization may serve as a friendly meeting place for lesbian women, but coming out of the proverbial closet – especially when that closet is located in a religious home in a religious community – remains doubly challenging for some
• LIAT SHPIGLER
The name Bat Kol means the voice of God, but if dissected by word, the word bat means daughter and the word kol means voice. The Bat Kol organization strives to make both Jewish and lesbian voices heard, proving that religion and same-sex love can coexist.
Bat Kol is the bridge between the often conservative and traditional undertones interpreted by the rules of religion, and the human right to the realization of love regardless of its object and institutional objection.
The Bat Kol organization has been in existence for almost a decade and serves as a friendly meeting place for lesbians on the entire religious spectrum – those who left the religion; those who have religious, heterosexual families and have realized that their sexual orientation points them elsewhere; and those who have found the balance between Judaism and their sexual preference. The organization has groups in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
Currently 300 members strong, Bat Kol has developed into an official organization, holding activities such as study groups, Shabbat getaways and annual Second Passover celebrations.
Each year, Bat Kol and its male counterpart Havruta, which together make up the religious lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, hold a Second Passover event a month after the official biblical holiday.
The Second Passover holiday appears in the Book of Numbers and was celebrated while the Jews were in the desert after their exile from Egypt. A Passover sacrifice was to be made, but there were those who were considered impure at the time, or who could not make it to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice. Wanting to fulfill the religious ritual, they approached Moses in an attempt to persuade him to give them a second chance one month later, on the 14th of Iyar.
And just like their forefathers, members of the religious gay and lesbian communities celebrate this holiday together in a symbolic plea to our nation’s leaders – asking for acceptance, recognition and tolerance.
While MK and Rabbi Shai Piron of Yesh Atid even participated in one such Second Passover celebration, the religion has been historically against or has not openly advocated the notion of homosexuality.
Leviticus18:22 states, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13 states, “And if a man lie with mankind as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
However, what do the religious texts have to say of lesbianism? An interpretation of Leviticus 18:3, which states, “Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow any of their customs,” has led rabbis throughout the centuries to oppose lesbianism as well.
And while Bat Kol members are not looking for permission from rabbis to live lesbian lives, they do know that the only way to change the religious perspective on homosexuality is to turn to these rabbis.
But in the meantime, coming out of the proverbial closet – especially when that closet is located in a religious home in a religious community – remains doubly challenging.
TWENTY-EIGHT-year-old Ariella and 32-year-old Vered, who became a couple after meeting at Bat Kol, each had to separately contend with revealing their sexual orientation to religious family and friends.
Growing up in a national-religious environment, Ariella was expected to answer affirmatively to attempts to set her up on dates, but had no interest. When her classmates began getting married, her friends tried to push her to go out as well, but no one could think of a match for her. “There was always this feeling that I was a bit different,” she says.
“I always placed it on external things – I’m too busy for a relationship, I’m in the middle of saving the world, I’m an officer in the army. My parents, traditional immigrants from South Africa, started asking questions – they weren’t worried about me getting married, but wanted me to go out with men.”
Because of her environment, Ariella was not exposed to the notion of alternative sexuality until relatively later in life. But, she says, “in retrospect, I remember situations in which I fell in love with girls, but at that time I didn’t know how to call lesbianism by name, so I called it an obsession.”
“The only homosexual I had heard of was Dana International and she is transsexual; the only thing I knew about homosexuality was that it wasn’t considered a good thing. I hadn’t heard the word lesbian until I was 23 years old.”
After serving in the IDF, Ariella briefly returned home prior to moving to Jerusalem for her university studies. Something changed that year: “I felt that it was a God-given gift.” This was the year she discovered lesbianism and began thoroughly researching it.
But Ariella’s real confrontation with this brewing inner truth only began when she left her home in the Center of the country, and moved to Jerusalem on her own. She rented an apartment there and the independent, free-thinking university life and distance from all she knew made room for eventual exploration.
For two and a half years she wandered with these self-kept thoughts – and not a soul knew. During that time she never truly checked out the option of dating women. “I was set up on dates with men, but I knew that it was solely going to be an enjoyable evening – but nothing more,” she says.
But then the urge to face her truth surfaced, and Ariella began telling her new, open-minded friends in Jerusalem, then her friends from back home and some of her siblings. However, she knew she would only seal the deal once her parents knew, and this could only happen after she checked it out for herself and knew for sure.
Ariella says that most of the people she told responded positively. The most difficult reactions were from her friends from back home, since some of them rejected her for what she calls “living differently.” The year in which everything surfaced was a heavy load for her. “I was inundated with schoolwork, physically I suffered from protruding discs in my back.” Juggling the people who knew and who didn’t took its toll.
After meeting her girlfriend, Ariella decided that she would no longer compromise. “I wanted to live life to the fullest, to create a family, not to hide anything in my life.” That is when she told her parents – two years ago.
“They were pretty shocked. It was hard on them, but they didn’t yell and they weren’t angry and didn’t tell me to leave. The sadness was in regards to the shattered dream of the life they had envisioned for me, what could have been. They were 70 years old at the time and weren’t familiar with this world. They thought I would live a life of solitude and that I would never have a family.
“There were a lot of questions asked, some of which were completely practical and legitimate: ‘Do you want children? How will you have them? Did you try going out with men?’ There was nothing illogical about their questions. But my mother did say: ‘So, if you are gay, you can’t be Orthodox.’ And I answered: ‘I can and I am.’
“Then I told them about Bat Kol and about lesbian, religious women who are trying to combine their two identities, and that I believed that it was possible – and I didn’t want to give up on either. I love Judaism and tradition. I want to live a life of Jewish content. I am a high- school Bible teacher – that’s me.”
What helped Ariella solidify her place within the religion is God. “He accompanied me… and if He created me, He’s most likely pleased with me. People create relationships – God doesn’t make world wars – people do.”
Ariella’s girlfriend, Vered, is a social worker who grew up in a Gush Etzion religious settlement. It was clear to her from a young age that she would not join the army and instead go to national service.
During her national service Vered encountered secular people who, contrary to what those in her previous environment thought, were highly moralistic. At a certain point, she no longer identified with the religion on which she was raised and stopped practicing.
“I always thought I would marry a man and went out with men, but in hindsight I had girlfriends who I was in love with. When I was 26 years old I met a friend of a friend who drew my attention to her, and at that point I was ready to for this kind of relationship.
“But I thought that I had fallen in love with her specifically. A few months later I knew that I had to tell my parents. I felt like this secret was distancing me from them. I came to visit them one Shabbat and left completely choked up, and when I got home I called them immediately to tell them I was a lesbian.”
“They were in shock,” she recalls. “The first thing they did was call the community rabbi to consult him. To my surprise, he said that I was their daughter and that they should love and embrace me. It wasn’t easy for them, but they decided that we were family.”
Last Hanukka, Vered’s parents were invited to Ariella and Vered’s home for the holiday, and came.
Ironically, today Vered is the closest to the religion she has been since she left home for national service. Ariella, who is proudly traditional, and the Bat Kol organization have had their effect on her, but so has the freedom of choice. Today, Vered keeps kosher and Shabbat, and “if I feel like going to synagogue, I go, because it is pleasant and nice to be there. In the past I felt like it was all or nothing, and now I have found the middle path,” she says.
Ariella, Vered and numerous other Bat Kol members do not want to live a life of either religion or lesbianism – they want both.
This is not always the case, since some lesbians have forgone the religion, and some religious women have decided to marry or remain married to a man, live heterosexual lives and forgo their lesbianism, because they cannot find where the religious and homosexual twain can meet.
In its ongoing attempt to prove that this is possible and to attain tolerance, Bat Kol will participate in the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, which will be held on August 1.
In the past, the event has served as the stage for violence and fierce criticism, which Ariella believes is caused by the way it is portrayed in the media. The messages sent are of naked, flamboyant homosexuals gallivanting about. This causes the critics to say, ‘Why hold a parade in Jerusalem? Do whatever you want in the privacy of your own homes, but not publicly.’ The critics say that the parade should remain in secular Tel Aviv and that it shouldn’t be rubbed in their faces.
But Ariella says that the Jerusalem LGBT community is different than that of Tel Aviv. It is more idealistic, which often leads to a certain heaviness. The Jerusalem parade is more like a demonstration, always revolving around a certain statement being made.
This year the motto is Rotzot Shinui, or We Want Change, and in Hebrew the word “want” is in its feminine form, regardless of the fact that homosexuals of both genders will be participating. The parade will begin at Independence Park and end at the Knesset – making a major statement to lawmakers. “There is a feeling that change is coming – it feels like more MKs are more pro-homosexuality and there are no haredim in the current government, so change is possible,” say Vered and Ariella.
The Bat Kol hotline operates on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8 to 10 p.m., 054-313-3239