‘Safe Spaces’ For Orthodox LGBTQ Students Spreads On Campus

‘Safe Spaces’ For Orthodox LGBTQ Students Spreads On Campus

Wed, 04/15/2015

Rachael Fried, a 27-year-old graduate of Stern College, spent years formulating one three-word bombshell of a sentence: I am gay.

“Just being able to say it to myself, let alone others, took years,” said Fried, former student council president at Stern and current graduate student at Parsons The New School for Design. She wore a knee-length pencil skirt, button-down top, cardigan and colorful scarf, long hair falling down her back.

“I’m pretty religious, and I’m pretty gay,” Fried joked. “My story, though, is not an extraordinary one. I was a typical Stern student leader.”

Fried spoke out publicly for the first time on a recent Friday at the second session of Merchav Batuach, a recently launched “safe space” seminar for Orthodox college students. Founded in December by Stern senior Dasha Sominski, the project, which offers language sensitivity training and networking opportunities for gay students and their allies, is poised to expand. Campus chapters at Barnard, Columbia, NYU, Yale and Queens College are scheduled to open in the fall.

“I heard about the project though social media, and realized it would be a perfect fit for our campus,” said Sophia Adler, a sophomore at Queens College who hopes to launch the training sessions there this fall. The significant Orthodox population at Queens makes it an ideal location for the initiative, she said.

The project’s expansion follows President Barack Obama’s call last week to end reparative therapies aimed at “converting” gay, lesbian and transgender youth, a method endorsed in certain Orthodox circles. JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), a New Jersey-based organization that promotes reparative therapy, has protested past attempts to prohibit such therapies.

Unlike the reparative therapy model, Merchav Batuach hopes to promote a model of acceptance. The project, sponsored by Eshel, a nonprofit founded in 2013 to support gay Orthodox adults and their families, received $15,000 from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York last month; that grant followed on the heels of a $10,000 grant from UJA-Federation of New York in January, according to Eshel’s executive director, Miryam Kabakov.

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