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‘Herschel Siegel killed himself before last Shabbat. I understand why’

Gavriel Watts
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Published: 12 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

An appalling 70% of Orthodox LGBT youth consider suicide. GAVRIEL WATTS was reminded why on his bar mitzvah anniversary last week.

You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22)

That was the opening line of the fourth passage in last week’s Torah portion of Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim. Last week was also my Hebrew birthday, and every year before my birthday I get a call up to the Torah. This year it was my 10-year bar mitzvah anniversary, one of the defining moments of my journey into young adulthood.

As the third passage was ending, I thought, “Please don’t call me for this next one … I can’t.” I knew the fourth passage contained the “abomination” line. Lo and behold, I heard my name called.

I knew calling me up then was unintentional but I also understood what was about to happen. I would stand up there, on the podium, in front of the whole congregation, take the corner of the Tallit I’m wearing, and as is the custom, lightly trace over the starting words of the portion before I say the blessing, just like every other time.

And so I did. I went into autopilot. I stood there, touched the sentence, the very sentence that calls me, a child of God, made in the image of God, an abomination to Him.

I can’t put into words my feelings at that moment. The closest I can come is to imagine you are standing at the podium, being acknowledged for a great achievement. Then think the opposite. My acknowledgement is for being a disgusting freak of nature who is not worthy of being loved and accepted in this bubble we all know very well.

I thought I’d be ok, but as I walked down from the bimah, I turned to my dad and said I needed a minute. I went to the bathroom and cried for half an hour, until my mum found me. And then we cried together.

Gavriel Watts on his bar mitzvah
Gavriel Watts on his bar mitzvah

I am alive but another young man like me is dead. Last week, right before this Shabbat on which we read that we are “abominations”, Herschel Siegel took his own life.

Herschel Siegel was a loving son, an adored brother and caring friend. He was a gifted actor and studied at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. He was also a proud Orthodox Jew and a proud gay man.

He was openly gay in a community that too often refuses to acknowledge or value this part of his identity. Openly gay in a community that is so quick to say they accept yet won’t talk about the queer elephant in the room.

Any acceptance gay Orthodox Jews receive is conditional. Conditional that you don’t talk about being queer. Conditional that “it’s not in my house”. Conditional that if you have a loving partner, you don’t mention him.

“Every time we choose to avoid talking about someone’s LGBTQ+ identity out of ‘compassion’ for the feelings of a sensitive family member, we send a message to queer youth that they are not wanted,” wrote Mordechai Levovitz, clinical director of the New York based organisation JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), in an article responding to Herschel's death in Forward.

“More importantly, this is one of the most common narratives that queer youth use when rationalising suicide. They come to believe that erasing themselves would be the kindest thing to do, and that their queerness is a burden on their loved ones.”

I didn’t know Herschel Siegel. But his story struck a huge chord for me, because as a Jewish gay man I can relate to everything Levovitz wrote.

The internalised homophobia I work every day to rid myself of. The shame and nauseating fear I felt when I finally worked up the courage at the age of 20 to tell my parents, family and friends who I really am. The part of me I beat up every day of my childhood and teenage years. The part of me I tried in vain to kill. The nervous energy I sometimes feel when walking into communal spaces - shuls, schools and the like - punctuated by the silent voice which screams that you are an "other".

There is fear for my future too, I imagine the anger that I will feel one day when I have to introduce my boyfriend or husband as my “friend” to avoid the possible discomfort of others. Why must I worry about their feelings?

The Trevor Project, which surveyed 28,000 queer youth across the US, found that 41% seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

But the situation is much worse if you are Jewish and Orthodox. Since 2016, over 2000 queer youth from Orthodox families have accessed support services through JQY. Data collected from their intake assessments showed that the number with suicidal ideation was nearly 70%.

If it were not for my incredible parents, family and close friends who know what unconditional love means, I too might have found life so unbearable that I considered suicide.

We need to have physical spaces within the Orthodox community - not on the fringes - for anybody who feels they could benefit from an open, welcoming and judgment-free environment. Anonymity plays a large role in many queer youths’ journey of coming to terms with their true selves and their identities (though this can pose its own challenges). However, I want to make this a reality because we need it now more than ever.

We need to do better for Herschel’s sake, so his life was not lived in vain.

And for all of our youth queer youth who have lived and hurt in silence for too long.


A young gay Orthodox man died by suicide. We must confront how Jewish teachings harmed him (Forward)

About the author

Gavriel Watts

Gavriel Watts, 23, graduated from Leibler Yavneh College in 2018, and is currently President of AUJS of Monash Caulfield, studying a Bachelor of Business.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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