By Eleanor Linafelt and Andrew Silow-Carroll
The New York City-based Jewish Queer Youth organization received a $1 million donation to expand its social services to Orthodox LGBTQ youth nationwide, including in the Baltimore area.
The gift comes from Toronto-based real estate developer Paul Austin, CEO of the Salpam Group, and his partner, Dalip Girdhar, who works in information technology at TD Bank.
The organization will use the gift to bring its Drop-In Center initiative, an in-person clinical program that operates in New York, to Orthodox communities in Baltimore and Silver Spring.
JQY Executive Director Rachael Fried said in a statement that during the pandemic, JQY pivoted to providing several of its key programs virtually, allowing youth from around the country and world to take part and underscoring the need for its services.
“When we went virtual with COVID, we found that there were LGBTQ youth from Orthodox homes all over the country and world,” Fried said. “The first city where we started seeing a critical mass of people coming from was the Baltimore/Silver Spring area.”
JQY will be working with community leaders and stakeholders in the Baltimore area to determine the specific needs of local participants. The organization hopes to open the Maryland drop-in center in the fall. The exact location has not yet been determined, but Fried said the organization hopes to arrange transportation to the center so it can serve both Baltimore and Silver Spring.
In addition to the resources that the community expresses a need for, the center will have social workers available for check-ins, kosher dinners, games and programming.
The drop-in center will be geared toward those ages 13-23.
“People are coming out younger and younger and finding themselves in complicated situations where they need extra support,” Fried said.
JQY provides a place for young people to be out when they might not be able to be with their families or in other parts of their community.
“There is also a need for mental health support, especially right now,” Fried said, explaining that the pandemic has particularly exacerbated mental health issues for LGBTQ youth.
For many Orthodox, Chasidic and Sephardic/Mizrahi LGBTQ youth, JQY provides a sense of community that is difficult for them to find elsewhere.
“Somebody can come to a space that is LGBTQ and still feel like it doesn’t really work for them because they’re still an outsider because they’re Jewish,” Fried explained.
Orthodox youth can also feel like outsiders in some Jewish spaces when they are not geared toward their specific communities.
“A lot of people thought they were the only ones like them in the world before they came to JQY,” Fried said. “We have Orthodox cultural competencies and sensitivities and LGBTQ competencies and sensitivities. That’s something that’s incredibly difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere.”
The Maryland drop-in center will provide a physical space for local youth to come together who share the identities of being both LGBTQ and Orthodox.
“For people who didn’t know there was a community, we celebrate them as a community and make them know that they’re part of it,” Fried said.
The recent gift is JQY’s biggest donation since it launched as a nonprofit in 2012, according to a release from JQY. The organization also plans to open drop-in centers in New Jersey, Chicago and South Florida, and to expand the staffing for the organization’s crisis phone line.
The clinical program and hotline will be renamed in honor of the donors.
“I’m really excited that we’re able to come to Baltimore and these other communities,” Fried said. “I’m grateful that we have a donation where our participants will be directly impacted.”
In addition to direct outreach to LGBTQ Orthodox youth, JQY offers training programs for Jewish schools, camps, youth organizations, synagogues and mental health professionals.
Nearly all Orthodox communities and institutions do not allow same-sex marriage or sexual relations between people of the same gender.
Parts of this story originally ran on JTA.org.