Mo Goldberger, 21, is a queer Jewish activist who grew up in a haredi Orthodox community in Los Angeles. Now a rising senior at University of Maryland, Goldberger writes their own Jewish music and is co-president of Shtultz, which supports LGBTQ+ people from haredi communities.
When did your journey of self-discovery start?
I was going into 11th grade and my family moved to Boston. I sort of knew I wanted to leave my super religious school and go to a Modern Orthodox school. My family moved and I went to Maimonides. For the first time, I was really excited. It was like a whole new world. And that’s where my journey of self-discovery started.
A friend of mine came out to me sometime in 11th-grade. I had never put a lot of thought into queer stuff. It was never relevant enough in my life for me to think about it so when she came out to me, suddenly, it was a thing I had to deal with because I was very uncomfortable with it. I think that’s when I started doing the work to undo some of that homophobia.
Only later did I start questioning. I started coming out to people as bi towards the beginning of 12th-grade. Towards the end of 12th-grade, I realized I was just into women.
Did you face any challenges after coming out?
I was very much looking forward to being in Israel [where Goldberger would spend their gap year] and a big part of my goal that year was to be able to learn how to be queer and religious. Being Orthodox was everything to me.
When I first came out to my parents, they kind of told me not to tell anyone, it would negatively affect my life. But despite what my parents told me, I decided that I wasn’t going to be quiet about it in Israel, I didn’t want it to be a thing I had to hide anymore.
My parents were not wrong and it did not make my life very pleasant. It was pretty bad. I was told something along the lines of: allowing you to be open and out here sends the message that queer people can be religious people, queer people can be good, queer people can be smart and we totally understand you wanting to send that message, but we can’t allow that message to be sent here.
I was told by the head of the school that if it was up to her she just would have told me not to come out, but now that I did, we had to somehow mitigate my outness. I ended up getting in trouble for sitting on the same bed as a girl. I got screamed at for a while, it was a whole mess. It was a really really bad experience. I went in there with a lot of passion and devotion to orthodoxy. I thought it would be something that people would be impressed by. But it was the opposite. I was told that I was a threat to heterosexuality.
I was super depressed, really not doing well and I just went super off the derech [rebellious]. I went out of my way to find a cheeseburger in Jerusalem, so I was very unhappy. I ended up leaving that seminary and moving to Pardes [yeshivah] for the last three months of my year. That was a really good experience for me because I think if I just went back home or did something else, I probably would have been done with Judaism.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know if it means anything to me outside of the context of it’s just always been a part of my life and because of that, I can’t imagine life without it. I am my Jewish identity, my Jewish identity is me. It’s an inextricable part of who I am.
Can you expand on the idea of urgency for supporting ultra-Orthodox LGBTQ+ Jews?
I think people are now aware enough, even in more religious communities, that conversion therapy doesn’t work. The response that everyone had, doesn’t work. So now, it’s quite simple. There are two options. Do you want queer people in your community, or do you want them leaving?
What’s happening is that there are a lot of people who are queer who want to be religious and over time, they get tired of fighting, because you shouldn’t have to fight for your existence in your own religion. It should be a place where Judaism is your home. It’s not something that I want to be fighting for all the time. It gets exhausting. I don’t want to prove that I’m allowed to exist in this space. I just want to exist.
Why is activism in the LGBTQ+ Jewish community important to you?
This is something that I both love and hate about myself because I always find myself being in an activist position. Why activism is important to me was never a question. If I see something that isn’t right, I just feel a compulsive need to do something about it for the good and the bad. It’s hard and you can wear yourself out, especially when it’s things that are very personal to you because then it becomes even more emotionally exhausting. But it’s always something I’ve done.
I think I really understand where people come from and I think most of this hate just comes from ignorance. I know what changed things for me, and this might be a little egotistical, but I think that I can change people’s minds. I think I have a unique experience which makes me feel like I have a responsibility to help people.