Photographer: Alex Farfuri, photo courtesy of Shatil
“I was standing at a funeral of an army buddy,” Natanel Shaller recalls. “He had committed suicide, and I stood there remembering that when he came out to his Haredi family, they cut off all contact with him. That experience was so upsetting, I felt that I had to do something. That’s when I decided to volunteer as the spokesperson for the religious LGBTQ advocacy NGOs Havruta – Gay Religious Community, Bat Kol, and Shoval.”
Not too long after that moment, in 2021, Shaller — a 26 year old lawyer, social change activist, and owner of the public relations and media company, Shaller Communications — became the first CEO of Havruta.
Shaller recalls Shatil’s support as he took his first steps in his new role: “Shatil was there for Havruta and for me from the outset — from training me as a spokesperson to helping the organization build a budget, raise funds, manage staff, and draft a work plan. In addition to answering all the ‘how’ questions, Shatil consultants provided a lot of content.”
Today, there are an estimated 230,000 religious and Haredi LGBTQ people living in Israel. Many of them struggle with the rejection and discrimination within the relgious community. One of Shaller’s first successes as CEO was addressing the issue of conversion therapy. Havruta established the Center for Fighting Conversion Therapy in tandem with multiple other LGBTQ advocacy organizations. The Center’s work led to the Ministry of Health to prohibit the use of psycho-therapeutic methods to try to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. (For fuller coverage of how conversion therapy was banned in Israel see our NIF News story titled “Victory: Banning Conversion Therapy”).
One of the toughest cases Shaller recalls encountering was that of a 14-year-old boy whose parents sent him to conversion therapy. “The therapy made him severely depressed,” Shaller said. “He wouldn’t get out of bed, wouldn’t eat. He just lay in his room.” Havruta established a support group for victims of conversion therapy like this boy.
According to Shaller, finding Rabbis who will lend Halachic support to Havruta’s work is the organization’s greatest challenge. Absolutist interpretations of Torah law deem homosexuality punishable by death. “That’s earth-shattering for a person of faith,” says Shaller. While Havruta consults with and advises a number of rabbis from multiple yeshivas and religious pre-army programs, the organization has not yet found many Haredi rabbis willing to answer key religious questions for Havruta staff. As community is a central pillar of ultra-orthodox life, many gay and religious Israelis feel isolated given their oft-hidden identity. Havruta addresses this feeling by holding numerous community-building events and retreats, and works to change religious communities’ awareness around homosexuality through making sure that they are visible to these communities.
Reflecting on the inroads Havruta is making, Shaller credits Shatil consultants: “I feel that many of Havruta‘s achievements would not have happened without Shatil consultants’ care and positive outlook. Today as an organization, Havruta is a mature tree that gives a lot to Israeli society: We offer informational and promotional activity, provide broad-based services to our community, and create change in religious society’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community. That’s very much to the credit of Shatil, who has and still guides us all along the way.”