I first met Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz in a hotel lobby three years ago. He overheard me talking about my Muslim faith and the charity work I do and randomly approached me. We've been friends ever since.
Last year, when I was forced to come out as gay, I surprisingly found my friendship with this ultra-orthodox conservative Hasidic Rabbi strengthened. The rabbi showed me greater empathy, understanding, and compassion about why I accepted my sexuality and why I had to come out publicly than even my own family.
More recently, partly in response to recent national media attention on the matter, Rabbi Berkowitz has become extremely vocal about addressing suspicions and concerns of sexual and other forms of abuse within the Hasidic Jewish community.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Berkowitz, this will be an uphill battle. I know this first hand after I was confronted with evidence that my boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) watched and possessed child pornography, had sexual fantasies involving children, and had relations with at least one minor as an adult.
As a gay Muslim, the journey I undertook to address these concerns taught me lessons which are surprisingly applicable to the Hasidic Jewish community:
1) Fear of Community Alienation
When Sam Kellner came forward about allegations of sexual abuse within the Hasidic community, he was shunned. For those part of a tight-knit community, being shunned means exile from one's entire support network.
Such fears are by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community. As a gay Muslim, instead of family, I relied on tight-knit LGBT communities (such as gaymers and gaybros) for support. In taking steps to report my concerns about someone I loved from within the gaymer and gaybros community, I feared alienation.
2) The Hope That They Can Change
Given the fear of alienation, it is no surprise that some may try to address concerns of sexual abuse through venues outside of law enforcement. This, perhaps, might explain the motivation behind Sam Kellner and the extortion charges he now faces.
For me, when I started to have concerns about my (then) boyfriend, I falsely believed I could address them by being a loving, loyal, and dedicated boyfriend. I had hoped that a mature and affectionate relationship could change him.
3) Fear Of Victim Blaming
Rabbi Berkowitz's main focus has been to promote the training of children within the Hasidic community to recognize and report instances of inappropriate sexual contact. This is important because, often times, victims can be made to feel that they are the ones to blame. And, unfortunately, religion compounds this.
I experienced this first hand as I came out not just as gay but as a victim of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. After coming out, my father's first comment to me was that the abuse I received was an inevitable consequence because I choose to "pursue the homosexual lifestyle."
Ultimately these issues of reporting concerns of sexual abuse, and the hurdles Rabbi Berkowitz's faces in championing this cause, has very little to do with Judaism, Rabbis, or Hasidism. Rather, these are challenges that any values and identity driven tight-knit community will inevitably face.
And, as the New York Hasidic community faces increasing criticism in the wake of this scandal, this gay Muslim in Bangladesh hopes others show the Hasidic Community the same compassion, empathy, and understanding that one ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi once showed me.