(JTA) — The request for rainbow-frosted cupcakes came from a repeat customer — a local synagogue that had relied on the West Orange Bake Shop to make kosher desserts for its special events. But this year, bakery co-owner Yitzy Mittel decided to decline the order. He couldn’t bring himself to produce the Pride-themed goods.
Mittel, an Orthodox Jew, had made a similar cake for an order the year before. But the experience unnerved him, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, because his understanding of Jewish law holds that LGBTQ symbols are “antithetical to what we stand for.”
The symbols are “a celebration of something which is against Torah,” he said. “I didn’t want to be making that cake.”
After consulting with both a rabbi and an attorney, Mittel and the northern New Jersey bakery canceled the orders, sending the synagogue elsewhere to find kosher Pride treats.
In the weeks since that decision, Mittel has gotten validation from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last week that a Colorado web designer had the right to refuse to build a wedding site for a same-sex couple. The ruling expands on a 2018 decision, in which the court ruled a Colorado baker had the constitutional right, on religious grounds, to refuse to create a wedding cake for a gay couple.
But the local Jewish community is still reeling. Multiple rabbis have accused the baker of bigotry, and some local Jews are boycotting his shop. The area’s Jewish federation privately said it would stop buying from Mittel before publicly walking back its position. And Eshel, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families, announced an “ally training” in West Orange this coming Sunday in response to the incident.
“The reason why Eshel exists is because these sorts of incidents, when they happen to someone over and over again, make people feel unwanted and unwelcome in their communities,” said Miryam Kabakov, the advocacy group’s executive director. “This is just one small example, but the effect overall is to drive people away from Orthodoxy who are trying to live frum [observant] lives, leaving them feeling like there is no place for them.”
The firestorm comes at a time of widespread advocacy by political conservatives against LGBTQ inclusion and rights. Pride events across the country have faced pushback this year.
Some of that has taken place in Jewish communities. In another New Jersey town 30 miles away, Orthodox rabbis successfully petitioned their mayor to remove four Pride flags that were flying in front of a synagogue on a central street. The mayor later apologized and put the flags back up.
But what happened in West Orange offers a particularly potent example of how culture wars can play out in — and divide — Jewish communities, in part because of the symbolism of a kosher bakery citing what it says are Jewish values to justify declining the order of a local synagogue.
“While I know this has happened in other parts of the country I hadn’t expected it here,” wrote Dan Cohen, senior rabbi of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in nearby South Orange, on social media. “Then I learned that the bakery in question is a kosher bakery, and as a result, the bias was coming from within our Jewish community.”
The initial order was placed June 6 by Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Millburn. Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald, the synagogue’s director of congregational learning, planned to pick up the order, which reportedly specified that the treats be decorated with rainbows. A staff member also reportedly made a separate order the same day for rainbow cupcakes for the synagogue’s youth group.
Schwartzwald did not return multiple JTA requests for comment. Attempts to reach the synagogue’s current youth group advisor were unsuccessful.
But according to all accounts, the bakery initially accepted both these orders, only to cancel them later without providing an explanation. It did, however, agree to process the synagogue’s order for cookies without rainbow decorations. (Mittel told JTA that he gave the synagogue a discount for those cookies.)
Mittel told JTA that he had canceled both orders and notified the parties within 24 hours. He believes others in the community are impugning his reputation by falsely asserting that he had failed to provide enough notice to the customers.
But when Schwarzwald went to the bakery herself to request an explanation for why the Pride order was canceled, Mittel refused to talk to her. He told JTA he had chosen not to engage because the rabbi had come during peak hours and “wanted to create a scene.”
To Schwarzwald, the message was clear. “I was comfortable drawing conclusions that meant that I was going to take my purchasing elsewhere,” she told the New Jersey Jewish News. “It seems clear that the bakery has made the decision that Pride is not something they want to support. It’s their choice, it’s their legal right, and I can choose to spend my dollars wherever I want.” She was ultimately able to fulfill the orders at a different kosher bakery in West Orange.
The issue blew up as other rabbis in the area learned about what happened and commented publicly.
“When we refuse basic Jewish services to members of our community who are articulating who they are, we are excluding and dividing,” wrote Robert Tobin, rabbi of the Conservative B’nai Shalom in West Orange, in a blog post on June 22. He highlighted the Conservative movement’s recent strides toward LGBTQ inclusion, and an interpretation of the Torah that holds “humans are created in the image of God with a variety of potential gender identities and with the possibility of gender fluidity.” Tobin also reportedly addressed the incident in a sermon, according to the New Jersey Jewish News.
David Vaisberg, senior rabbi at the independent Temple B’nei Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey, posted that he was “so disappointed” in the bakery, which is located in a strip mall next to a kosher Chinese restaurant.
“They make great baked goods but have shown themselves to be against the LGBTQ+ in canceling orders of rainbow baked goods in Pride month,” he wrote, adding that he was letting the bakery know why they had lost his business and advised followers to “please do the same.”
In his online post, Cohen addressed the argument that an observant Jew can cite Torah as the basis for their objection to serving a Pride-themed cake. “If I’m being honest, we all pick and choose which sacred texts we embrace and which we ignore,” he wrote. “If by contrast, you CHOOSE to focus on the Biblical texts that exclude people, that denigrate others or are hurtful and judgmental, you aren’t religious. You’re simply a bigot.”
Parts of the Orthodox community have become open to LGBTQ inclusion in recent years. Organizations including Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth advocate for LGBTQ people and families in Orthodox spaces, and some prominent Orthodox figures have come out as gay in recent years.
But others in the community remain opposed to LGBTQ inclusion, citing passages in the Torah specifically forbidding gay sex. The flagship Modern Orthodox campus, Yeshiva University, has cited its status as a religious institution in an ongoing legal battle over its refusal to recognize an LGBTQ student group. The recent death by suicide of a gay Y.U. graduate, his friends said, highlights the pain of being Orthodox and gay.
Mittel says his business is being unfairly targeted by those who disagree with his personal religious choice, which he says is on par with declining to fulfill a church’s order for cakes decorated with crosses — something he says he has done in the past.
“There’s other bakeries out there that will do it,” he said about making Pride-themed kosher baked goods. “Why should I?”
He also insists that he is not homophobic. “If somebody came in and told me they want to pay me three times the price to write on a cake, ‘I hate gay people,’ I wouldn’t do it,” he told JTA. He added, “Symbols carry a lot of weight.”
Tensions reached a new high after a local news site published a leaked internal memo from Dov Ben-Shimon, the CEO of the local Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. In the memo, Ben-Shimon advised staff to no longer purchase baked goods from Mittel’s shop, citing “the Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim, that each one of us is created in the Divine Image and deserves to be treated as such.”
“While it is their right to refuse service, it is also our prerogative not to support their establishment,” Ben-Shimon wrote.
The memo upset some local Jews who felt it was inappropriate for the federation, which serves Jews of all denominations, to make a judgment against a Jewish-owned kosher business whose owner believed he was following Jewish law.
Speaking to JTA, Ben-Shimon characterized the memo as an internal purchasing directive and said it did not reflect the federation’s current position.
“That internal memo did not reflect an appropriate, thoughtful and responsible communal dialogue,” Ben-Shimon said. “While there is significant pain in the community as a result of actions that we have seen, we believe that Federation’s decision-making process should be filled with love and sensitivity, and we will take steps to ensure that this will be reflected in our actions in the future.”
Describing Mittel as “a decent, good, kind, thoughtful and honorable person who has been placed in a difficult situation,” Ben-Shimon added that the local Jewish community “is blessed to have a wide array of opinions, ideologies and beliefs” and said he sees the federation’s role as working “to continue to strive for tolerant, respectful dialogue and discourse.”
In a follow-up correspondence from the federation, published by the New Jersey Jewish News, Ben-Shimon wrote, “We sincerely regret that our actions have caused divisiveness in our community as our aim is to bring the variety and richness of our many constituents together.”
Mittel told JTA that he has spoken to Ben-Shimon since the story was published, and that the two had a positive conversation. Saying that his bakery has been visited by “obnoxious” people since news of the cancellation came out, he said it was he and not LGBTQ people who had become victim to intolerance.
“I don’t think it’s good for the Jewish community to be adversarial to each other,” Mittel said. “There’s no need for that. We have enough people disliking us without us causing strife to each other.”