In Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, kosher certifications are the lifeblood of restaurants. This certification is necessary in order to attract kosher-observant Jews who only eat at restaurants that prepare food according to certain religious rules.
But Leah Forster, a 36-year-old Brooklyn comedian who comes from the borough’s Orthodox Jewish community, claims that the religious authorities that issue these certifications have used their power over restaurants to silence her comedy routine.
“There are people out there who just want to sabotage me because I am a lesbian,” Forster told NBC News.
Twice in the past month, kosher food venues canceled Forster’s sold-out shows due to pressure from Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community and the rabbis who approve kosher food certifications, according to Forster, whose story was first reported on by New York's Daily News. She said the owners of Garden of Eat In and Orchidea both explicitly told her they were being pressured to cancel because Forster is a lesbian.
While neither restaurant owner responded to NBC News’ requests for comment, Monica, the daughter of Orchidea’s owner, who asked that her last name not be published, said if the restaurant’s kosher certification were revoked, it “would literally close the doors the next day.”
Forster shared a screengrab of a WhatsApp message that she said was being shared among the Orthodox Jewish community in order to kill her comedy routine.
“One of the performers is openly lesbian, is married to another woman and flaunts this way of life,” the message states. “Every part of this event is against halacha [Jewish religious law] and against every moral fiber of our community.”
NBC News was not able to independently verify the source of the WhatsApp message.
Forster said she was a widely popular comedian in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community and often performed sold-out shows until she was outed as a lesbian four years ago.
“My parents disowned me and told me not to sit shiva when they die,” she said, referring to the traditional week of Jewish mourning after a death.
“I rebuilt myself a beautiful new life, I have a flourishing new career, I refuse to be a victim — I’m a happy positive person,” Forster added.
After she was outed, Forster began to perform for secular audiences, but her comedy, which deals with issues pertaining to the Orthodox Jewish community, began to attract Orthodox followers on social media. Today, she has over 23,000 followers, and she said she began to receive requests to again perform for the Orthodox community.
“I was getting lots of messages, ‘Why don’t you do it in Brooklyn?’” she said. She eventually agreed and planned two shows in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, including one on New Year’s Day.
Adina Miles, Forster’s friend and the would-be emcee of the canceled New Year’s event, described the pressure to cancel Forster’s shows as a “witch hunt” and said kosher authorities are extending their influence beyond food-preparation guidelines.
“They’re moving it to more fanatical zones, like ‘Who are the people who are going to eat there? Who will throw parties there?’” Miles said.
Before Forster booked the show at Orchidea, she asked the owner, “Are you sure? The rabbis are gonna come after you,” and she said the owner replied, “The food is kosher; that’s all that matters.”
However, following the show’s cancellation, Forster said the owner of Orchidea told her that Rabbi Samuel David Beck [also known by his Yiddish name, Shmuel Dovid Beck] would remove the establishment’s kosher certification if Forster was allowed to perform.
When reached by phone on Monday, Rabbi Beck refused to comment on the allegations, saying doing so would “help nobody.”
Despite the cancellations, Miles said she and Forster “have not split up from the community.”
“We feel tremendous amounts of love and respect, because it is mostly good,” Miles said. However, she lamented what she considers the misuse of religious authority to enforce sexual politics.
Forster, who said she and Miles are speaking out out so that the future for LGBTQ Orthodox kids might be easier, said, “I need the religious community.”
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum from Beit Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue that ministers to LGBTQ people, said those who targeted Forster are “using religion as a weapon against LGBTQ people.”
“They will not win,” she added. “I believe in the good faith of a lot of orthodox people who will reject this kind of bigotry,” she said.