Philly Faces: Matt Adler Converses With the World

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Matt Adler
Matt Adler (Photo by Eric Schucht)

He may be new in town, but that isn’t anything new for Matt Adler, 33.

Through his travels, the Washington, D.C.-area native has gotten the chance to speak to people in Israel and Europe about his experience as a member of the gay Jewish community. By day, he works in public relations. By night, he writes on topics such as Judaism and gay rights.

His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week, Baltimore Jewish Times, ReformJudaism.org, The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. Adler also has a blog at plantingrootsbearingfruits.com.

Why did you decide to move to Philly?

I really like Philly’s creative vibe. I like that it’s walkable and, for an East Coast city where you don’t need to have a car, which I don’t, it’s by far the most affordable.

Tell me about your writing.

I write about Judaism, Israel, identity, what it means to be a gay Jew, because I’m one of those, and just how all those intersect. One of the challenges is that our society is becoming really polarized, and what I try to do is reach out to the unexpected communities. My background [was] growing up in a Reformed community in suburban Maryland, which is very liberal. When I was in Israel, I would go to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods by myself and just talk to people, and found out that I really liked it. I went to settlements, Arab and Druze villages and places where not all parts of me are equally accepted. But you always find interesting counterexamples, and my overall vibe is being willing to put myself out there and try new things.

What kind of conversations did you have with people in the couple years you lived in Israel?

It’s really interesting. Sometimes, obviously, things don’t go well, and I’m not a sugar-coater. I have definitely had instances where people have said bigoted things, both about being gay or about being Reform or, incidentally, about being American, because there’s a lot of stereotypes about Americans in Israel. But I also had amazing experiences where, for example, I met a Druze teenager who was questioning his sexuality, and I’m the first openly gay person he’s ever spoken with in Arabic, because I speak Arabic.

And I met a kid in Bnei Brak, which is like all Chasidic and haredi Jews, who knew how to fix my cell phone charger, and I was like, ‘What? I don’t even know how to do this, and I have a master’s degree.’ And I met a Bedouin guy who’s strict Muslim, married a Jewish woman, and then they’re raising their kid in a Jewish school but then they speak four languages including Arabic.

It’s like you can’t make this stuff up. So these are the people who I love trying to tell their stories because they’re underrepresented in the news. It’s unfortunate when we talk about Israel it ends up being so much about conflict, but we don’t talk about the people who are bridge builders and who go contrary to our assumptions.

How many languages do you speak?

Eight fluently. English, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, French, pretty strong Yiddish and Catalan — it’s what they speak in Barcelona. I was actually on Catalan TV, their equivalent of the BBC, talking about Judaism. That’s the stuff I like to do, because it’s so out of the ordinary and these people might never hear about the experience of a Jew, let alone a gay American Israeli Jew, and here I am talking in their language and they feel super excited.

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