Michael Davis Hoenig strives to brighten the lives of LGBTQ members of Cleveland’s Orthodox Jewish community through his work with MAKOM, a group he co-founded.
MAKOM, which means “place” in Hebrew, was formed in 2016 after Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood screened “Trembling Before G-d” at its annual film festival. The film focused on the stories of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Chasidic Jews faced with the dilemma of reconciling their sexuality with their faith.
“My brother is gay, and I had been a quiet ally for a while,” Hoenig said.
The movie came out in 2001, and although there had been a 15-year gap between its release and the Green Road Synagogue screening, Hoenig said, while watching the movie, he realized the issues LGBTQ people in the community faced had not yet been addressed or solved.
“At that moment I realized that being a quiet ally was insufficient,” he said.
While not saying or doing anything “isn’t as harmful as saying the wrong things and doing the wrong things, it certainly isn’t helpful.”
So Hoenig, along with Green Road Synagogue member Susan Borison and several other Orthodox community members decided they needed to keep the conversation going, ultimately forming MAKOM.
Since MAKOM’s inception, Hoenig said he’s become a better ally and learned new things every day.
“When my brother came out a while ago I didn’t feel prepared,” he said. “While growing up in the Orthodox community and going to an Orthodox high school prepared me for so many things and in such a wonderful way, I felt ill prepared for that moment. What we’re trying to do with MAKOM is to get ahead of the curve and have in place policies, mechanisms, conversations and education so that our community is more inclusive.”
Hoenig said he believes his Jewish upbringing has influenced his desire to help others in the community and said he tries to keep the concept of tikkun olam in mind.
“We should remember that we were once strangers in a strange land,” he said. “I keep in mind the privileges I have and we have as a community. I recognize not everyone has those same privileges. With that in mind, we should brighten the lives of those who have different or more challenging paths in life. If there’s something we can do to make their lives better, then we should do it. That’s an important Jewish value.”
Hoenig is an associate at Ulmer & Berne LLP in Cleveland who focuses his practice on business litigation. In 2018, he got out of his comfort zone, traveling to Dilley, Texas, to spend a week representing mothers and children from Central America who were seeking asylum in the United States.
Noting each client had “horrible stories of what happened to them and why they were coming to the United States,” Hoenig explained none of them wanted to have to come to the United States.
“They all said they wished they could have stayed in their homes, but they felt that they had no choice,” he said. “It was stay and be killed or leave and take their chances.”
The trip had a lasting impact on Hoenig, who was glad to use his legal knowledge to help these mothers navigate the complex immigration system.
“I was really happy to help, and to connect that with my Jewish heritage, it goes back to remembering that we were once strangers in a strange land,” Hoenig said. “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I can certainly empathize with people fleeing their home countries because it’s no longer safe.”