by Johanna R Ginsberg
Published in New Jersey Jewish News on February 20, 2019
A survey revealed that Modern Orthodox parents with LGBTQ children are demanding a place for their children in Orthodox spaces from synagogues to day schools.
Parents surveyed were nearly unanimous in their desire for day schools to educate staff and publish a supportive, anti-bullying message regarding LGBTQ students. Almost 93 percent want their LGBTQ child to have “a happy future” and note that a key piece of that happiness comes from their child finding a life-long partner.
The number one concern for 28 percent of parents was no more negative statements about LGBTQ Jews from the pulpit.
“The survey marks a shift in the way the community is engaging on a grassroots level,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, founder of Eshel, a national education and advocacy organization that supports LGBTQ Jews and their families, in a conference call on Feb. 14 about the study.
The survey was conducted in November 2018 at a retreat for about 85 parents; 71 of them participated in the survey. All were Ashkenazi Jews. While 94 percent self-identified as Modern or Centrist Orthodox, about 4 percent identified as charedi and about 1.4 percent said they regularly attend a partnership or egalitarian minyan. The survey results were released in an email after the call.
Although Eshel acknowledged that it is not a statistically significant survey (and reflects only the opinions of a self-selected group attending the retreat), its organizers nonetheless felt it said something about what is happening on the ground.
“This is a group of people for whom gayness was not on the radar until their kid came out,” said Greenberg. “They were surprised and confused and subject to the same desire for hiding as the rabbis.” He described parents’ attitudes toward their children when Eshel first started holding retreats six years ago as “We love you but don’t tell anyone.” But things are shifting, at least for Eshel parents who are now publicly backing their children and hoping to keep them within Orthodoxy. “They have become impatient with rabbis who say behind closed doors, ‘You have to accept your kid and love your kid,’ but they don’t say this in public to their congregations,” said Greenberg.
NJJN contacted Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of the Modern Orthodox Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, along with six pulpit rabbis at Modern Orthodox congregations in Elizabeth, Livingston, West Orange, and Springfield. Only two rabbis responded to NJJN’s request for an interview; one declined to comment.
Rabbi Elie Mischel of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston spoke with NJJN and Rubin provided a statement.
Mischel said the issue has so far not come up in his congregation, but he is contemplating what his policy would be should it arise. He acknowledged that this is a “hot-button issue” in Modern Orthodox congregations like his, and that for parents, navigating the Orthodox community when a child comes out can be “very painful.”
According to his approach, “Everyone is a sinner in one way or another and still very much a part of our community,” he said. He offered the examples of someone who doesn’t keep kashrut to the community standards or who drives on Shabbat. Likewise, “there should be no issue” integrating the existence of homosexuality into the community, but the subject is complicated.
From Mischel’s perspective, a child coming out is the simplest case for him. Regarding that family, he said, “We would treat them like anyone else. I’m there for them. It’s not complicated.”
Far more complicated for him is a gay couple. Traditional Jewish life revolves around family life, he said, and a gay family not only “stands out” but also exists based on what he termed a “forbidden relationship.”
He has not proactively discussed sexual and gender identity issues with his congregation, one of the items the survey revealed parents want. “I’m not in favor of keeping everything secret but these things have social consequences,” he said.
Still, in his congregation, he would permit two men living together to be members, but they would have to each be individual members. He views it through a similar lens as an intermarried couple, and he feels he cannot give the relationship his stamp of approval, “because the relationship is forbidden in the Torah.”
Mischel struggled throughout the conversation with NJJN, saying, “I don’t have simple easy answers beyond empathy, understanding, and love. That’s the Jewish way. Beyond that, it’s very difficult and there’s no way around it. It’s a law that is very difficult to understand, but what makes us traditional, Orthodox Jews is that we accept the laws that are difficult … I can’t acknowledge the relationship as kosher.”
Transgender and openly gay students have attended Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. Head of school Rabbi Eliezer Rubin said, “We are committed to helping faculty understand LGBTQ issues and expect all members of our school community to respect each other. We cherish and support all of our children no matter their sexual identity or orientation.”
The Eshel survey was provided with a letter addressed to the Orthodox Jewish community, stating in part, “For many of us the ‘deafening silence’ within our Orthodox institutions about LGBTQ issues also causes great emotional damage.” It continues, “Some of us, our children, and our families remain closeted because of fear of communal retribution.” It also states, “We are concerned because in many cases our children have withdrawn from our community (for now). Others of us are open in our community, speaking to our communal leaders about a change in attitude and action.”
In addition to the results listed above, the survey reveals that over 62 percent of these parents’ children no longer identify as Orthodox. Over 67 percent of parents said they want “broad, positive, and open discussion” about LGBTQ issues. And not a single respondent selected “Not change anything” as their first-ranked choice for what they would like to see happening in their communities.
Moving forward, Greenberg said, he was hopeful that more open conversations would ensue that would “take the Orthodox community out of the closet.”