(This speech was given Miryam Kabakov, Executive Director of Eshel, at the panel discussion entitled ” Bridging the Divides, Fostering Inclusivity: Rabbinic, Psychoanalytic and Academic Perspectives on Traditional Judaism and Contemporary Gender/Sex Identities,” which was held at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, November 11, 2019.)

This Shabbat we read the Parsha where Avraham plants the Eshel to protect people on their journey.

In honor of the Parsha we are launching a new initiative called Eshel across America, inviting people to have difficult conversations about LGBTQ inclusion. Tonight we get a jump start on this so thank you all and thank you, rabbi, for being here tonight.

I’m Miryam Kabakov the executive Director of ESHEL and I wrote the chapter about our work with orthodox parents of LGBTQ children.

The story I am about to tell is significant on several levels. It illustrates some common experiences amongst parents we work with and illustrates why I believe the most important work we do at Eshel for creating acceptance in the orthodox community lies in our parent work — with Orthodox parents of LGBTQ people.

I was invited this past Simchat Torah to daven in someone’s home—a Torah service –finishing the book of Devarim and starting Bereishit. This wasn’t going to be an ordinary service, however.

I was invited to participate in what the mom called “a ritual“ for their teenage trans boy, who wanted to celebrate himself as he truly is, and as a contributing member of observant Judaism.

It would also be the first time we would all hear his Hebrew name, as this was his first Aliyah as an out trans young man.

I kept waiting for “the ritual”, for something different to happen, as I had witnessed in other settings; in Conservative shuls or alternative Jewish spaces, newly constructed rituals to mark a transition or a coming out.

I kept expecting the extraordinary…

But after multiple rounds of everyone having a turn to go up to get their Aliyah as was happening in other shuls around the country…here is what happened that I thought was extraordinary-

There was no “ritual”.

Nothing was that different; the liturgy, the words, the service were exactly the service that was going on in synagogues everywhere.

It was time for Chatan Bereishit. The son was called up, he gave the gabbai his name, had his Aliyah, he sat down while we sang Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov.

The Torah service was the ritual. We heard his new name and the service went on.

And this is what was striking:

This family, like many orthodox families, want exactly what they already have. They find their religious practice meaningful, they don’t want to change it. And yet, they need something more. They need their communities and leaders, to let the rituals that we have in Orthodoxy work for them as they have been working for them until the period in their lives before they discover they have an LGBTQ child.

They need their LGBTQ children to be given the same respect, honor, and dignity they have gotten until now as part of the Jewish people.

But here is what we are seeing, in this case, and in other cases: parents aren’t putting up with their children being treated differently….so the parents are takin’ it to the streets, or takin’ it outside of the shuls, or takin’ it to other shuls.

The shul that this child would have wanted to be recognized in, the place where he grew up, wouldn’t accept him, so the parents, out of support for their child, took matters in their own hands.

Or parents are leaving their shuls completely; one family moved away from their community after other children were bullying the siblings of their gay son.

Another family we have worked with, left the shul when their rabbi made a homophobic comment and returned when a new rabbi was hired.

And another couple–when the birth of their grandchild of the lesbian daughter and her partner was not announced in shul–demanded to be able to have a community dialogue with the rest of the congregation about inclusion. Since then, other parents have “come out” about their LGBTQ children there and found each other.

We conducted a study that showed that the last person parents will go to about their LGBTQ child is their rabbi, whereas normally the rabbi would be the first person they approach any other pastoral matters.

Now, you may have come expecting to hear all about our Welcoming Shuls Project, where we have entered into dialogue with over 260 orthodox pulpit rabbis to talk about whether and how they are inclusive of their LGBTQ members. How they navigate halakhic and social questions etc.

Or maybe you are curious to hear how 10 out of 50 modern orthodox day schools in the country have created some form of transparent inclusion policies for their schools after we launched the high school pledge project.

But that’s not what I want to talk about even though those are all good things. what I want people to understand is that the power for changing lives and creating change is in the hands of the people on the ground. Parents are NOT waiting around for their institutions to catch up and meet them where they are at. Uh uh, they are taking their and their children’s needs into their own hands.

They are creating their own communities of allies by finding friends who will accept their children; they are finding other parents just like them, who they can talk to, complain to and kvell with about their LGBTQ child.

They are pulling their kids from shuls and schools…because they know they aren’t healthy places for them…

Parents are not waiting until we solve the conflict between having a gay child and what is written in the Sifra and Leviticus … they can’t, people’s lives are at stake.

And if we wait, it will be too late. Someone’s life is hanging in the balance as we speak.

And because of this….some people are leaving orthodoxy, either completely or partially, not just LGBTQ people, but their families, their friends, and allies are leaving because our leaders are not adequately addressing the issue of how to be inclusive of their LGBTQ members. They feel abandoned and betrayed by their leaders.

Our leaders have to step up and have to stop looking over their shoulders and worry about what their colleagues think of them.

In the meantime, we at Eshel provide a space and language for parents to find each other, and to make it so they don’t have to leave orthodoxy, and to help them understand what their child is experiencing and how to help them. We are on the ground, doing this work every day. I hope you will join us.


For more information on the panel, go to https://www.lss.org/event/panel

Miryam Kabakov