When her son came out of the closet, Baltimore resident Mindy Dickler felt as though she had been put into the closet.
“I didn’t know any other families with children who were gay,” Dickler said. “It’s very isolating, especially in the Orthodox community. You feel like you’re the only one. But it shouldn’t be a secret. Fortunately, I heard about Eshel, which is a national organization.”
Eshel was created to provide support for “LGBTQ Orthodox Jews who love the world they were brought up in but feel frightened, confused and sometimes self-destructive in regards to their own experience of themselves,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Eshel’s found-ing director. Eshel’s programs center around “helping those people accept themselves and find a place in the religious world.”
The group recently held its sixth annual parent retreat at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown. About 80 parents from all over the country and one from Israel attended.
Before meeting anyone in person at such an event, Dickler joined Eshel’s monthly phone-in support meeting for parents when it was a pilot program. It was, she recalls, a bonding experience.
“It didn’t matter that they were in another city, there was this particular kinship and support we felt for one another,” she said. “So many parents feel they have to be closeted because they feel their community’s not going to be accepting. All of a sudden, I had best friends in Austin and New Jersey and Philadelphia. I might have only known them for a short time, but because we share this experience together, they’re as close to me as my best friend in college. The fact that I know I’m not alone has made all the difference in the world.”
Eshel held its first parent retreat six years ago in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. They tend to be emotional experiences.
“You have a shared weekend together with tears and joy and this feeling of family,” Dickler said.
Peninah Gershman, a Baltimore native who now lives in Silver Spring, started attending the retreat five years ago and has been chair-ing it for the past three years. She, too, has made friends through Eshel who have become family. When her 14-year-old son came out, it was very lonely, she said.
“I had moved to a new community and was making new friends, and I felt myself retreating from all the people I was getting to know,” Gershman said. “Then I found Eshel, and it was the first time I was able to find other people who could actually understand where I was and what our family was dealing with. These people just took care of me.”
The parents at this year’s retreat have children from all colors of the LGBTQ community: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gen-der-nonconforming. Some parents “have been advocating for years, marching in gay pride parades. Some can’t even say the words: ‘My child is gay,’” Gershman said. “Not everyone ends up accepting it, but by the end of the weekend, they feel heard.”
The retreat features breakout sessions and panel discussions. A lot of it is just talking and developing relationships. “We have Shabbat meals together, which are wonderful,” Gershman said.
This year, Eshel invited Efrat’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to be the retreat’s scholar in residence.
“He looks at the Torah from the viewpoint of compassion,” Gershman said. “He believes in a compassionate God. He wants to show that we don’t have to change what’s written in the Torah, but there are ways to look at it in a compassionate way.”
Miryam Kabakov, the executive director of Eshel, says she was very moved by Riskin’s talk the first night of the retreat.
“He talked about the importance of loving and respecting your child even if they’re different than you,” she said. “He kept repeating one phrase that struck me: ‘The God I love is the God of love.’”
Kabakov, who came out to her parents when she was in her 20s, says it was a terrible time for them, in part because they were com-pletely isolated.
“My parents needed this. They didn’t have it, so I helped create it,” she said.
Today, Kabakov’s surviving parent, her father Bernard Kabakov, attends the retreat.
“I grew up in East Harlem in New York,” he said. “Homosexual people — we didn’t encounter them, and when we did, we thought they weren’t normal. We used slang terms. When I grew older, I came to realize they’re as normal as I and deserving of respect.”
Today, his daughter is married with two children. “A great number of parents with gay children are very happy with how they turned out,” he said. “And I am, too.”
Dickler says the retreats provide an environment where everyone can be open. “There’s just love and acceptance.”
Dickler’s son lives and works in Washington, D.C. now.
“We accept him as he is, and we continue to be a warm, loving family. Everything’s cool,” she said. The toughest challenge for the family is that he chose not to be observant anymore.
“We understand that being gay isn’t a choice, but being observant or not was a choice,” she said. “That was hard for us to accept, but he’s our son. We love him.”
After the retreat, the work continues. Dickler is co-founder of JPride Baltimore, a Jewish LGBTQ support group, which cosponsors Orthodox support groups as well.
“It’s a safe space in Baltimore where, for at least one night a month, they can be free and honest about who they are,” Dickler said.
Eshel is also taking its message to schools, encouraging students and alumni of yeshivas to record a video of themselves urging their schools to adopt a policy of inclusion. Eshel plans to present the videos to yeshivas.
“LGBTQ kids are at risk. They’re such a vulnerable population,” Gershman said. “We’re trying to make sure these kids know that they’re wanted and that there’s a safe space for them in their schools and that they belong in their Jewish schools.”
Dr. Sunni Epstein is director of the Welcoming Shuls Project, a grant-supported multiyear exploration of which North American syn-agogues welcome LGBTQ Jews and to what degree. Epstein says she’s a “matchmaker” for LGBTQ families trying to find accepting reli-gious communities.
Originally from Baltimore, Epstein was an advocate for LGBTQ inclusion when she attended Milford Mill High School in the 1970s. She’s been involved with Eshel “since before it was Eshel,” she said. In a lifetime of advocacy for at-risk and marginalized groups, she says, she happened to have four children, including identical twin daughters who came out as gay. “For us,” said Epstein, “[acceptance has] always been a no-brainer. That’s the way God creates you. It’s a non-issue.”
When she approaches a shul, she says: “‘I have two daughters who are gay. One is a palliative care physician and one is a Jewish community organizer. Would they feel welcome in your shul?’”
Greenberg acknowledges the challenges involved for LGBTQ people who want to remain Orthodox. Eshel is working with rabbinic and lay leadership to that end. Results of these efforts have been, in Greenberg’s view, “a mixed bag, but there’s far more achievement than we, in our worst days, thought possible.”
“Orthodox rabbis are finding ways to embrace LGBT Jews,” Greenberg said. But gay couples joining synagogues pose political and re-ligious challenges for the rabbis, he said.
“Our first step is just telling our stories. Especially with rabbis, we encourage LGBTQ people and their family members talk to them,” he said. “Rabbis start to think differently when they have a conversation with a gay person or a family member who is struggling with how to remain inside this culture.”
In the end, the love Orthodox parents have for their LGBTQ children and their faith may help bridge these challenges, Greenberg said. Orthodox parents’ “love of the culture that is unprepared to embrace their kids is a very dramatic and powerful motive for grass-roots pressure on rabbis to pay attention to the ways in which they need to move forward in their thinking.”
Epstein wants her daughters to remain observant.
“We do not want our kids to leave being observant or leave being Jewish because they are LGBT,” she said. Epstein and her husband told their daughters: “Your re-sponsibility now is to find a community that will accept all of you as an observant Jewish woman. You’ll have a partner, God willing. You’ll have a family, God willing. You should be able to live graciously and completely and wholly and healthfully.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance reporter.