A new resource for LGBT Jews

by Leslee Komaiko

In 2009, nine years into Shelby Ilan-Pacheco’s marriage to her husband, she came to know with certainty something she had felt for so long. She was gay. But knowing this and doing something about it, doing anything, really, were two different things.

“I was paralyzed,” recalled the Valley Village resident, whose two children were very young at the time. “I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had a support system, but I didn’t have a huge circle of friends in the gay community.” She considered going to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. But, she said, “I was afraid to go by myself. I also wanted that Jewish community.”

She reached out to the Los Angeles-based JQ International, which serves the Jewish LGBT community. They helped her find a Jewish mental health professional. And Ilan-Pacheco started attending JQ’s Shabbat dinners and special events regularly.

“It gave me a sense of calm, peace and community,” she said.

Last month, inspired by stories like Ilan-Pacheco’s, and hundreds of calls over the years from LGBT Jews and their family members seeking support, JQ International launched a warmline (855-574-4577), which is more or less a hotline, but with limited hours — in this case, about 10 hours a week (although JQ hopes to expand those hours in the future). Theirs is a free service available to anyone who self-identifies as LGBT and Jewish, as well as their family members and loved ones. Callers can remain anonymous and are also welcome to email (warmline@jqinternational.org).

The birth of the warmline, and in particular, the involvement of Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, who is also a marriage and family therapist, began serendipitously. On the day last year that Bat-Or was scheduled to talk with JQ executive director Asher Gellis and board member Janelle Eagle about how she might get involved with the organization, Gellis received a phone call en route to the meeting.

“It was someone out of state who was concerned about her son,” recalled Bat-Or. “She had put ‘Jewish’ and ‘gay’ into the computer and came up with our phone number. I ended up talking to her and had the experience of how needed the warmline was.”

Shortly thereafter, representing JQ and the dream of a warmline, Bat-Or applied to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ social entrepreneurship program, PresenTenseLA, and was selected as one of 11 fellows. The eight-month part-time program, which paired her with both a coach and a mentor, culminated on May 21. And that evening, at PresenTenseLA’s Launch Night, a splashy event held at the Pacific Design Center, the warmline officially became a reality. A $30,000 grant from Federation to JQ helped to set up the infrastructure and cover Bat-Or’s part-time salary.

The calls and emails thus far have run the gamut. “We get quite a few calls from people wanting therapists,” Bat-Or said. “We’ve also gotten calls from people who have LGBT people in their house, and they need more information on how to be welcoming.” Several calls have been from parents of LGBT Jewish teens “who are coming out or are already out and need support.” Every call, said Bat-Or, is “on a scale of important to completely urgent. One urgent one we had was from a young man who emailed me that he was getting out of a relationship with domestic violence and needed a place to stay that night.”

While Bat-Or does not provide counseling services per se in this role, she networks with a number of other organizations and professionals — many, but not all, Jewish. In the case of the immediate needs of the young man, for instance, Bat-Or called every shelter she could find. “I was able to gather a lot of resources, which I gave him,” she said.

Some might question the need for such a niche service. There are a number of Jewish warmlines and hotlines, and several already serve the LGBT community. But, according to Gellis, there are reasons people might be reluctant to go these routes.

“The Jewish community has certainly embraced the LGBT cause as one of their major social justice issues,” Gellis said. “But it’s very new. It has not really permeated through the entire community. It’s more on an activist level. So you have individuals like myself raised in L.A. at a Conservative synagogue. I had no gay Jewish role models growing up. I thought I was going to have to make a choice between being gay or Jewish. I would not think I could turn to Jewish Family Service (JFS).” In fact, Gellis said, JFS is very LGBT-friendly, and the two organizations regularly collaborate.

“The same thing goes in reverse,” Gellis added. “It’s very hard for somebody coming from the Jewish community who is not out, who lives in L.A., to walk into the Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood. The chances of running into someone they know are ridiculously low. But if you’re a Persian Jew or an Orthodox Jew, that’s a terrifying thing.”

Starting in the fall, Gellis hopes to offer training sessions to people interested in manning the warmline. The goal will be to have a cadre of 20 trained volunteers committed to at least six months of service. “We’d like to have this open 30 hours a week,” he said. For now, though, it’s just Bat-Or, and she loves the work.

“It’s so gratifying,” she said. “This is my rabbinate, a project of my heart and soul. My history is, I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. I tried to come out twice, but couldn’t because of the time, and where my family was, and where my head was, and what nice Jewish girls are supposed to be. Had there been a JQ warmline, if I had ever heard the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘Jewish’ in a sentence that was positive, it would have made a world of difference. For me, every phone call is for the person calling, but also for me personally.”

As for Ilan-Pacheco, she has a good relationship with her now ex-husband. Her kids are doing great. And she just got back from her honeymoon, with her new wife.

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