‘Oy vey, my child is gay’
Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat
Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.
Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.
“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”
Ms. Oppenheim, who has four daughters, one of whom is lesbian, has gone to both of the retreats, and is looking forward to the third one. “It draws about 30 to 40 people, and it happens to be a wonderful group,” she said. Participants’ motivations vary, as do their backgrounds and underlying assumptions, she added. “It’s harder for parents who grew up frum from birth,” as she did not, she said. “It may be that when their kid came out to them, it was the first person they’d known or were close to who came out. So it would be a double shock.
“That wasn’t true for me. I didn’t grow up observant, I have plenty of gay friends, and the fact that my daughter was gay wasn’t even surprising. It had been kind of clear to me before. It wasn’t a shock, and it didn’t affect our relationship.”
She knows that her response is not the only one, though, Ms. Oppenheim added. “The natural reaction, particularly in our community, is to be completely surprised, and to mourn. That comes out a lot in the weekend.
“They are mourning the future they thought they would have.”
It is particularly hard to face a child’s gayness if you are Orthodox because “you have committed to halacha — to a system of law, custom, and lifestyle that can on the one hand be very warm and nurturing and accepting. On the other hand, there are norms, things that are expected from you, and if you are not doing them, you will feel different and judged, at least by some people.”
Most of the religious objections to homosexuality come from Leviticus 22:18, which tells us, “Do not lie with a man as you do with a woman. It is an abomination.” The verse is stark; the fact that it does not seem right to us does not make it go away. “You can’t just say, ‘Look, this law goes against what we feel ought to be true from an ethical perspective, and therefore we should disregard the law,’” Ms. Oppenheim said. It’s not the only biblical injunction that can make modern life difficult, she continued. “For example, a cohen can’t marry a divorced woman. That can be very hurtful to an individual couple who has fallen in love, but the law is the law. We can’t just toss the law away because it seems antiquated. That is not how Orthodoxy works.”
On the other hand, part of the community’s discomfort is that “the Orthodox community lags behind American society,” Ms. Oppenheim said. Twentieth-century American society was homophobic; “until the 1970s, the DSM” — that’s the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — “classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
“But I don’t know if we have reached a halachic stalemate permanently, although it feels like it right now. If you read, for example, Shmuley Boteach” — that’s Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood, a columnist for this newspaper, who identifies himself as Chabad — “basically he says, ‘I don’t know what the big deal is, why everyone is so focused on this. There are so many other mitzvot you can do.’”
Ms. Oppenheim also cited the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck in 2010 and signed by more than 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators. “Basically, it says that just because someone is gay, that doesn’t mean you should shun that person, or refuse to give him an aliyah. Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity and accepted into the community.
“But you can’t get around the fact that there is a halachic prohibition,” she said, even though one of Eshel’s directors, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, does argue that there are many readings of the verse in Leviticus other than the most commonly accepted one.
She is looking forward to the weekend because “you feel very close to all the other people there very quickly. It is a wonderful group of people. And because everyone is so unguarded, you have people who are crying, telling their stories for the first time, whether they have known for 10 years or just found out last week. It is the first time they’ve told anyone outside their family, the first time that they have really felt accepted without having to hide this part of themselves.”
Jeannie and Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood also will be going to the retreat for the third time.
“I think the retreat is historic,” Dr. Prager said. “I don’t think that is an exaggeration. Eshel is an organization that is geared specifically for Orthodox parents of LGBT kids. Keshet is there for Jews of all denominations, but the problem is particularly acute in the Orthodox community because it has shown less tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people than the other denominations.
“Why is that? Because the Orthodox adhere more closely to halacha than the Conservative or Reform. When you have the verse in Leviticus, the Orthodox will take it very literally. They have actually singled out homosexual behavior as the abomination. Orthodoxy finds homosexuality particularly repugnant.
“The word abomination is used many times in the Bible, even in relation to cheating in business — but I have never heard a rabbi say that. As a matter of fact, I have seen rabbis honor people who have cheated in business. And there certainly is no prohibition against being nice to gay people.”
In fact, he continued, the verse, taken literally, applies only to men, and to one particular act. “It is not any more my business what two men do in their bedroom at night any more than it is my business what a man and a woman do in their bedroom about niddah,” he said.
The modern Orthodox world is moving toward better treatment of LGBT people, he said, but “right-wing Orthodoxy, Agudath Israel in particular, has taken the obscurantist position that it is a matter of choice or childhood pathology, and it therefore recommends conversion therapy for every homosexual, with the ridiculous statement that God would not create human beings who are incapable of performing all of his mitzvot. It is inconvenient to the Agudath that homosexuality is inborn and genetic, and this is in contradiction to every professional organization worthy of being called a professional organization.
“There is a huge amount of suffering by Orthodox kids who feel rejected and despised by their religion,” Dr. Prager said. “There is a serious problem of depression and suicide.”
The Pragers have four children; one of their two daughters is lesbian; she is also married and a mother. “We go to the Eshel retreat because we are the grandparents. Some people refer to us as the pioneers,” Dr. Prager said. He wears that badge with pride.
“The first year at the retreat, there were so many tears as people shared their stories,” Jeannie Prager said. “The second year, it was palpably different. People were so happy to see each other, and so much more able to deal with the situation. There is strength in numbers, and in sharing.”
“We go to the retreat not because we need help but because we want to help others,” Dr. Prager said. “We think that we are doing a Kiddish HaShem by enabling other Orthodox families to accept, love, and incorporate their LGBT children into the Orthodox community.”
“It is clear that the vast majority of parents are more upset about the potential of their kids leaving Judaism or having a non-Jewish partner than the kids being LGBT,” Ms. Prager said. “Judaism is dear to the parents, and it hurts them to have the kids leave. But the kids leave because there is zero room for them.”
Many Orthodox rabbis feel the problem keenly and would like to help, according to both Pragers, but most do not know how. “Orthodox rabbis have zero training in dealing with LGBT Orthodox kids in their communities,” Dr. Prager said. “They are not taught how. There are a lot of well-intentioned rabbis out there who would like to be enlightened.
“This is a humanitarian issue. Part of the genius of Judaism is that it has evolved. We no longer have slavery. We no longer have polygamy. We don’t lash people and we don’t stone them. We found a way around not charging interest. Now the challenge is how to accept LGBT people into the community.”
Zahava Stern, Naomi Oppenheim’s daughter, who is 26, grew up in Bergenfield and Teaneck; she is now a law student in Boston. “I think the Orthodox world is changing,” she said. “I starting coming out about six years ago. I think that the Orthodox community has learned a lot and been exposed to a lot in the last five years.” She talked about a 2009 conference at Yeshiva University, “Being Gay In The Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community,” as a turning point. “There was such a yearning for it,” she said. “It drew such a crowd that people stood in the cold trying to get in. And a deeper discussion has continued. People are coming out more, hiding less. There has been a tremendous shift.”
The Eshel parents’ retreat, “Oy vey, my child is gay! Exploring the impact on Orthodox families,” is set for April 17 to 19 in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. “It offers support and education,” Eshel’s executive director, Miryam Kabakov, said. “It’s on Shabbat, so people can have this experience in their Jewish lives together. They can’t go to their own shul without being asked if their child is dating, so it is a healing moment when they can have Shabbat with people they don’t have to hide from.
“A lot of the parents are closeted about their kids,” she said. “They can share at the retreat.” Not only do they not have to worry about being judged, they also feel safe. “Everyone knows that everything said there is confidential, so you don’t have to worry about word getting out.”
The retreat includes talks by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi; Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Program, “who is very interested in communities of faith and is doing a lot of work researching the effect that acceptance makes,” Ms. Kabakov said, and Ysoscher Katz, “a Talmud genius,” according to Ms. Prager, a one-time Satmar chasid, now dean of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, who “is very much an out-of-the-box thinker,” Ms. Kabakov said. Smaller breakout sessions allow parents to discuss specific issues that are particularly important to them.
To learn more about the retreat or to register, go to Eshel’s website, https://www.eshelonline.org, and follow the links to the parents retreat.