By Saundra Sterling Epstein

IN 2010, it was clear that something was happening in the world at large and in the world of faith communities, too. We were aware that LGBTQ individuals needed faith communities that would accept them, and many of our communities responded as the social and cultural reality demanded.

But there was a specific need not yet addressed. What about the more religiously pitched parts of the continuums of our Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities?

In the case of the Jewish Orthodox world, where we are text-informed and dictated practice-driven, what do we do with this challenge that, though clearly not a new one, begged our attention and response? Keshet was already doing important work in the general Jewish community since 2001, but an additional response was needed for the Orthodox Jewish world and particular concerns that impact our LGBTQ community members.

Enter Eshel, an organization dedicated to inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox Jewish world and its various spaces, including shuls, schools, camps, youth groups and communities. Since its founding in 2010, we have seen encouraging and gratifying growth in acceptance of our LGBTQ members during the mere eight years of its existence.

Our executive directors, Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, along with a small team of professionals, have provided an increasing array of resources and support in a variety of ways throughout the United States and Canada, as well as some other countries.

We have identified more than 130 shuls that welcome LGBTQ Jews in their Orthodox spaces through our Welcoming Shuls Project throughout the United States and Canada. Additionally, more Orthodox day schools are taking a pledge of acceptance and welcome for all students and families.

We have held Shabbatonim and days of learning in various communities, sponsor meet-up and phone-in groups, offer individual guidance to members of the community as well as rabbis, and so much else.

Here in the Greater Philadelphia area, about two years ago, a local chapter of Eshel was formed to provide confidential support and social opportunities for Orthodox, ex-Orthodox and Ortho-curious LGBTQ Jews in the Greater Philadelphia area. Additionally, our community has a number of Orthodox shuls that welcome LGBTQ Jews graciously and comfortably, and a variety of resources to help individuals, their families and communities.

Annual retreats provide important opportunities for LGBTQ community members and their parents to come together. Our sixth annual Parents’ Retreat will be held at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Maryland from Nov. 16 to 18, providing a weekend of learning and camaraderie in a community of Orthodox parents who have LGBTQ children of all ages.

We are especially honored this year to have Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as our scholar-in-residence, and know that we will all learn so much from him about the importance of accepting all of our Jewish children and community members in our Orthodox world. A few years ago, Rabbi Chaim Rappoport was our scholar-in-residence.

While clearly we and the work we do are not accepted in all corners of the Orthodox world, the reality is that as more and more of our family members and loved ones come to no longer be able to hide their truth about their sexuality or gender identity, these corners are feeling the impact of this reality as well.

We learn in our Jewish tradition that “every human being is created in the image of God” and that we are to honor all persons. If we embarrass or hurt another person, we are harming no less than the One Who Created Us All.

More and more of our Orthodox Jewish world is coming to this realization and in so doing we are saving lives, performing that most fundamental of Jewish mitzvot, pikuach nefesh. The shuls on our database are modern Orthodox, centrist, Yeshivish and Lubavitch. We also have identified some alternative types of shuls/spaces that are popping up for our 20- and 30-somethings.

We have accomplished so much, and I often say that LGBTQ Jews today should be grateful that we are in this space, this time and this place. There is much more work to do, to be sure, and that being said, the distance traveled in the past few years will, I hope, bode well for the future.

Saundra Sterling Epstein is the director of the Welcoming Shuls Project for Eshel and an active member of its Parents’ Group.


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