A weekend retreat inspires advocacy for gay Orthodox Jews and creates a support network for families in religious communities.
By Tova Ross
It was telling that Eshel—the national organization offering community and programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities—held its second annual retreat for Orthodox parents of LGBT children exactly a week before Purim. Like the themes of disguise that abound throughout Megillat Esther—the invisible hand of God, whose name is not mentioned even once, and Esther herself, whose name is rooted in the Hebrew word for “hidden” and who must keep her Jewish identity under wraps—secrecy and seclusion were once familiar to many of the parents who attended Eshel’s retreat last weekend at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa.
When Baltimore resident Mindy Dickler’s son Elie came out to her while home from college for Rosh Hashanah in 2011, her first reaction was shock. Though she soon came to a place of acceptance (“I realized that Elie was created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, like everybody else”), when she looked for resources for parents like her, she came up empty. “I saw major metro areas like New York and San Francisco with some resources and a more discernible population of Orthodox or otherwise Jewish parents of gay children,” she said, “but I couldn’t find any of that in Baltimore and felt really alone.” That is, until she found Eshel—a group founded in 2010 whose name refers to the biblical shrub with bright red flowers planted by Abraham to signal to parched travelers that a welcoming tent was nearby.
Eshel hosts weekend retreats throughout the year for LGBT individuals and offers phone and email support between meetings. It trains members to become effective advocates for inclusiveness in their communities and has created an Orthodox Rallies Roundtable, a network for Orthodox allies of LGBT Jews to remain informed about current issues. But just one year after its inception, its annual retreat for parents has become one of its most important resources. Sunnie Epstein, a Jewish educator from the greater Philadelphia area whose 26-year old daughter Rachie identifies as a lesbian, told me: “Eshel’s retreats have given many, including me and my family, a home and a community where we can be open and not conflicted to be ourselves.”
Dickler and Epstein were only two of the 29 parents from seven states who came together March 7-9 for workshops, discussion groups, and casual schmoozing over meals. Thanks to the unifying power of social media to connect people who once thought they were entirely alone, and a growing platform for discussion of LGBT issues in some Orthodox circles, larger numbers of LGBT Orthodox Jews have come out and forged a burgeoning community. Now their parents are in search of their own body politic and a road map for life as Orthodox parents of LGBT children. Eshel’s retreat is just one example of how they find kinship and guidance in each other and the courage to slowly shed the masks that once shielded them from communal view as they find a way to effect greater acceptance and tolerance for LGBT Jews within the Orthodox community.
At the pristine campground tucked away in a corner of the Catoctin Mountains, it was difficult to imagine that some of the parents assembled hadn’t met each other, or Eshel’s co-directors Rabbi Steven Greenberg and Miryam Kabakov, before last weekend. There was a cozy familiarity, a shared vernacular, as they bantered easily and huddled together deep in conversation.
“This retreat was different from last year in that the parents of LGBT children are really emerging as their own unique community,” said Sabina Feczko, who attended the retreat with her husband, Richard; their son Matthew came out eight years ago at age 18 in their community in Newton Centre, Mass. “Furthermore, while we talked about it last year, we are now actually taking productive steps toward solving problems and keeping this sense of community growing.”
Working to find ways to promote inclusiveness and raise awareness of LGBT Orthodox Jews was a major theme of the weekend. Parents say they are planning more frequent meetings in certain areas like Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as mini Shabbatons; utilizing the Eshel website more to create a stronger cyber community; and attracting additional Orthodox parents who are not yet involved in their efforts.
Others shared their own individual advocacy plans, like Dickler, who has already helped found JQ Baltimore, a Jewish LGBTQ group offering outreach and support, and who plans to speak with another parent later this month at Ohev Shalom—The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., about their journeys with gay children. Elana Altzman, whose son Amram came out at 17, is at work coordinating a New Jersey-area meeting with guidance counselors from various yeshiva high schools to discuss how they can better accommodate students who might come to them with LGBT issues. And Epstein spoke about creating a list of LGBT Jews whose parents chose to no longer be part of their children’s lives and match them with other, more accepting parents of LGBT Jews for Shabbat meals in their areas.
That so many parents were eagerly recounting their newfound roles as spokespeople is indicative of just how much can change in a year. “Last year’s retreat focused more around the phenomenon of parents going into the closet once their children come out of it, but now we’re seeing a maturation and evolving of this group,” said Epstein. “I think parents are really empowered by these new connections they’ve made here.”
Still, not everyone is ready to be a public advocate. “There’s a little tension between having the newcomers and more veteran parents in one place,” explained Kabakov, “and it’s important for us to remember that some people simply need support for their journey. We also want to help the parents who might feel that an LGBT lifestyle is wrong, because they still need to be good parents to their children.”
By and large, though, the retreat’s attendees had an obvious comfort level with one another, perhaps because Eshel’s retreat is one of the only resources specifically aimed at Orthodox parents. Other organizations, like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (known as PFLAG) and the Jewish LGBT organization Keshet, are wonderful sources of support and information, say parents—some of whom are involved with Keshet as well—but these groups are not specifically tailored for the unique concerns of Orthodox families, like an emphasis on marriage at an early age, for instance, or working to adhere to a traditional halakhic framework.
“Keshet does remarkable work in education and advocacy and can help bring institutions that are theoretically committed to inclusion to a practical sense of what it means to be welcoming,” said Greenberg. “But Orthodox communities are in a very different place, and for many, basic understanding of LGBT issues, and simple empathy for LGBT people and compassion for their families, is desperately needed to move communities to greater responsibility. That’s where we hope Eshel comes in. We speak a more restrained language and work in ways more in tune with Orthodox religious concerns, and I think that makes us a more compatible fit.”
Richard Feczko noted: “Eshel actually had a certain level of credibility in that it is an Orthodox organization and so rabbis who use halakha as a knee-jerk response to any mention of LGBT issues now see Eshel, and it mitigates their argument.” Epstein agreed: “Halakha is already part of the conversation with us.”
Eshel’s programming has helped repair fractured families. One woman who lives in a “black hat” Jewish community in the Midwest said her initial reaction to her son telling her that he was transgender was not what he had hoped for, and their once close bond grew tenuous. “At last year’s Eshel retreat, it was the first time I met other parents who were also experiencing a journey of acceptance toward revised dreams for their children,” said S., who asked to be identified by the first letter of her Hebrew name out of respect for her son’s decision to tell individual people about his transgender status. “I found solace in community.” The other parents helped her adjust her expectations and inspired her to realize that a different kind of life doesn’t have to mean a destroyed life. On the way to the airport from last year’s retreat, S. phoned her son, and they had a long talk. This proved to be the first step toward restoring their relationship—now as strong as ever. “It’s only natural to have certain dreams for your child, but I now realize that we, as parents, should probably let go of those ideas and let our children live their own lives,” she said. “Eshel’s retreat helped me get there.”
This year’s retreat also saw an increase in parents of transgender children and gay teenagers, like G., whose 14-year-old son came out to her and her husband this past October. (She hails from a smaller Jewish community on the East Coast where she knows very few other Orthodox families with gay children; as her son is not publicly out yet, she asked to be identified by her initial.) “When my son told me he was gay, my reaction was twofold: I was so proud of him for being able to tell me and his father, and I was saddened to know he is living in a community of Orthodox Jews where many likely won’t accept him,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing, really, to know that my child will often feel unwelcome and not necessarily accepted.” G. gave credit to the guidance counselor at her son’s yeshiva high school, to whom her son first came out, and who encouraged him to talk openly with his parents. “I think it’s very important for every yeshiva day school in the U.S. to have this on their radar and figure it out from the get-go,” she said. “The schools can’t wait for gay kids to come out and then wonder what to do; the gay kids are already there.”
Jo Bruck’s son Sholom (now Sheldon) attended both Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and the Fasman Yeshiva High School, better known as Skokie Yeshiva, in Chicago. Comments he received from rebbes and school administrators criticizing everything from the way he walked to the way he gesticulated in conversation did incredible damage. “He just got so depressed,” said Bruck, who attended last year’s retreat but was unable to make it to this year’s. “He eventually left high school before finishing his senior year.”
Many of the yeshiva high schools in major hubs of Jewish life—New York’s Five Towns, New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles—were contacted for this story. Most declined to comment, while a few emphasized their commitment to tolerance, echoing the call for empathy for LGBT Jews in 2010 by nearly 100 Orthodox rabbis who signed a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” Almost none of the schools, however, have actual resources or programming in place meant to foster acceptance of gay students or those with LGBT siblings.
Ramaz High School in New York City is one that does, thanks to Amram Altzman, who came out as a junior two years ago and, guided by Keshet, successfully lobbied his school’s administration to create the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, a weekly discussion group where students explore issues relating to sexuality and gender. “Others had asked for resources for gay students before me, but the school always felt it couldn’t allow for something that might push an agenda that runs counter to the Orthodoxy of its institution,” explained Amram, now in college and interning at Eshel. “But my friend and I who started the club had no agenda other than to start a conversation we didn’t see taking place and to offer those who are LGBT or questioning a place to be visible.”
Living in Brooklyn when her son came out, Elana Altzman knew she would have few people in her community to derive support from regarding her family’s experience. “My husband and I were already feeling out of place with Brooklyn’s shift to the right of Orthodoxy, and when Amram came out to us, we knew we would have to move,” she recalled. “We moved not only so we could feel more comfortable, but so that my children would still be able to see Orthodox Judaism in a positive light. I knew if they saw our community rejecting Amram, they, in turn, would reject Orthodoxy, and I didn’t want that to happen.” In Linden, N.J., the family found greater warmth and acceptance, and their involvement with Eshel has been another resource they are grateful to utilize.
That yeshiva high schools begin to deal with the reality of gay teenagers is an especially important cause for Mordechai Levovitz, who grew up in a yeshivish family and, after coming out, founded Jewish Queer Youth, a nonprofit organization supporting LGBT Jews and their families in the Orthodox community, in 2003. “Research tells us that the gay people most at risk for self-harm, depression, and suicide are teenagers,” said Levovitz, who subsequently earned a degree in social work after founding JQY. “Of all the ways I’d like to see the Orthodox community grow in acceptance toward gay Jews, it’s probably most crucial for high schools to embrace the resources available, like JQY’s training program for high-school guidance counselors, to possibly help save lives.”
Levovitz’s own adolescence was filled with years of unhelpful therapy and things left unsaid by his family until college, when he finally acknowledged that he was gay. His parents, said Levovitz, became immediately protective of his younger siblings, for in a competitive market for matches where any familial blights impede potential prospects, a gay sibling does single Orthodox Jews of marriageable age no favors. “Many frum Jews who come out tell me that negatively impacting their siblings’shidduch chances is one of the biggest deterrents to coming out and then the biggest concern when they do,” Levovitz explained, and then trailed off. “When it comes down to it, coming out in the Orthodox community often means weighing your individual happiness against your family’s happiness, and nobody wants to have to hurt someone else just to be happy.”
Most parents at Eshel’s retreat, however, didn’t appear too bothered by endangeredshidduch chances. “My single, straight daughter pointed out that having a gay sibling is actually a handy-dandy little litmus test for potential romantic prospects,” said Naomi, who lives in the New York area and asked to be identified by her first name. “She said she wouldn’t want to be married to a person who would take issue with her sister.”
Of most pressing concern to many of the parents was their children’s alienation from the Orthodox community after coming out. Parents say that this lack of connection with a form of religiosity that was once so important, and without the once-distinct anchoring of community, is unsettling for their children. Bruck spoke of her son’s attempts to maintain some connection with Orthodoxy after he came out, faithfully wearing his rainbow-colored yarmulke until it became clear to him that he might never be openly embraced in the Orthodox community despite his desire to stay. “He just feels unwanted, and like he can’t reconcile his being gay with his observance,” she said. “He’s conflicted by it.”
Parents also struggled with feeling like they have no right or recourse to combat their children’s sense of displacement from Orthodoxy and their children’s difficulty in maintaining a presence where they sense—often correctly—that they are not welcome. G. spoke of her helplessness in the face of her gay son disengaging from Orthodox observance. “If it was another one of my children, I might push him to find a method of Jewish involvement that works for him to stay in the community,” she said, “but I would only feel like I’m pushing my son toward something that will ultimately bring him more struggling and unhappiness.”
Jeanne and Kenneth Prager of Englewood, N.J., whose daughter Tamar came out about 20 years ago, are one of the longer-established sets of “out” parents. They fell easily into mentorship roles at Eshel’s retreats, where more parents had newer experiences with younger children. “It makes us feel good that we can be there for them—old, but good,” said Jeanne with a laugh. “When they asked us who we had turned to, though, we didn’t have anyone to tell them. We didn’t sign up to be the poster children for this cause, but even today, in our shul of over 800 families, we are still the only one talking openly about this.”
When I suggested that perhaps it’s possible they are the only parents in their shul with an LGBT child, Kenneth scoffed. “That’s like Ahmadinejad of Iran saying there are no gays in his country. Look at the statistics!” he said. (Research suggests that one in 10 people in America identify as having same-sex attractions or behaviors.) “Of course there are other families dealing with this in our shul and in the Orthodox community; they just hide it.”
While both Pragers initially had difficulty feeling comfortable in their community after starting to openly discuss their daughter, they remain especially stung by their shul newsletter omitting reference to their daughter and her partner in the weekly announcements when they gave birth to a son in 2012. The shul felt it would be too offensive, the Pragers explained, to wish anyone but the grandparents a mazel tov in the announcement. “Meanwhile, nobody finds it offensive when a business swindler, or someone who drives to shul on Shabbat, gets an aliyah or has theirsmachot announced,” said Kenneth. He noted that the word toevah, abomination, is ascribed to many actions in the Torah other than the homosexual act—in fact, it appears 103 times in the Hebrew Bible—but that lending with interest, for example, or eating shellfish, does not provoke the revulsion that being publicly gay often does. “What else is this but homophobia?”
“There’s a tendency when someone hears that someone is gay, to immediately think of what’s happening in the bedroom, and that’s unfair,” said Dickler. “You don’t think about straight people. If someone is getting an aliyah, you don’t say: Have you cheated on your wife lately, or when did your wife last go to the mikveh? It doesn’t happen, except if homosexuality is involved.”
But is it even possible for someone to be gay and live an Orthodox lifestyle? As is often the case with the Orthodox community, caught between its dueling loyalties tohalacha and modern sociological trends, the issues—whether it’s women wearingtefillin, partnership minyanim, or accepting LGBT Jews—may evoke greater questions of the structure of religious community and culture than of halachicnuance.
“Judaism does not advocate a position of ‘all or nothing.’ If it did, most of us would have to see ourselves as totally beyond the pale,” said Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who authored Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View. “All human beings are obliged to try as best they can to observe the laws of the Torah. If, however, they fail in one or even several areas, they should not exclude themselves or be excluded by others from the observance of other commandments.”
The Orthodox parents of LGBT children I spoke with don’t wish to reinvent thehalakhic wheel but expressed a simple desire for visibility and understanding.
“Avraham Avinu’s tent had four openings once upon a time: the original big tent Judaism,” said Richard Feczko, in a measured, thoughtful tone. “It’s been thousands of years since then, and different denominations and perspectives have closed some of those doors. Part of our job here, at Eshel, is to open them back up.”
“I don’t think the Orthodox community will ever say it sanctions homosexual relationships 100 percent, nor am I saying I think it should or shouldn’t,” explained G. “What I would like the community to say is this: We recognize you as a person who wants to be an Orthodox Jew. What you do behind closed doors is not our business.”
She paused, and then let out a rueful sigh. “Maybe that’s a fantasy.”