Originally posted on JMoreLiving

“When a child comes out of the closet, a parent goes in,” says Mindy Dickler. A retired teacher, mother of three and member of the local Orthodox community, Dickler never considered what it might be like to have a gay child until 2011 when her son, Elie, came out to her and her husband, Marc, during a visit home from college.

“We were caught completely by surprise,” she recalls. “I was too shocked to speak. I just gave him a huge hug.”

In the following days, Dickler tried to process her son’s news. “It’s one thing to be supportive and another to understand how it impacts your life,” she says. “I never realized how I always assumed Elie would grow up and marry someone of the opposite sex and have children. … All of a sudden, we were different. I felt very alone.”

So Dickler reached out for support. She found it via a secular organization called PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) through which she connected with Arlene Falk, a local Jewish woman who also had a gay son. Both women agreed that Baltimore’s Jewish community was lacking when it came to serving the needs of LGBTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer or questioning) people and their families.

Despite the stigma that existed, Dickler was determined to create a Jewish community that was more supportive and inclusive of LGBTQ Jews.

In 2012, Dickler and Falk partnered with Baltimore PFLAG and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation to screen an Israeli-made documentary, “Mom and Dad: I Have Something to Tell You.” The film chronicles the experiences of parents who learn their child is gay or lesbian, and was followed by a panel discussion.

“During the discussion,” Dickler recalls, “one person in the audience said something that really stuck with me – ‘If they can’t be free to be who they are in a safe Jewish space, they will leave [the Jewish community].’ Afterward, several people came up and told me they shared my concerns and wanted to work with me.”

Soon after, Dickler co-founded JQ Baltimore, a group dedicated to making the local Jewish community more welcoming to LGBTQ individuals and their families.

Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin, spiritual leader of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and the mother of two “queer [adult] kids,” has worked with Dickler on events such as JQ Baltimore’s Passover seders and providing education about the needs of LGBTQ students and parents at local Jewish day schools.

“Mindy is beyond courageous. She is able to see the big picture,” says Rabbi Ruskin. “[She could have] said, ‘[Homosexuality] is forbidden.’ But Mindy sees that many families have LGBTQ members and the Jewish community has to be there, no matter what. To her, these are people created in God’s image and we should celebrate them. They are as Jewish as anyone else. It’s inspiring.”

Though JQ Baltimore’s programs were well-received, Dickler recognized that LGBTQ Jews and their parents who were still “in the closet” weren’t always comfortable attending the group’s events or even visiting its website. In particular, Orthodox Jews required something more discreet.

So Dickler turned to Eshel, a New York-based organization committed to “creating community and acceptance for [LGBTQ] Jews and their families in Orthodox communities,” for help starting a support group. The group, which began meeting last November, has a private Facebook page, strict confidentiality guidelines and meets secretly monthly at undisclosed locations.

Chana Englander, a JQ Baltimore board member and program participant, says the group’s programs are important to people like herself.

“If there is no place we can go that’s friendly to both our Judaism and our queerness, that means we need to separate these two parts of our lives and identities,” says Englander.

Among many other programs, Eshel sponsors a retreat for LGBTQ individuals on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend each year and a separate retreat for parents and family members of LGBTQ people in the spring. The fifth annual retreat for parents and family members will take place on May 5-7 in Copake, N.Y. Dickler is looking forward to attending.

“[At the retreat] we come together creating a Jewish community where everyone is free to be exactly who they are,” says Dickler. “You have parents at every stage of the journey – some whose children have just come out, others whose children came out years ago. It’s a totally safe place where we support one another. Some of the people I’ve met have become some of my closest friends because of what we’ve shared.”

Dickler says she is grateful for the trajectory her life has taken since she learned that her son is gay. “I’ve grown so much as a person and my mind has opened in ways I never imagined it could.”

For information about JQ Baltimore, visit jqbaltimore.org or 

For information about Eshel, visit eshelonline.org or facebook.com/EshelJews .

Mindy Dickler wants LGBTQ members of the Jewish community and their parents to feel welcome, safe and included. Photo by Vince Lupo