Reflections on Past Parent Retreats: What Has Changed, What Has Stayed the Same

“Wow. What a weekend.”

This is what one Eshel parent said when she got back from her first Eshel Parent Retreat for Orthodox parents of LGBTQ+ children. She attended her first retreat ten years ago, in 2014. While we’ve grown a lot since then, the “wow factor” remains.

I just got back from the Eshel Retreat for Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children. Eshel is a fantastic organization and I have a small feeling that I will have a whole lot more to do with it as time goes on. I honestly don’t even know what to say about what Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Miryam Kabakov are doing for LGBT people in Orthodox communities. It’s incredible, overwhelming, and humbling.

As I sit here typing and thinking about this weekend all I can say is “wow.” What a weekend. If I had to describe how I’m feeling in one word, it would definitely be “overwhelmed.” I’m overwhelmed by the experience. By the positive, open, warm and loving people I met. By the stories I heard. By the realization that my role as a parent of an LGBT child in the Orthodox community doesn’t allow me to sit back and reap the benefits of the hard work of others. If I want change, I need to be part of it. And to be honest, it scares the hell out of me.

There were about 20-25 families represented at this retreat, as well as several facilitators, both gay and straight. I was the youngest parent, and I had the youngest LGBT child. There were a few other parents of teens there, with kids a year or two older than my son. Besides the large sessions that all of the retreat attendees took part in, I was part of a chaburah of parents of younger teenage LGBT kids. It was so incredible to be able to talk to other parents of LGBT kids. We talked about schools, discipline, general teenage angst and teenage angst as it relates to our kids being LGBT. I really feel like I bonded with my chaburah-mates from the weekend.

But I also got to know so many other wonderful parents. In some ways I felt like the baby amongst many of them. But our age differences didn’t detract from the experience – I was able to look up to these parents as role models for me and my child. All the other parents there were so amazing in offering resources and anecdotes, not just about LGBT issues, but about raising kids in general.

The theme of the weekend was “hiding” (appropriate for a week before Purim) and all the different ways we hide when we have a child who is LGBT. This was a great theme and springboard, but there were also a lot of conversations about grassroots change. How do we get Orthodox Rabbis to empathize with our LGBT kids and our families? Notice how I didn’t say “How do we get the Orthodox Rabbis to change Halacha?” or “How do we get the Orthodox Rabbis to officiate at our kids same sex weddings?” We are simply asking for empathy – for the understanding and acknowledgment that there are LGBT kids in the frum world.

Ignoring this reality is tantamount to denying it. We can’t be ignored anymore. This is not going away. For every kid like my son who had the courage to come out to us at 14, there are however many other kids who don’t think they can ever come out to their parents. Who are struggling. Who are self-hating. Who are very possibly suicidal.

I know what my greater mission is now. Besides continuing to love and support my son and to work with him with whatever he needs from me, I have no choice. I have to be an ambassador for all the kids whose parents either don’t know about them, or refuse to come forward. I’m not going to lie. I’m petrified. This is NOT me. I don’t do these kinds of things. I don’t even know where to begin. But I must at least keep this momentum going in my mind and with the parents I met through this conference because if I remain silent, I’m sacrificing my son and countless others to have no hope in the Orthodox Word.

G-d help me.

What’s changed since this parent first came to a retreat in 2014? We have grown – last year we sold out the parent retreat with 75+ parents, representing over 40 families with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. We’ve moved to an even bigger location for this year’s parent retreat. More and more kids are feeling comfortable sharing their identity with their parents, and more and more parents are looking for communities that will embrace them and their children.

This parent has been to every one of our retreats since. She has, in fact, kept in touch with the other parents, is a mentor to others when their child first comes out, and speaks out about wanting her son to have a place in the Orthodox world.

Our theme is no longer about hiding. While many LGBTQ+ people, parents, and families are still not able to be fully open, as a community we have successfully brought more awareness to the so many Orthodox spaces that LGBTQ+ people are part of the fabric of their community and always have been.

We are still focused on working at the grassroots – we still meeting with new Rabbis and new communities and guide them to a deeper understanding of the experience of an LGBTQ+ person in Orthodoxy.. But we have already made huge strides. We have worked with hundreds of Rabbis – told them our stories, taught workshops, and answered questions. Some of these Rabbis now publicly stand with the LGBTQ+ community – as part of our public Welcoming Shuls list, in articles and online platforms, and by making change in their congregations. Some of these Rabbis come to speak at our retreats or events.

Our annual Parent Retreat continues to be a transformative weekend. We hope you’ll come see for yourself.