When I arrive at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, there’s a small handwritten sign on the gate outside. “Welcome Eshel,” it says. I smile. I take the few steps down towards the door, where another sign says “Welcome Eshel”. I go through the nondescript doors and I start to feel at home. There’s a good smell of food wafting in the air and the sounds coming from the big inner room seem light and joyful. I step inside and am immediately welcomed by a member. Followed by lots and lots of other members. I feel the love, concern, and warmth. It blankets me.
I am again pleasantly surprised at how at home I feel. Why am I always surprised by this feeling? Is it because it’s a foreign one to me? Because I have rarely experienced it? Because I am celebrated just for being me? There’s a diverse crowd. Older, younger, male, female, straight, queer. But it feels like home.
The food is simple but filling and the company, as always, is new and interesting. The highlight of the evening is the panel of parents. Parents of queer youth, who speak simply, from the heart, with passion, urgency, and gratefulness. I tear up a bit and shove my dark thoughts away.
Later that night, I trickle out with the others and amble down the street to the corner. I part with the happy crowd and turn right onto first avenue. I’m feeling unsettled. Alone. Lonely. This feeling accompanies me all the way back to my home and only later do I identify what I’m feeling. I’m feeling distressed. I’m feeling jealous. I’m feeling frustrated.
It’s all very nice and good what these parents shared tonight. All amazing that they went to the Eshel parent retreats and found solace and support with each other. All touching that they were able to support their children fully.
But what about my parents? And other parents like mine?
They are Chasidish. They think they are open-minded, but they don’t have the faintest clue of what unconditional love means and they would probably feel extremely out of place and uncomfortable around these modern Orthodox parents. What about them? Are we reaching them? What about if they don’t know about their child’s struggle, or even worse, don’t want to know about them? Can we somehow reach them?
I’ve never come out to my parents. Why? For one, there is the disintegration of my marriage that they refuse to see for what it was. On top of that, I don’t know what that conversation would look like and what the outcome would be. There was one time, a few years ago, when I had a brief conversation with my father about the fact I’m gay. He said something along the line of, “I don’t care about that, but if you go off the derech, you will kill me.”
But I have no idea if he even remembers that conversation, if he truly understands what being queer means, or if he can stand behind it. And so I keep quiet. About my sexuality and my disillusionment with Jewish practice.
I remember a thought I had when I first faced the realization that I might be gay. And that thought comes crashing to the forefront again tonight. Where are the others? Where are the other queer people from my extremely insular community of Williamsburg? I can’t be the only person, save for one or two others, who identifies as queer. I can’t be the only one dreaming of finding my place in the community. I can’t be the only one fighting what feels like a losing battle in educating my child that all people are created equal. That same-sex marriage is ok. I do it in small, minute-long pieces, like talking about my queer friends, reminding him of queer people he has met, and sharing thoughts and answering questions honestly whenever he’s relaxed enough to ask them.
But I am afraid. Afraid it’ll make my son push me away. Afraid it is not enough. Afraid that despite my meager offerings, he’ll grow up to be homophobic, like the rest of the community.
Eshel has accomplished an amazing amount in the short time it has been around but I am asking for more. I need more. I need parents like mine to see me.
Maybe one day, they’ll see in a flyer at the local grocery store. Or an ad in the local Jewish newspaper. Or reading material, from people they can trust,that will open their minds a bit. Something. Anything. Because I can’t be the only one like this from my community. I refuse to believe that.
I suddenly realize that the reason I attend these Shabbatons is my son. So I can relate my experiences and hopefully make an impact. So not only is Eshel leaving its imprint on me, but I hope that imprint is reaching my son too.
That is why I still need Eshel.
Photo credit: Jens Schott Knudsen – via Flickr