Orthodox and out of the closet

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

“Orthodox parents of gay children tend to feel isolated,” says Mindy Dickler, the mother of 21-year-old Elie, who came out as gay three years ago.

Click photo to download. Caption: Participants discuss the complexities of being Orthodox and LGBT at the Eshel National Conference in January. An Eshel retreat for Orthodox parents will take place in March. Credit: Provided photo.

Dickler, from Baltimore, is on the planning committee for the second annual Eshel Retreat For Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children. She says the conference, which will be held at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Penn., gives parents a chance to feel that they are part of the Orthodox Jewish community again, and gives them hope. The conference will be held from March 7-9.

According to Eshel founder Miryam Kabakov, the first conference, held last April, came after several parents of LGBT youths approached her after various speaking engagements to talk about their plight. She said many expressed loneliness or an inability to discuss what it meant to have an LGBT child with their friends or rabbis.

“As soon as an [Orthodox] child reveals the secret, the parent takes on the secret and goes into hiding. And the parent has to go through his own process,” explains Kabakov.

This “hiding” is largely a result of the way that Orthodox Jews see the world and the words of the Torah.

“Orthodox, or specifically halachically [Jewish law] observant, Jews begin their discussions with what does God want from me, and how do I understand the texts and teachings of my faith to indicate what God expects and wants from me,” says Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein, who has a gay daughter. “Our decisions are within the context of that discussion, so different from the non-Orthodox world in which this does not come to the table.”

The basis of the prohibition against homosexual acts in Judaism derives from two biblical verses in Leviticus: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22), and “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). The Torah considers a homosexual act between two men to be an abhorrent thing (to’evah), punishable by death—a strong prohibition. As a result, Orthodox parents of LGBT children are often struck with a complicated combination of loving their child and wanting to accept him or her for who he is and feelings of shame/fear of community isolation. Having an LGBT child was generally not something the parents ever considered.

“In the back of my mind, I always assumed my three kids would grow up, marry someone of the opposite sex and have children. In the instant that Elie told us he was gay, I realized that dream did exist in my mind and it could no longer be that way,” says Dickler. “I needed to replace it with a new dream.”

At the time Elie came out, says Dickler, she was “in shock” and “did not know what the future would hold.” Today, she says she has replaced the dream and she hopes her son will find his mate—another man—and the two of them will marry, maybe even have children.

“I will have three son-in-laws,” she says with a smile. (Dickler has two daughters.)

But while Dickler has been able to recreate her ideal, this is not so easy for her community or area rabbis—in Baltimore or in many other Jewish communities across the country. The R family from the northeastern U.S., who asked that their name be withheld in this article, says they left their synagogue after the rabbi spoke openly at the pulpit against the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to open its doors to gay scouts. Their son came out of the closet two years ago.

Jean Prager of Bergen County, NJ, says that when she told her rabbi about her lesbian daughter, “he was very matter-of-fact” about it. He did tell the Pragers they should accept her, but chose not to discuss the halachic aspects of it. Since then, according to Ken Prager, their rabbi is trying to learn more about the subject. He was even one of the 200 Orthodox rabbis to sign the Statement of Principles regarding homosexuality, which allows that homosexuality is genetically and/or hormonally determined and admits that reparative therapy may be bogus and even harmful. The Pragers’ rabbi also let them give an informal talk about the challenges of being the parents of a gay child and the unique issues they faced as members of the Orthodox community.

Mr. R said he knows of families who have, like his, left their shuls, but also of families who have had to move.

“Some rabbis say, ‘I cannot deal with it,’ or, in extreme cases, ‘You cannot join our congregation,’” he says.

But to be fair, these rabbis are in a very difficult spot. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who is the first and only Orthodox rabbi to come out as gay, said he understands where his colleagues are coming from. He said the moment an Orthodox rabbi says anything more liberal or accepting, it threatens his credentials.

“Let’s say a rabbi believed that while he cannot change the law, the fact that some people may be built this way [LGBT], then they can’t be held accountable and can be considered people under duress. So it would not change the law, but it would not penalize anyone for being gay and allow people to be in committed relationships. … Rabbis that suggest such things are at best questioned and are at worst kicked out and deprived of their Orthodox identities,” explains Greenberg.

The result is Orthodox LGBT couples turning away from the fold, and often their parents become less observant or less connected. The Epsteins, for example, say their daughter no longer sees herself associated with anything Orthodox.

“This makes me somewhat sad, but I am upset with the community itself that judges and pushes away,” says Epstein. “No one is able to be a perfect Biblically-mandated Jew. It is an ideal for which we all strive. … I think that Torah and God are far more understanding and loving than the people who sometimes claim to act on their behalf.”

For now, Kabakov said Eshel will continue to shed light on the topic through rabbinic and community outreach, and to offer a platform for these parents to come together for support. This includes monthly conference calls and the upcoming conference.

“It is getting better,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “Rabbis are more interested in truly being compassionate. … The rabbis are struggling with how to successfully be compassionate. The numbers of people who are coming out, who are affected, are growing, which is shifting the social milieu.”

Dickler says, “It is time to bring these issues out of the closet. … It is OK to talk about it.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kan.

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Posted on January 27, 2014 and filed under Features, U.S..