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Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children Navigate Their Own Coming Out Process

A weekend retreat inspires advocacy for gay Orthodox Jews and creates a support network for families in religious communities

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)
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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.

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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.

Sabina Feczko. Photo by Miryam Kabakov.

“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.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg. Photo by Richard Dweck.

“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.”

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Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children Navigate Their Own Coming Out Process

A weekend retreat inspires advocacy for gay Orthodox Jews and creates a support network for families in religious communities