It’s no doubt at the forefront of the minds of the approximately 45 attendees at this weekend’s Eshel retreat — designed to support Orthodox parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children — that the Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether the Constitution allows for a state to deny same-sex couples their right to marry or to renounce a couple’s marriage from another legal jurisdiction. Also of concern is that “the wave of anti-LGBT bills filed across the country continues to swell” with more than 85 bills appearing in 28 state legislatures, as reported by the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for LGBT rights.
Eshel, founded in 2010 to provide support, education and advocacy for LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families, hosts its third annual event at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa., April 17 to 19, with the theme of “Family.” Featured are workshops that address the impact on immediate and extended family members when a child “comes out” as gay, bisexual or transgender. Topics include how to deal with rabbis, teachers, summer camps and neighbors; parenting LGBT teens; how to be a child’s best advocate; what to do when a child comes out of the closet and the parent goes in; and what actions to take if your child chooses to leave the faith.
Eshel serves as a year-round resource for Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families, but the retreat, said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, co-founder and co-executive director of Eshel and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, grew out of “a desperate need for parents, who were totally in shock and didn’t know where to turn and were fearful and ashamed about a secret they didn’t know how to manage.”
“Parents of teens were in acute crisis,” added Miryam Kabakov, also co-founder and co-director of Eshel. They were asking themselves, “‘What do I do with my child if they want to stand on the other side of the mehitzah?’ and were trying to figure out how their kids could integrate into the [Orthodox] community.”
Kabakov, a social worker with more than two decades of experience in the Jewish LGBT community, added that when older children come out, for parents it becomes more of an internal crisis. They struggle with questions such as, “Should I be telling people? What will that mean for my other children and my other relationships? What do I do if I hear homophobic things at the Shabbos table or from my rabbi?” It isn’t as much about what the child is going to do, but instead how the parents are trying to figure out their own path, she said.
A mother, recently relocated to Silver Spring, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is attending the retreat for the second time this year. Her son came out about two years ago, she reflected on that time.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh my God, my son has a boyfriend,’ but it’s a new identity” you have to contend with, she said. “I’ve always considered myself as an ally of LGBT, but the crazy thing is I thought I was better with it than I was. It’s easy to say you accept your child, but after a while it hits you; it’s hard.” Citing she needed tools to cope with the situation she added, “That’s when I began to seek support. I needed to talk to others who are going through similar things.”
Eshel’s retreat provides opportunities for parents to swap stories and share coping strategies. Attendees, including six from Maryland but only one from Baltimore, share Shabbat meals and attend formal presentations by lay people and professionals such as Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a pioneer in the development of guidelines for the care of LGBT adolescents.
Ryan is the director of the Family Acceptance Project with San Francisco State University and a four-decade clinical social worker and researcher. Her findings reveal that support for LGBT adolescents and young adults from parents and caregivers is directly linked to the well-being and healthy development of the child. In contrast, actions such as rejection, punishment, praying to change or preventing an LGBT child from talking about their situation can correlate with higher suicide and substance abuse rates and other serious health risks.
Supportive behaviors, even if a parent doesn’t agree with the child’s choice, are powerful, she asserted. “Standing up for them when they’ve been victimized … or just talking to your child and listening respectfully” reduces dangerous health risks and leads to better self-esteem.
A distinctive factor in observant communities are the tight bonds and socialization that typically include nuclear and extended family and even a congregation, noted Ryan, so there is very little chance for anonymity or access to more comprehensive education about sexuality.
Mindy Dickler, founder and co-chair of JQ Baltimore, which offers outreach and support to LGBT individuals and their families locally, is on the planning committee for the retreat.
“For Orthodox parents who have LGBT children there are many levels of shanda around such an experience, and often parents are not at ease talking about their situation with neighbors and friends,” she said, citing the retreat’s networking and camaraderie as valuable to parents. Dickler added, “One of my battle cries has been we have far too many young people in our community that we are losing,” because of the inability to deal openly with the issues.
“When you get all of your info from your cultural world … all of the interaction comes from that culture. So the opportunity for someone to learn what transgender means or [have access to] the latest research is going to be much more difficult,” Ryan said. “What’s really needed are culturally appropriate educational materials,” which she is developing.
Ryan noted that more than 65,000 religious leaders, care givers, health and mental health providers and families have been trained on her family-supportive approach. “One of the most important things a family needs to find for their child is culturally resonant peer support from their cultural world,” she said.
Elana Altzman’s oldest son, now 20, was 16 when he told his parents he is gay. She and her husband ultimately moved their four children from New York to Linden, N.J., where they found a more supportive and accepting Orthodox community. Four years ago, she said, there were few resources for support; this year’s Eshel retreat will be her third.
[pullquote]We wanted to make the Orthodox community aware of this. That it’s not somebody else. This is your uncle and your niece, these are people you love and you need to be more open-minded about it.[/pullquote]“I’m hoping I can be in some small measure some source of support to parents who are newer at [dealing with LGBT child issues]. And it’s a way to reconnect with people,” she said, noting that throughout the year parents are in touch via email and a phone support group facilitated by Eshel. “It’s an opportunity to see each other, to bond over a friendship.”
Mark and Ellen Schwartz of Englewood, N.J., have attended the retreat each year since its founding. Their daughter, at 26 and at the time married to a man, told her parents she is gay about four years ago. Mark said he values the retreat for what he can offer other parents and what he receives in return.
“You feel like there couldn’t be anyone else going through what you’re going through … but it [is] very moving to be part of this group, listen to
stories, weep unashamedly,” he explained. “It’s not the conventional model in the Orthodox family.”
The Schwartzes are advocates in their community and the Orthodox community at large to help bring LGBT issues out in the open.
“We wanted to make the Orthodox community aware of this. That it’s not somebody else,” said Mark. “This is your uncle and your niece, these are people you love and you need to be more open-minded about it.”
Kenneth Prager, in Englewood, N.J., said he and his wife “grappled somewhat” when their daughter came out as a senior in college, “but at no point was there any question of our continuing love and support for her. It’s been a journey of education for all of us.”
Prager’s daughter has since married her partner at a religious commitment ceremony, and “there was a chupah and brachot and it was a beautiful, joyous, meaningful event,” he said. “That she wanted to surround herself with Judaism made me pleased.”
Prager said of the retreat attendees, “These are all good affiliated Jews who want to feel that their children will not be rejected by the religion that they love. The parents of LGBT children are more concerned and distressed of the fact that their child might leave Judaism than the fact that their child is gay.”
But Prager admits the climate of acceptance in the Orthodox community is “moving in the right direction, but at a very slow pace” and attributed the improvement in part to rabbis becoming more educated on the issues that are present in their communities. He referenced a document published by members of the Orthodox community in July 2010.
“Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” — written by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, who has been a leader in the Rabbinical Council of America, with the input from dozens of Jewish law scholars, educators, communal rabbis such as Aryeh Klapper and Yitzchak Blau, and mental health professionals — distinguishes between the physical same-sex act (which is forbidden by Jewish law) and that of sexual orientation (not forbidden), supports the right to reject reparation therapy to “cure” a person of their homosexuality and urges Jewish Orthodox communities to exhibit sensitivity and acceptance of any devout Jew regardless of sexual orientation. It has more than 200 signatures from rabbis, educators and mental health professionals.
The document “Orthodox Rabbis Stand on Principle,” created in December 2011 and signed by 100 rabbis in response to Greenberg officiating at a same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C., states that “Jewish tradition unequivocally teaches that marriage can only exist as a union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of a homosexual relationship.” It goes on to state that “rabbis are always available to discuss congregants’ personal issues, including intimacy,” but concludes with the statement that the public shouldn’t be misled in thinking that Orthodox Jewish views on homosexuality “can change, are changing or might someday change.”
“I doubt my place in the [Orthodox] Jewish community all the time,” said the mother in Silver Spring. “It’s hard, it’s not easy, but running away from it isn’t going to help the kids. It’s frustrating at times. But I do see people being accepting. All people need is to meet one gay person and it changes their mind. It changes their viewpoint. [My] friends have done this. This gives me hope.”