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A place where you don’t have to hide

An Orthodox parent of a gay son and a queer kid from Monsey talk about Eshel and its parents retreat

What do parents who live in a tight-knit community and love their children deeply, devotedly, with all their hearts and all their souls, do when they learn that there is something about one of their children that would put them at odds with community?

Not something that the child did, or even chose, but an inherent part of that child?

Like, say, being gay? And being Orthodox?

What do they do?

About 4.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ — that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer — and that statistic doesn’t count the people who have not yet acknowledged the truth of their identity to themselves, much less to the Gallup representative whose work ended up in the 2017 poll that came up with that figure.

The number of people who are LGBTQ is the same in the Orthodox community as it is anyplace else. People are people. For many years, the response to those people was pretty much the way it was in the outside world; the culture in general was not tolerant of difference, much less open to it. People came out carefully, expecting rejection, which often was what they found. Recently, though, that response has changed, to the point that now same-sex marriage is legal and LGBTQ people do not have to hide and lie as they once did.

But there are extra barriers to openness in the Orthodox world. Normative halacha — Jewish law — forbids homosexuality, based on the verse in Leviticus that seems to call it an abomination. (There are halachic arguments on that point, but they’re new and controversial.) And in a world so tightly connected that everyone seems to know everything, the only way to keep secrets is to bury them deeply.

That means that parents whose children are gay have some stark choices to make — they can accept their children or they can reject them. They can try to talk them out of their gayness — as if. They can try to pretend that they haven’t heard or don’t know or can’t understand. Or they can accept their children, love them as they always have, and learn how to live in their surprising new world.

Often, though, what parents cannot do is be entirely open in their communities. They have to protect their children — all their children, including siblings — from judgment, and they have to renegotiate all their other relationships. They always have to be masked.

Eshel is an organization that works with LGBT Jews; its “mission is to create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families.” The organization takes the “their families” part seriously; it offers an annual retreat for parents that allows them a chance to live openly, honestly, without secrets, without stigma, and without shame. To be proud of their children — all their children — without having to lie, by either omission or commission, about who those children actually are.

To learn more about the retreat, see the box.

But those parents and some of their children still have to go back to their communities, where they are not fully comfortable being out, or where they fear that the repercussions of being out online might be onerous. So in the discussion with a mother about her son, and with a son about his family, we will use pseudonyms here, and we’ll fudge details a bit.

Bluma’s son Avi — the youngest of a respectable number of children — is 23 years old. “I’m not just a Jewish mother talking — our son is a gem,” Bluma said. “A rebbe in his school told me that when he’s in your class you have to be prepared every single day, because he is that brilliant. He was valedictorian in high school, he got a 5 on all of his achievement tests, he got into Columbia, and he is also a poet and a pianist. He played piano for 10 years, and he has a beautiful voice. He’s an excellent mathematician. He’s always been an excellent writer, and when he went to Israel he started writing piyyutim. He loves to read. Later, when he came out, he said to me, ‘I don’t understand how you didn’t know that I’m gay sooner. I hate sports and I love musicals.’

“The reason he came out then was that the brother ahead of him was about to get engaged, and he wanted to adjust our expectations. He has wisdom beyond his years.”

Avi first came out to one of his brothers when he was about 12. “He told his brother that he thought he was gay, and the brother said lots of kids your age think that, but they grow out of it, so don’t worry about it.” That’s the kind of well-meaning but devastating answer that demolishes so many kids, because it implies that being gay is something that of course you should grow out of. Later, when he was in Israel after high school, he came out to another young man who his gaydar told him — correctly — also was gay.

Then he told his parents. He did it when he was 16, at Thanksgiving, “which is a thing, coming out at Thanksgiving,” Bluma said; the whole family is home, so it can be done all at once. He told a brother first, and then either Avi or the brother told their parents. Bluma doesn’t remember who it was; the family is so close that in a way it didn’t matter who said it. When she first heard, “I thought for maybe 10 seconds that it was a prank — my kids love to pull pranks — but that’s not funny.

Jeannie and Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood have been parent retreat mainstays.

“My husband was kind of in shock; he had some suspicion. I’d had none. But I stood up, and went to hug him, and I said ‘You are exactly the same person today that you were before.’ I am very grateful that God put those words in my head.

“I was tolerant of it already, but then I believed that people were gay, that they couldn’t change it, but somehow they could overcome it, and that God forbids actions, not people.

“I had a college roommate who is gay, so from the time that the kids were very little I wouldn’t allow them to say things like ‘That’s so gay.’ We did have that sensitivity in the house. Maybe it’s also because I am the child of survivors, and maybe because I am a gallery educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. I had thought about a lot of these things already.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. “I spent the next few weeks crying, and so did my husband,” Bluma said. “I have been told that he asked a brother ‘Do you think Ima will ever stop crying? And the brother said ‘You know, that with parents, we did good. Just give them time.

“But when there was some mention of conversion therapy” — that’s when counselors try to persuade people, through the use of such techniques as aversion therapy, to become straight; it’s been illegal to use it on minors in New Jersey since 2013 — “I said ‘You’d have to drive over me first.’”

That anyone might think that Avi chose to be gay is ludicrous, she said. If he were straight, “the world would be his oyster,” she said. “Think of the Orthodox leaders of our local community, the guys who can give a shiur in shul and be a high-quality lawyer or doctor and make oodles of money. Why would he choose to be gay, which would put him outside the community? We understood deeply that this is not a choice. It would be such a stupid choice. The world was waiting for him.”

But Avi is who he is, “and so started the odyssey,” Bluma said. She and her husband, Chaim, and their other children all came to terms with it fairly quickly. But “to the family, and particularly to Chaim and me as parents, this was the front-and-center issue of our lives.

“Who do we feel we can tell? The feeling of shame that we had, the feeling that if anyone finds out we will be part of a different segment of the community. We will no longer be as welcome.

“And do we tell our families?”

Meanwhile, as they agonized, life continued. Avi deferred his acceptance to Columbia and went to Israel; at the end of his second year there he made aliyah. He was in a hesder yeshiva and just finished his IDF service, and now he’s at Hebrew University, working on a degree in mathematics and computers. He lives in Jerusalem and volunteers at the Jerusalem Open House, a nonprofit that works with LBGTQ people.

“In a way, he makes it easy to be gay,” she said. ‘He is clean cut, with no piercing and no blue hair. He says ‘people like me are the white privilege of the gay world, and he is right. It’s a great line, but he’s also right.” (Because this story cannot be as long as it should be to do the whole story full justice, it is important to say here that along with everything else that Bluma is — smart, thoughtful, fierce, and loving — she also is funny. That’s true about her whole family, she says.)

“His decision to live in Israel is partly because it is simply easier to be gay and to be connected to God in Israel,” Bluma said. “He says that he does not call himself Orthodox because the Orthodox community doesn’t call him Orthodox — but he is Orthodox.

“And at the end of the day, he has a relationship with God, and he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.”

Some parents work on a mosaic at the retreat last year.

Last year, Bluma and Chaim went to the Eshel retreat. It was pivotal for them. Until then, “every time we would hear about an Eshel weekend my husband would say no no no,” Bluma said, but last year, when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin spoke at the retreat, he agreed to go. (Rabbi Riskin is a former rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, the founding rabbi of Efrat, and the founding rabbi of Ohr Torah Stone, and a formidable presence in the Orthodox world.)

“Eshel is a place where I can be my whole self,” Bluma said.

It started even before she got to the retreat, which was held at the Pearlstone retreat center in suburban Baltimore. “As we got to the rest stop on the highway, there were other people there with gay children. We happened to meet there, and that’s when I started to feel less alone. Everyone was looking at each other, trying to figure it out.

“When we got there, we opened the door, and we saw parents in our community who we heard had gay children. You open the door — and look who’s here!”

The weekend “emboldened me,” she said. She is more able to confront homophobia, to talk to rabbis and talk about painful things they’ve said, to think about the halachic arguments and argue them with herself as well as with others.

The deepest truth of all is that she loves her son, Bluma said. “I am a religious person. God and I are good. We have been friends for a long time. I will do what I think is correct, and if I am wrong I will take my punishment. But I believe that I have the chance to say to God ‘What do you want me to do? I don’t know what you want me to do, but I did what I thought you wanted me to do.”

As for Eshel, “it has empowered me,” she said. “It has emboldened me to get rid of the shame.

“If Avi gets married we will be there” — that’s absolutely no surprise, they’ve already been to same-sex engagement parties and weddings — “and if he has a child that will be my grandchild.”

She’s also “a mother bear,” Bluma said. That is hard to miss, and so is the love.

Yossi, 31, grew up in Monsey, “part of the yeshivish community,” he said. His family has been there for many generations; “it’s a source of elitist pride, and I am very happy to be unlearning all of that,” he said.

Because his family is not chasidic, he grew up speaking English at home, he said; still, “I was surrounded only by people from that specific subcommunity, with very little interaction with anyone outside it.” He had some limited access to the internet, and some secular education.

He started sensing that he was different — as in not straight — “probably in the fourth or fifth grade, right before puberty, and I was like ‘oh no,’” he said. “I didn’t have the language for it, but I knew that I really liked some of the boys in my class, and that I felt different from other boys.”

He was growing up in a highly gendered culture. “My school was completely all boys, starting from when I was 5 years old,” he said. “And not only the school, but the entire environment. I had zero connection to anyone not exactly like me. I never spoke to anyone of the opposite gender.” He had no sisters either.

His absolutely worse memory was from 10th grade. “For the first time, I had an overwhelming crush on a boy in my class. I’d always had those feelings, but this was the first time that I felt overwhelmingly out of control. I didn’t’ know what I wanted or how to express it, but I knew that it was something that nobody could find out about, and particularly not this boy. He was a good friend of mine at the time, and looking back, I have no idea what he was thinking.

“It lasted for about a year, and it got so bad that I was super depressed. I lost a lot of weight. I was suicidal.

Miryam Kabakov is Eshel’s executive director.

“I don’t think that my parents noticed anything, but eventually there came a point when I knew that if I didn’t talk about it with someone I wouldn’t make it through the year. So I was able to talk to my parents. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but basically I said I feel really strongly attracted to a kid in my class, and I think that I might be gay, and I don’t know what to do.

“And essentially they crushed me with love. They weren’t mean about it. There wasn’t any ‘Ohmygod you are terrible get out of my house. There was no rejection.

“Instead, they said ‘Of course you’re not gay. Look at those people in the parades, who dance around half naked. Don’t worry. This’ll pass. It’s normal. It’s no big deal.’

“This was the most soul-crushing thing. They didn’t reject me — but in some ways it would have been better. It would have been ‘This is who I am, and this is my story.’ But here I was so confused. They were telling me essentially that everything I know about me can’t be true. But now what?

“And I also spoke to my rebbe, and he had a similar response. He asked me if I quote unquote did anything. I was like ‘No! No! Never!’ So here I was, my soul was crushed, I am suicidal, but I didn’t touch anyone.

“Basically they were saying that I was a wonderful and amazing person, so I couldn’t be any of these horrible things. Everything will be fine. But they were saying that the things you are telling me — if they are true, then you are a horrible person. So they cannot be true.’”

The story got worse. “They ended up throwing the other boy out of the school. I spoke to my rebbe about it, and he said ‘Okay blahblahblah you have to go home and you can’t come back until we figure out what to do about it. And then a week later they said you can come back — and he was gone.”

That sounds implausible until you understand more about the situation. Yossi was smart, popular, good at sports, and from an old family. The other boy wasn’t as smart or as athletic, he was new to the school, and his family didn’t have the same yichus. The choice was clear. And it was devastating. “That was the lowest point of my life,” Yossi said.

He went to Israel, as everyone assumed he would, and when he got back he got married and had two children. “I wasn’t out even to myself,” he said. “I did not think of myself as queer in any way.

“When I was shidduch dating, I was in complete denial about being queer, and at the same time I kept having a super crush on my roommate. Never once did it cross my mind that maybe those things were related to each other.

A vocabulary break — Yossi refers to himself as queer and pansexual rather than the more restrictive gay because, he said, “that means that I can be sexually and romantically attracted to people no matter what their gender — male, female, nonbinary, trans, cis. It’s just not relevant.”

When they got married, Yossi was 24 and his wife was 21.

It’s entirely necessary to be married in the yeshivish world, he said. “I couldn’t have said no. There is no choice. If you are not married, there just is no place in that world for you. You are irrelevant.

“If you are not married, you are completely out of place. There is no space for them. There is nothing. Where do you sit at a wedding? Not with the couples. Not with the children. Not with the teenagers. There is literally no place for you.”

So Yossi married, and “we have a wonderful happy life. I am not gay. Things could work. We have a kid, and then my ex wants another kid, and eventually the rabbi says it is time, and then she is pregnant with another child.

“Life is tough. I have two little kids. And then a switch flips in my head. It was Oh! I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to be Orthodox. I actually can make a life that is different from the one carved out for me. I don’t have to do this.”

So how much of this is a reaction to his sexuality having been suppressed, and how much of it is that Yossi also has realized that he is an atheist? “It is hard for me to tease out Orthodoxy and gayness,” he said. But “I no longer believed. In some sense, I never believed. I didn’t want any more kids. And I felt like I was on a train, speeding down a track, completely outside my control. I thought that if I don’t get out of the train now, I will be 50, with 10 kids. I don’t want it. I need to just get off.

“And then about a month after that, I realized ‘Oh, you know something? I’m not straight after all.’

“And once I was able to recognize that, that I did not have to be part of this world any more, that I could just be me, that it clicked, and all the feeling of disconnect stopped. It was an amazing feeling.”

That was four years ago, Yossi said; eventually he and his wife divorced, and he moved out of Monsey. He is in school and he works; he’s always been good at computers. “I got a lot of social power in school because if you are a boy and you are super logical then you are good at gemara, and that is a thing. That gave me extra power.” It also set him up well for a career harnessing that logic.

He’s very active at Footsteps in Rockland County, and in Eshel. “Eshel was home for me. It was completely strange — the concept of Orthodoxy and queerness mixed together was entirely foreign — but still it was home. I remember going to my first ever Eshel thing, and I was like whaaat? Orthodox Jews who are queer? Other people like me? Whaaat? It was completely mind-blowing and very comforting.”

Although he is no longer part of the Orthodox world in some ways, in other ways of course he still is, and probably always will be. His parents and his children are there. “I don’t want to lose them,” he said. “I try to maintain the relationships. My kids are growing up Orthodox the same way I did, and I have to confront it and to manage it.”

If there had been an Eshel parents’ retreat that his parents had known about when he was coming out — and if they would have been willing to go to it — his life, and therefore his parents’ lives, might have been different, Yossi said. But it’s too late for that now.

There is another reason for Yossi’s continuing to be active at Eshel. “I want to make it easier for people who want to be Orthodox. Personally I have some problems with it, but I know that other people want to be part of it. So being part of Eshel makes me feel like I am giving back. That I am using the pain and hardship I went through to move the needle in some small way for the next generation. That carries a lot of personal meaning for me.

“So this is my story. It is not terrible. My parents didn’t throw me out of the house. They didn’t scream at me. I spent last Shabbes with them. On the surface level everything is fine, but there is an underlying distance that I think always will be there, and I don’t think I ever will be able to recover from.”

Eshel, on the other hand, like Footsteps and JQY — Jewish Queer Youth — “helped me. I don’t think I would have been able to do this otherwise. The only way I was able to get the confidence and the skills I needed to become who I am today was with them.

“To this day, most of my friends are from those circles. I am still a work in progress. I am trying to branch out, but it’s hard. But things definitely have gotten better since I was the 10th grade kid who was starving himself and making plans to commit suicide.”


What: The Eshel parents’ Shabbat retreat; this year, it’s called “Inside Out: Inside our families, Outside in our communities.” It’s for the Orthodox parents of LGBTQ children, as well as other adult relatives.

Where: At the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland

When: The weekend of December 6 to 8

For more information and to register: Go to eshel-2019-parents-retreat, email Eshel’s executive director, Miryam Kabakov, at miryam@eshelonline.org, or call her at 724-374-3501 or 917-553-3029.

And also: Miryam says: “This is a weekend with Orthodox parents who give and get support for having an LGBTQ child. There will be sessions, learning, and sharing, in a confidential setting and in a shomer Shabbos environment. Kashrut will be strictly observed.”

And even more: The retreat for LGBTQ kids of Orthodox parents is set for January 17-19, 2020 at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Canaan, Connecticut.

 

 

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