It can be hard to be different from everyone around you, particularly when there might be a stigma associated with the difference.
It’s true that everyone is a little different from everyone else to some extent, and everyone is struggling with something. But some issues certainly can be more all-consuming or isolating than others.
And it can be hard to watch your child struggle, particularly when the difference they are struggling with sets them apart from family members. And it can be painful to realize that the typical future you had envisioned for your child is not likely to happen.
And it can be especially difficult when some of your child’s choices might conflict with family values or religious beliefs. That situation easily could lead to family discord.
“Inspired by Ilona, Embracing All Differences” is a series of panel discussions designed to help. The discussions are intended to offer hope to families and individuals struggling with these types of situations and to help communities understand what they can do to provide a venue for these important conversations. Their goal is to help everyone feel less alone and to provide support, guidance, and hope.
Ilona Bravman of Fair Lawn was vibrant and very bright. She was a force. She did everything with joy and determination and inspired those around her. She also was physically disabled; she suffered from spinal muscular atrophy and died in 2021, when she was 28 years old. “Ilona taught us to focus on strengths and to appreciate our children no matter what,” her mother, Nancy Fish Bravman, said. As the family sat shiva, many people talked about how Ilona had inspired them to see abilities rather than just disabilities. Some said she set an example of how to live with adversity, others said she had inspired their career choices.
At the shiva, Rabbi Jeremy Donath of Fair Lawn’s Congregation Darchei Noam suggested that the family use their experience to help other families. Ms. Bravman and her husband, Larry Bravman, decided to sponsor the “Inspired by Ilona” series in memory of their daughter. “Ilona had a very meaningful life, she taught those around her so much,” Ms. Bravman said. “This series enables Ilona’s life to continue to have meaning and allows people to continue learning.” The first discussion took place last winter and focused on disabilities.
The next panel, the first of a two-part series on “Cherishing and Protecting Relationships When Family Members are on a Different Path,” will focus on supporting loved ones who identify as LGBTQ+. Rebbetzin Adeena Penner and Rabbi Menachem Penner of Long Island and their son, Gedalia Penner-Robinson of Philadelphia, will speak at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on October 31. (See box). They will tell their family’s story to give hope to others in similar situations.
Rebbetzin Penner is the director of Kesher Families, an organization created to allow Orthodox parents the opportunity to speak with other Orthodox parents about having an LGBTQ+ family member, and Rabbi Penner is the dean of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Together, they founded Kesher Families, whose goal is to “help families stay connected to each other — parent to child, sibling to sibling, and grandparent to grandchild — by providing support and guidance for family members of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the Orthodox Jewish community,” according to the group’s website, www.kesherfamilies.org. Kesher Families also uses the “collective wisdom gleaned from serving this population to educate professionals who interact with the Orthodox LGBTQ+ population.”
Their son, Mr. Penner-Robinson, is a cantorial student at the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an LGBTQ+ advocate within the Orthodox Jewish world. Together the three are a valued resource for many in the Jewish community who are navigating similar personal and family challenges.
Mr. Penner-Robinson told his parents that he was gay when he was 15. That was about 12 years ago. Rabbi Penner was shocked. Rebbetzin Penner had had some suspicions over the years, but that didn’t make Gedalia’s revelation any easier for her to hear or accept.
They asked around at the time and heard that conversion therapy – therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation — was the way to go. Gedalia was willing to try it, and he worked hard to change. Of course, if the Penners could do it over, they would not go that route. It since has become clear that this type of therapy doesn’t work and it has been outlawed in most of the United States; New Jersey did so in 2013. “It turns out that there is not much you can do to change someone’s sexual orientation,” Rebbetzin Penner said on a webinar a few months ago.
A few years later, after he had finished high school and spent time learning in a yeshiva in Israel, Mr. Penner-Robinson came to terms with the fact that he would have a different type of future than the one he had imagined for himself. At that point, he was convinced he would marry a man and do his best to remain part of the Jewish community. And ultimately that’s what he did. While he now feels more comfortable in the Conservative world than in the Orthodox world in which he grew up, he is very involved in the Conservative community .
Of course, that was a difficult time for his parents. “But when you love your child, you figure out how to make it work,” Rabbi Penner said on the webinar a few months ago. Now 27 and married to a man, Caleb Robinson, Mr. Penner-Robinson continues to have a relationship with his parents. “The relationship isn’t perfect, because we stumble over each other,” Rabbi Penner explained on the webinar. “It’s a dynamic relationship, but it’s one where both sides are committed to figuring out how to make it work.”
The three will discuss their personal experience and how they were able to maintain their relationship. “This scenario is much more common than people assume,” Rebbetzin Penner said. The Penners have spoken at shuls, rabbinic conferences, and at venues in an effort to give listeners the benefit of their experience. And they founded Kesher Families to ensure that other families have access to support and guidance. The organization “envisions a future where our LGBTQ+ family members can remain a treasured part of our families and communities, and stay connected to Hashem.”
Mr. Penner-Robinson spoke with Rabbi Penner on David Bashevkin’s 18Forty podcast – a series that explores Jewish thought and ideas and addresses contemporary issues openly and honestly — and has spoken on panels at JCCs and other organizations. In addition to telling his story, he will talk about steps the Orthodox community can take to welcome people who “identify as LGBTQ+,” as the flier advertising the panel says.
And while the content of the program is geared to families with LGBTQ+ members, the underlying themes — about maintaining relationships even when, or perhaps especially when, life does not proceed as planned — certainly are relevant for anyone raising children today.
Who: Rebbetzin Adeena Penner, Gedalia Penner-Robinson and Rabbi Menachem Penner
What: Will talk about Supporting Loved Ones Who Identify as LGBTQ+
When: On Monday, October 31, at 8 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn/ Livestream available at inspiredbyilona.com
For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org