Sometimes things — social attitudes, cultural assumptions, shared understandings of the world — seem entirely unchangeable, rock-hard and forever.
And then, pfft, they change.
Until fairly recently, despite the effects of social activism in the 1960s and 1970s, parents of gay, lesbian, or bisexual children had to face the gawks and shudders of their neighbors, as well as their own fears for their children’s happiness. Their children, meanwhile, often lived hemmed in by the fear of coming out to their parents, only to be scorned, pitied, or rejected by them.
Now, though, the world has changed; the general culture shares an understanding of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and, increasingly, transgendered people (whose situation does not entirely parallel the others) as regular people, to be defined as who they are, not by whom they love.
What is true in the outside world is true in the Jewish one as well. Although the degree of acceptance varies by denomination, even in the Orthodox world, where prohibitions against a basic sex act make it difficult for LGBTQ Jews to find the same welcome they find elsewhere, certainly the institutionalized sniggering has ended.
(LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Q is for queer, a word that has gone from hurled insult to joyfully accepted identity.)
In this climate, an affinity group — not a support group, which implies that there is a problem that demands help — for Jewish parents of LGBTQ kids and young adults makes sense. There is much to share.
Starting two years ago, Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities began to offer those groups — one for parents that met regularly, and one for teens that met less often — and they flourished.
Given their success, the local federation — the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — decided to fund, and the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, which received the allocation, took on the management, of an affinity group for parents of LGBTQ children, and another group for those high-school-age children.
The initiative, which does not have a name, will “focus around Jewish holidays and Jewish connections,” the JFS’s executive director, Susan Greenbaum, said. “That scheduling will allow us to make explicit the richness and meaning and embrace of Jewish tradition for all Jews of all backgrounds,” Rabbi Lewittes added.
“The group for parents started with a half-dozen families, and since then the number of families who have kids coming in is growing day by day,” Rabbi Lewittes said, and so is the Jewish community’s “ability to create an affirming and safe space.”
The parents’ group included a social worker, provided by JFS. Yes, it is not a support group, “and many families do not feel any need for social services, but at the same time I anticipated — and rightfully so — that some parents would need help in processing the change in their families.” They sometimes need advice in dealing with siblings. “Issues arise,” she said.
Programming for teens began with the Purim Un-Masquerade Ball, where participants — LGBTQ kids and their allies — were able to shed their costumes and go as they really were, with the faces behind their daily masks for once fully visible.
“One of the most important things I learned when I trained as a rabbi, 30 years ago, was to know your own skills and weaknesses,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “JFS provided us with a partner, and we all are part of the same team.”
“The value and effects of this new program also will be turned outward to the Jewish community,” she continued. “How can synagogues, day schools, JCCs, and other community institutions learn to be more welcoming and inclusive? Part of the importance of this group is to be able to distill and show the rest of the community what this population’s needs and gifts are, and how better to integrate them into the community thoughtfully, generously, and sensitively.”
The rapid social changes of the last decade mean that “things will get both more easy and more complicated,” she said. As more LGBTQ Jews stay within the Jewish world, there will be a growing need to learn how to mark their lifecycle events and integrate them fully into the community.
Cameron Schroeder, who is just about to turn 18 and go off to study fine arts at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., still was a Tenafly High School student when she went to the Un-Masquerade Ball last year. “I went with my partner at the time,” she said. “It was a fun time. I think it’s really great to be in a space with folks who aren’t just part of the queer community but also part of the Jewish community.
“There is definitely something to be said being in the general queer community, but you have a better sense of community when you are with someone you can connect with in more than one way. So it’s better if it’s your faith group as well as your sexuality or gender identity. They can understand all of your experiences.”
Without the group for Jewish teens — which she learned about through her mother, who went to the group for parents of LGBTQ Jewish kids and is involved in Sha’ar — “I would have just been in the queer community, not the Jewish community,” Cameron said. But instead, the group will have a longer-lasting impact.
“I am planning on joining my college’s Hillel,” Cameron said. “I am excited about it.”
Jewish Family Service, for its part, offers many support groups. It developed some of them itself; others either were created by people outside the agency or were collaborative efforts from the start. Those collaborative programs include Holding Hands, a peer-led group, led by Elana Prezant, which provides a safe place for parents who have suffered the death of a child, and Nechama Comfort, built and led by Reva Judas, which gives comfort to the family of still-born children.
They also include JACS, for Jewish drug addicts and alcoholics, and groups for the victims of domestic abuse, people undergoing separation and divorce, and the children of Holocaust survivors. JFS offers a group for Israeli women and one called Establishing Freedom that is aimed at the financially perplexed. It also has what Ms. Greenbaum calls a “loose relationship” with Refa’enu, the local peer-led support group for people with mood disorders.
Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s managing director of community impact and planning, oversees its allocation process. She is glad to have the opportunity to fund the LGBTQ initiative. “In a changing environment, our community felt that we should be investing in programs that align with and mirror the diversity of our community,” she said.
Rabbi Lewittes is excited about the partnership with JFS. “There may be other opportunities that grow out of this partnership, other chances for us to partner with them,” she said. Most of those chances grow out of what Sha’ar calls “Elyse’s Gate of Wholeness.” It is named after Elyse Jacobson, who was the sister of Rabbi Lewittes’ wife, Andy Lewittes. Ms. Jacobson died of breast cancer in 2007; through that part of her community and her rabbinate, Rabbi Lewittes offers programs like “what we call our Mourning Walk,” she said. “People in whatever stage of mourning they are in come for a walk on the Palisades, in Tallman State Park in Rockland County.” The walk is informal, a chance to be in nature, silent or talking, free to laugh, cry, despair, remember, and hope.
Through another program, members of the Gate of Wholeness create a chemotherapy siddur. “It’s an opportunity for family and friends of cancer patients to come together to create a personalized compendium of prayers and poetry that a person can take with them for treatment,” Rabbi Lewittes said.
“Our work dovetails so well,” Ms. Greenbaum said. “It’s an opportunity for ritual creativity and spiritual fellowship,” Rabbi Lewittes added.
The local Jewish community is spectacularly diverse, the women agreed. The work is so important, they said, because “It is vitally important that we find a way of transmitting Jewish values that are relevant to people’s lives, so that they see their own personal stories as part of the larger narrative of the Jewish community.” And it is important that organizations work together because they can share resources and knowledge. And beyond those practical truths, as Ms. Greenbaum put it, “We all were making Shabbes separately.
“It is essential to make Shabbes together.”
The new JFS-supported affinity groups will meet around Sukkot. The group for parents is set for October 1, and the teens will meet on October 4. For more information, including the not-yet-confirmed time and place, call (201) 837-9090, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.jfsbergen.org.