It’s not easy being gay in the Orthodox community.
And it’s not much easier being a parent whose child is gay in that community.
Next weekend, Eshel, an organization for Orthodox gays, is holding its second annual retreat for Orthodox parents with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender children.
“It was amazing,” said “Zahava,” the pseudonym for an Orthodox woman from Teaneck, who attended last year’s conference. One of her daughters, now in her 20s, is lesbian.
“Even though she is out and therefore I am out, my closest friends all know, but there’s still kind of an awkwardness,” she said. “This was an entire group of people who all shared this in common. I didn’t have to explain anything.
“It was also a very good feeling to know that maybe I could model for people a little bit what it’s like to be accepting of the situation, of having a gay child. There were a lot of people who were fighting it, who were angry or upset or sad and just didn’t know how to deal with it. For some of these people, who were just really struggling with the idea, hopefully it helped them to realize other people had been in the same situation,” she said.
“Some of these families felt really really alone, because no one in their community would talk about it.”
Within parts of the Orthodox community, attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing in recent years.
“From year to year you see the difference,” Zahava said.
In 2001, the film “Trembling Before G-d” brought the stories of gay Orthodox Jews to a wide audience. In 2004, Rabbi Steven Greenberg published his book “Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.” Rabbi Greenberg is one of Eshel’s co-directors.
Zahava says that the 2010 release of the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” was significant.
The statement, initiated by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgott of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, mandated an “obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.”
“That was tremendous,” Zahava said.
While not departing from the traditional halachic view that sees “all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited,” the statement called for gay Jews and their children to be welcomed by Orthodox synagogues.
Rabbi Yosef Adler of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael is the only other local congregational rabbi to sign the statement.
Earlier this month, an unexpectedly large crowd turned out at Rinat Yisrael to see and discuss two short films. Both were on controversial topics; one was about a gay yeshiva student. The rabbi and a social worker led the discussion that followed the screening.
Zahava said her daughter always knew she was gay, but she wasn’t out when she was a student at Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus.
“I think she felt completely comfortable with herself. I don’t think she felt embarrassed or ashamed. On the other hand I think she felt she had a secret. It was not something most people she knew would feel comfortable with, particularly the extended family.”
Now, “she’s out to all of her friends and they completely accept her. She doesn’t live in close walking distance to a shul. Most Shabboses she spends with this chevre” – group – “of six or seven observant lesbians.”
And her Orthodox siblings accept her too.
“I’m really happy about that,” Zahava said. “I just think this generation is not as homophobic as previous generations. They just get it. None of them imagine that this is a choice on her part. They just get that this is how she was born, and given that fact, her choices are hopefully understandable.
“I’m in Teaneck, a community with modern sensibilities. I can’t speak for Monsey or Brooklyn.
“In Teaneck, people really get this is not a choice anyone is making, that people who are gay deserve happiness too, and that it’s better to have them within our community than to push them out,” she said.
“I know a couple of people in my generation who are gay. One came out and left the community and is now not observant at all. The other one is closeted. That’s the choice most people felt they had to make until 10 years ago or so.
“I really think that when people talk about halachic problems with homosexuality, there’s a lot of homophobia there. They’re treating it so differently than any other violation. They’re not willing to entertain the thought that there are ways around things. There are people who eat dairy in non-kosher restaurants. There are people who when their pet is sick on Shabbos they drive to the vet. People make their own choices on individual things and we don’t say ‘Oh my God! What’s wrong with you?’
“People are way more judgmental about homosexuality, and it’s way out of proportion. But it’s less than it used to be, as society in general moves toward acceptance,” she said.
“Hanna” – also a pseudonym – is the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi in Teaneck. She is very involved with Eshel, which has retreats for the gay community as well as for their parents.
“It’s been a really meaningful source of support and community for me,” she said.
She didn’t invite her parents to attend the parents’ retreat.
“I don’t think it would be something that would be good at this time,” she said. He’s incredibly loving and accepting towards me in ways I didn’t anticipate. He’s been a really wonderful support for me.”
Hannah is in her early 30s, and went through the standard Orthodox education of yeshiva day school, high school, and a year in Israel.
It was in Israel that she realized she was attracted to women.
“I thought I was still attracted to men, so I dated men for a long time,” she said. “I thought if I could choose to be with a man, why make myself miserable? Once I allowed myself to date women, I realized this is who I am. This feels right for me.”
For Hannah, accepting herself as gay hasn’t met abandoning Orthodoxy.
“I take my observance very seriously,” she said. “I definitely feel most comfortable in Orthodox environments. I think I’ve been able to develop more flexibility in my thinking, just by way of growing older and stronger and wiser. I would rather be accepted as gay in the Orthodox community than be struggling to find my religious identity in a gay community that’s not observant.
“The best of all worlds is Eshel, but Eshel only meets a few times a year.”
Hanna lives in Boston, where she found “a nice community of frum people I can be myself around, a nice circle of friends I can be out to. I didn’t anticipate that.
“I do want to date for marriage. I definitely want to settle down with a partner. I’m a big proponent of gay marriage. It’s hard for me to envision having a gay wedding, just because I know how opposed my father is to it; I can’t imagine having such a simcha without my father there.
“The Chabad community I’m part of is very welcome. I even brought the woman I was dating at the time. It was pretty understood that we were a couple, though it was never really spelled out.
“I know I’m very welcome there, as a person and a Jew. I’ve been able to give divrei Torah and teach the Hebrew course. The rabbi and rebbetzin know. I think they know,” she said.
Does she have a message she would like to send to the Orthodox Jews back home?
“Open your doors to every Jew,” she said. “To every person. Even to people who are different. Don’t be afraid. Just be warm and welcoming,” she said.
“We’re just people. We’re Jews who care just as much about Shabbos and kashrus and everything.
“We want to be part of the community.”