Sha’ar Communities, the Bergen County-based post-denominational community led by Rabbi Adina Lewittes, now is offering a group for parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children. Very soon, it will offer a group for those parents’ teenage children as well.
“There is no formal Jewish communal space here in northern New Jersey – or anywhere else in New Jersey – for families raising Jewish LBGTQ teens, where they can enjoy a sense of fellowship and have the opportunity to talk together, to support one another, or just to be present to each other,” Rabbi Lewittes said.
Times have changed, and societal assumptions about the LBGTQ community have changed too, she said. Although it used to be mortifying and guilt-inducing to realize that you were born gay, that those stirrings you felt were not the ones you were expected to feel, that is no longer true. Although it is still complicated, certainly, public acceptance of same-sex relationships, as evidenced by the legislation allowing same-sex marriage across most of the country, is on the rise.
Still, parents feel the need to learn how to navigate this new terrain, and Jewish parents wants to know how to do it Jewishly.
“One of our top goals is to communicate that the Jewish community is big enough, diverse enough, and inclusive enough for LBGTQ families to feel at home; for them to feel the affirmative embrace of the community,” Rabbi Lewittes said.
“And there has been a lot of misunderstanding, even on the part of some of these families. A lot of them aren’t aware of the fact that there has been so much movement in the Jewish community.
“We feel very strongly that we have nothing to hide, or even to wrestle with, from a Jewish point of view.
“There are issues that parents obviously have to negotiate. They had assumptions about what their child’s future would look like; we help families process what the future might be within the Jewish community and within the Jewish family, working with our set of Jewish values and traditions.”
So far, the group, which has met twice since it first began in January, has drawn people from five families. “I think that it will grow as more people hear about it and they get a sense of the street cred of the people involved,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “We keep hearing about lots of kids who are out in Jewish families. The need will only grow.”
Jewish Family Service of Bergen County provides the group with a social worker, “in case anything comes up that is beyond the scope of our training – and that has happened,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “And it’s also a nice expression of collaboration from our local agencies.”
Still, the group is more an affinity than a support group, she said. “Right from the outset, we made it clear that we are not here to wring our hands or beat our breasts over the identities that our children have claimed,” she said. “We are here to offer an affirming, positive, inclusive message.
“Having said that, it is also true that there are real challenges that families with LBGTQ teens face. We want to be there to share experiences with them – best practices, if you will – things that have worked in some families.
The parents in the support group so far have chosen to remain anonymous – the understanding they find in the group is not always mirrored in the outside world. One mother, who has two straight daughters, a lesbian daughter, and a gay son, talked about how she has to come out as a parent whenever she talks honestly about her children. “It is very challenging,” she said. “Sometimes we’re afraid to say it, because we don’t know what the reaction will be.
“And sometimes I don’t want to say it because it’s really my child’s business, not mine. It’s not mine to share. It’s hard to know where that line is.”
Even at the support group, the ease that parents feel with their children’s identities runs a gamut. “There are varying degrees of comfort,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “Some parents struggle more.
“Even though our message is clear and consistent – this is an effort by one Jewish community to reach out and offer a loving embrace to parents who are walking this road – this is not to say that there is no diversity in the perspective of each family, and in the parents’ feelings.”
One thing that unites the families, though, is that all are Jewish, even though there is a range in their levels of observance. “I went to a PFLAG meeting,” the mother said. (PFLAG – the initials stand for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – is a nationwide nonsectarian support group.) “There was something missing there – something that is very present in a room filled with parents with shared cultural assumptions, language, and references. It’s just very different.”
“We had a very interesting conversation last time – one of the parents said that the fact that my child is gay doesn’t mean that I have any lower expectations about Jewish continuity,” Rabbi Lewittes said.
“The worry is how do you balance ‘Honey, I just want you to be happy’ with ‘When you find someone, he’d better be Jewish.’ The parents’ struggles are not as different as those of other Jewish parents’, but the pool of potential partners is smaller.
“We talk about how important it is to maintain your expectations of your child; to give the message that their continued Jewish presence is vital to the community.”
Rabbi Lewittes also teaches the group about the Jewish texts that have led to the community’s “historic aversion to homosexuality, and how they have been negotiated.” There are several contemporary teshuvot that “argue that the sexual relationships that were prevalent in those times” – the times the foundational texts were written – ” were very different from the long-term loving relationships we see people aspire to today. Those relationships were characterized as being more about sex and power than about love.” As halachah on other issues has changed along with human understanding, so too can the halacha here, she suggested. “The rabbis of the rabbinic period were so much more courageous as halachic decisors than people tend to be today.
“There is now a tendency for halachic authorities to shrug their shoulders and say that there is nothing they can do. That is a position that is foreign to the halachic process.”
Rabbi Lewittes, who is lesbian, is at the group as a facilitator, not a participant. Her wife, Andy Lewittes, who is trained as a social worker, facilitates as well. The couple is well positioned to help parents see a joyous future for their children.
“To the extent that I can, I model life as a gay women, firmly rooted in Jewish practice, Jewish tradition, and Jewish values, raising a family in a same-sex marriage and a richly Jewish home, and having the privilege of being a leader in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “I hope that I can help families see a promising future, and a really hopeful one, filled with as many possibilities as anyone else has for a Jewish life.”
Partnering with the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, Sha’ar is planning the Purim Unmasquerade Ball, a place where LBGTQ kids and their friends can feel comfortable removing their masks. It will be hosted at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly.
The next parents’ meeting is set for March 25. Confidentiality is assured. For more information about either event, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call JoAnne Forman at (201) 213-9569.