‘They just want to be regular people’

‘They just want to be regular people’

Orthodox parents of LGBT children talk about their annual Eshel retreat

About half of the parents at the Eshel retreat fit into this group photograph.
About half of the parents at the Eshel retreat fit into this group photograph.

When you live in a close-knit community, you benefit from its warmth and support; you share its values and vocabulary and world-view; you are guided by its rules and guarded by its vigilance; you are nourished by its love.

But sometimes it’s hard to be different, particularly if you are different in some way that you cannot help, and if you are different in a way that goes against deeply ingrained beliefs, it’s particularly hard.

Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you need another community, one that understands you and understands both your background and your backstory.

Sometimes, if you are the Orthodox parent of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender child, you need the annual Eshel parent retreat. A place where you can let down your guard, just for a bit, before you return to your own world.

Eshel is a nationwide organization dedicated to supporting Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families; its annual East Coast parents retreat, held last week, brings together parents from across the Orthodox world, from modern to charedi. (See box for more information on how to reach Eshel, and on the local support group it is planning to create.)

This year, as they have for the last six years, Mark and Ellen Schwartz of Englewood went to the retreat. It’s always held over a weekend, including Shabbat, so participants have to drive there on Friday morning. This year, it was complicated by the snowstorm that snarled traffic and fractured nerves the day before; some parents who had planned to go found that they were too wiped out by their unexpected multi-hour trips back home to go.

Still, Mr. Schwartz said, “This seemed to us to be by far the biggest retreat, and one of the reasons was because Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was there. He was a riveting speaker.”

Rabbi Riskin is the modern Orthodox larger-than-life leader who left his influential pulpit at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — which he founded — to move to Efrat, in the West Bank, where he became chief rabbi and founded the network of schools called Ohr Torah Stone. (He recently retired as chancellor there; the next chancellor is Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who made aliyah from Teaneck to take that job.)

“He’s an iconoclast, and he doesn’t mind ruffling feathers,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Not the feathers of the rabbinate in Israel, and not of their counterparts in the RCA,” the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. “He came out very strongly in favor of the inclusion of our LGBT children in the community.

“He described the unconditional love that we have to feel for our children, and that we have to make space for them.

“Rabbi Riskin is fearless, and he seems to have taken on this issue. It’s not because any of his children are LGBT, but I think it’s because he’s seen what so many other parents and their children go through.”

Mr. Schwartz has seen some changes in the people who come to the retreat. “There certainly are more charedi people there than usual,” he said.

“In the first year or two, it was by and large a modern Orthodox crowd, with a smattering of charedi and yeshivish people. I have to think that it’s much more difficult for them to associate with Eshel.

“One of the first things that Ellen and I did when we came back from the retreat was contact Rabbi Goldin and ask for a meeting” — that’s Shmuel Goldin, who now is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah. “I just don’t know if you can do that, ask to talk to the rabbi about this — in some of the charedi or yeshivish places.”

The response at Ahavath Torah has changed over the years, he said, but he never was tempted to leave, to move to a synagogue that was more responsive to LGBT issues. The Orthodox world is home, he said. “In the first Eshel retreat, someone who very clearly was struggling in his own life asked ‘Why do you want to shove this down the throats of the Orthodox? Why don’t you just go Conservative? They’d welcome you with open arms.’”

But he was not going to do that. Ahavath Torah is home. “My wife’s parents, Evelyn and Herbert Deresiewicz, were members there for more than 40 years. Ellen’s brother had his bar mitzvah there. Ellen and I were married there, our daughter Jamie was named there and grew up there, and our son Daniel had his bar mitzvah there.

“We don’t want to go to another synagogue. This one is ours.”

He also noted another difference in this retreat.

“There seem to be more parents of trans children. We broke into smaller groups, and in one group I would say that out of the 14 or 15 people there, there were only two other people who did not have a trans child. This is a small sample, I know, but I am astonished by how prevalent it is.

These parents, in a shot from earlier retreats, get support from a community that understands them.

“The sense of alienation they experience is so enormous that having a bisexual daughter seems easy now.”

There is a big difference between being L, G, or B and or being T, he said. Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual determines who you love; being transgender is profoundly about who you are.

The retreat has been held six times, so the Schwartzes have been to each one of them. Their impetus for going has changed over the years. At first, they went because they needed the support; now they go because they know they are well positioned to offer support.

Mr. Schwartz is enthusiastic about another Eshel project, the Eshel high school pledge. The pledge is a plea to Orthodox day schools to agree to treat LGBT students with the same respect and dignity that every student deserves, to make Orthodox day school communities inclusive and loving, to ensure that LGBT students at those schools survive their adolescences as relatively unscathed as other students do. It’s also a got a strong anti-bullying component.

So far, local Orthodox high schools have not taken the pledge, but some of them have incorporated some of the inclusive language the pledge recommends.

Miryam Kabakov is Eshel’s executive director. She agrees with Mr. Schwartz that there seem to be more parents of trans children; this is a mirror of what’s happening in the outside world, she said. More people are coming out as transgender.

“We had a couple who were new this year. The kid came out to them three months ago as gay; he came out as trans yesterday.

“At every retreat there are always new people who are in shock and grief and miserable, and then people will keep coming back every year.”

Despite the changes in the outside world and within the community, “we always have the same mission,” she said. “It is to keep families intact, to have parents do no harm, and see that children are not harmed, and to have parents learn to love their children.

“One thing that struck me particularly this year is that the people who showed up have something that separates them from their own community, and that they cannot relate to their communities and their families and their friends because of it.

“So they come here, to this retreat, and even if it’s the first time, they can share so much love, so much support, and they think ‘I can finally breathe.’”

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, who lives in Riverdale, N.Y., and is the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, led Kehillat Kesher of Tenafly and Englewood for seven years, from 2003 to 2010. He also is a longtime participant in the Eshel retreat.

“My son, who now is a senior in high school, at SAR, came out to me and my wife the summer before he was a freshman in high school, and he came out publicly that December,” Rabbi Fox said. “I went to the first retreat just as a parent — it was around Martin Luther King day in 2015. I was just trying to process.

“Since then, I have come back as both a parent and also as a teacher.

“There are people there who have built a pretty deep community. It is often the case that when the kids come out of the closet, the parents go into it. The retreat really is the only setting where people can be fully integrated.

“I thank God that we live where we do and when we do,” Rabbi Fox continued. “I can’t say enough good things about my son’s school in general, and in particular about how they responded when he first came out. It was a non-issue. His friends were great. His teachers were great. He was the first one in the school to come out so publicly.

“I think that my son is a very courageous young man, but I also think that in some communities it is getting easier.”

That’s particularly true in the modern Orthodox community, where people are not insulated from the outside world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin gave the keynote talk this year. Miryam Kabakov, Eshel’s executive director, is at the left; Peninah Gershman and Suzi Fuld, right, chaired the retreat.

“Twenty years ago, the average age of coming out was 35,” Rabbi Fox said. “Ten years ago it was 25. Now it’s closer to 15.” That statistic is a general one, but true for the Orthodox community as well. “That’s great, but it means that there is a whole series of Jewish institutions that never had to deal with the issue, and now they do. High schools, shuls, camps — obviously there always were gay kids, but they didn’t have to confront it in the modern Orthodox or yeshivish worlds. But now students are coming out in their teens, as they discover their sexuality, and the schools and shuls and camps have to deal with it.”

Rabbi Fox has become a resource for LGBT Jews. “After my son came out there were a bunch of kids who weren’t out yet but who were coming to him. Some of the kids were really struggling. Some of them leaned on him, and some leaned on me through him,” he said.

What does he tell them? “I tell them that it gets better,” he said. “And that’s the truth. It does get better. The needle moves very quickly.

“When my son was a freshman, there were seniors at the school who just couldn’t be out, and now when gay kids come into the school it’s just not what defines their identity. Not for them, not for the friends, not for the school.”

How did it change so quickly?

“I don’t know, but I do think that it’s like in the outside world. In every school, and in every community, everyone knows someone who is gay,” Rabbi Fox said.

Acceptance of LGBT people is one thing, but what about the halachic prohibitions?

“I think that most kids who are coming out — and most adults too — don’t think about that first,” Rabbi Fox said. “The first question the community wants to figure out is about Jewish law, but most people just want to live their lives, and for the most part those kinds of questions are way down on their lists. It’s more about how to be honest with themselves and with their parents, and for some adults it’s about how to be honest with their spouses. There are many older adults coming out, people who have been in the closet all their lives, and it causes enormous pain.

“So when they are trying to figure this out, most people aren’t bothered by Vayikra” — that’s the book of Leviticus, which includes the proscription against a man lying with a man as if she was a woman.

“They want to figure out how to live human, integrated, productive lives. They just want to be regular people.”

There is some work being done on the issue, he said, but right now there are more questions than answers. “People are asking the harder questions. In the Orthodox world, you take for granted a set of givens, so how do we operate within that structure?

“I have worked with a number of lesbian couples. How do they observe hilchot niddah?” That’s family purity. “And gay men want to know halachically what type of behavior comes with what kinds of punishment. Are there some things that are less bad than other things?

“There aren’t too many addresses for these kinds of questions.” Eshel is a main address.

Rabbi Fox got involved in the trans community through a conversion he did years ago, he said. “That is even more complicated in just about every way,” he said. “There, the halachic issues are far more complex and confused.” He’s worked with about 50 Orthodox trans Jews. Among the situations he’s confronted was a closeted trans man — he had been born a woman but presented as a man and was known as a man — whose mother had died. He had dealt with his situation until then by showing up in shul late enough never to have to be counted in the minyan, and never accepting any honors. But what should he do about saying kaddish for his mother? And being counted in the shiva minyan?

Later, the man, who is in his 50s, called again, with questions that arose as a result of his mother’s death and his own mortality. “Most of his family relates to him fully as a woman, but he wants to make sure that he is buried as a man. How does he ensure that when his time comes, he is buried with a headstone with his current name?”

“I put him in touch with a funeral chapel for pre-need planning, but this kind of question has nothing to do with halacha. It’s deeply powerful, moving, and painful, and people have no place to go with them. So part of what is so important about Eshel is that it creates an address for these questions.”

There are pitfalls for well-meaning people who try to help without knowing enough. “One of the mistakes that rabbis often make is trying to answer these questions in a vacuum,” Rabbi Fox said. “That’s dangerous if you’ve never encountered a trans person. People sometimes say things that are destructive. The wrong comment can send someone to a very dark place. And often the loudest voices are the most hurtful.”

Rabbi Fox talked about Rabbi Riskin’s talk at the retreat. (Rabbi Riskin does not often give interviews.)

“He was great,” Rabbi Fox said. “He is coming at this with a different kind of understanding. He is almost twice my age and has twice my experience.

“He said that from his time both at Lincoln Square and in Efrat, he understands the need for compassion. Compassion has to be embedded in rabbis’ responses, in terms of both pastoral care and halacha.

“His main theme is that compassion is part of halacha. It’s not as if there’s halacha here, on one side, and compassion there, on the other side.

“No. He said that the system of halacha demands compassion.”

Eshel is online at http://www.eshelonline.org.

The parents’ support group will meet in Teaneck; it will help parents of LGBT children share information and support each other. It will begin in early January. To get details, email newjersey@eshelonline.org

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