‘It’s not about inclusion — it’s about belonging’

‘It’s not about inclusion — it’s about belonging’

Local parents of LGBTQ kids talk about Eshel’s  family-support retreat

Orthodox parents of LGBTQ children gather at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland.
Orthodox parents of LGBTQ children gather at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland.

When their baby is born, most parents have dreams about how that new life will unfold. Those dreams are unrealistic — by definition, because they’re dreams — but they usually involve the glorious mastering of unavoidable conventions on the way to some high-level prize.

If you’re part of a tight community — if, say, you are an Orthodox Jew — your newborn’s dream life will include inclusion in the community, with all the pluses — a lot of love for you — and the minuses — a lot of eyes on you — that it entails.

Most parents don’t assume their children will be gay; some parents adjust to that information easily and lovingly, while others, without stinting on love, don’t know exactly how to adapt to what they think will be a radically different future. (And while all of this is far less true than it used to be, it remains true to a large extent nonetheless.)

All this means that when children come out to their Orthodox parents as gay — no matter when they do it, no matter what their parents had guessed or concluded before that watershed moment — the parents have to do a lot of recalibration. And often that includes a certain amount of vigilance, and that means a certain loss of emotional freedom.

And what all this means is that when Eshel — an organization whose primary goal is working with members of the Orthodox LGBTQ community, but that has a strong secondary goal supporting parents and family members — offers a yearly retreat for parents, that retreat turns into a strong community that provides love, understanding, and acceptance to its members.

The 2024 iteration of the annual retreat, with about 100 parents, was earlier this month, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland.

This year, Eshel — at eshelonline.org —has completed a survey of families and shuls that shows, among other things, what its parents want. It’s called “All You Need Is Love” — it’s easily available at the top of Eshel’s homepage — and the subtitle makes the subtext clear. It’s “Orthodox parents love their LGBTQ+ children but need more … They need their Orthodox community.”

“Eshel stands with the family every step of the way,” the organization’s executive director and co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, said. “The survey shows us that the parents love their children. That’s the least of their worries. There’s a long journey to accepting” their children’s sexual orientation, but “once they have wrapped their brains around what their kid has known for years, but the parents have just found out — there can be a steep learning curve — and once they get peer support, they learn how to fully embrace their child.

“But the next thing — and this is where they need the help — is that the institutions are not stepping up in the ways that the parents are. The parents are on a different, faster track, but they don’t feel comfortable anymore. They don’t see themselves in their shuls. They’re torn up about it.”

That’s because they know that “being gay is not a choice, but being religious is a choice.”

The goal of what Eshel is calling Welcoming Shuls is to help synagogues create an environment where LGBTQ members  feel not tolerated — that’s a cold kind of welcome, where you’re assumed to be an outsider — but “just being there, just like everyone else, knowing that you belong just as you did at your bat mitzvah.

Miryam Kabakov, left, Stefanie Diamond, and Rabbi Menashe East

“We work with synagogues and rabbis, and  create dialogue,” Ms. Kabakov said. “Very often, the shuls have an LGBTQ member in their midst, but they don’t know it.”

At the retreat, that translates into acknowledging that “parents can be in mourning because their child has chosen not to stay within their community. That is where we need more active participation and active thinking from the congregation.” This can be difficult, she said, and often rabbis who want to be more inclusive can be deterred from taking that step because of community opposition. “They feel that they can’t get the things they need to create a vibrant shul if they embrace LGBT people, so it becomes a club for straight folks.

“This is what our survey showed,” she continued. “Parents are deeply upset, and their own faith is shaken. And the kid — the teenager or adult child — and the friends and siblings are looking too, and they can become disillusioned, and if the rabbis aren’t careful, they will lose not only the LGBT person but the others too.”

There are regional differences, Ms. Kabakov said, and she mentioned a session for training allies she did in West Orange, where several families, including some “two-mom families, found acceptance and belonging.”

The retreat this year did something new, based on the survey and Welcoming Shuls, she said. “Instead of having a scholar-in-residence, we had a whole group, representing different stages of life for an Orthodox LGBT person. We had a gay man who is the president of his Orthodox shul, and a woman who has little children and is very active in her community. We had people who have figured out a way to stay within the Orthodox community, be out, and be treated as they would have been treated had they not come out.

“There are not a lot of places like that — but there are more and more. We wanted to give parents hope that their children could remain connected. The theme was ‘Every Step of the Way.’

“This is the 11th year that we’ve had the retreat” — the pandemic canceled a few of them, Ms. Kabakov said. “We had about 30 newcomers, and the rest were returnees.” It’s an ongoing community. “People leave connected to each other, and they stay connected.”

Many of the parents are from New Jersey; they live in the catchment areas of both the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

“Many of the parents are hopeful,” she said. “They have less fear and more trust. They know that we will keep their identities confidential” if that’s what they want, and “while there are still a lot of people in mourning, there also a lot of joy.

“People keep coming to this retreat, even after they  don’t need it. They feel that things have moved on. That they don’t have to come, that they are comfortable again in their Orthodox communities, but they come because they want to make it better for other people, and because it’s their community.”

Parents listen to speakers at Eshel’s family retreat.

Although some parents want confidentiality, others are glad to talk about the Eshel community.

“I am the parents of a gay teenager,” Richard Langer of Teaneck said. His son, Nadiv — who gave permission for his name to be used — “is 18 now, in his first year out of high school. He came out when he was 13, in eighth grade.

“He’s a great kid who happens to be gay.”

He’s now on Kivun, one of Bnei Akiva’s gap-year programs, having a wonderful time, his father reported, and he still identifies as Orthodox. His coming out “did not change our lives, in the community we’re in,” Mr. Langer said. The family belongs to Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, and Nadiv graduated from the Idea School, the now-closed Orthodox project-based learning high school in Tenafly. “Life just continued for him and his family,” which includes two older, married sisters, after he came out,  Mr. Langer said. “He is a great teenager, with all the foibles that come  with being a teenager.”

His children all have grown up accepting as entirely natural the conditions — including gayness and neurodivergency — that made his own generation deeply uncomfortable, he said, and he thinks that the removal of stigma comes to some extent from the surrounding culture and is generational. “When I was a kid in school, we were stupid teenagers who just didn’t want to deal with anyone different,” he said. “I think that we all have done a good job in teaching our kids not to be uncomfortable with people who are different.”

“We live in a bit of a bubble in Teaneck, and I’m the executive director of the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, so I work in a bit of a bubble too.” From what he’s seen and learning, he thinks that “all forms of queer identity are being embraced by Orthodox Jews. It’s up to the Orthodox community whether we want to embrace them back.”

Stefanie Diamond of Teaneck is a photographer. The oldest of her three daughters, Bari, “is almost 21 now; she came out to us when she was 15.” This was her third parent retreat — she would have gone to more had covid not canceled them.

“I love the retreats,” Ms. Diamond said. “It’s such a special weekend. There is a saying that when a child comes out of the closet, a parent goes in. That’s not always the case, and it wasn’t completely my experience, but just as coming out can be so freeing for our queer kids, parents need a space where they can be unapologetically out, and that space is the parents retreat.

“The parents at the retreat are all different from each other, but they all leave their lives — they’re doctors, lawyers, educators, therapists, but they’re all parents — to be there,” she continued. “They’re all observant, but at different levels of observance and different levels of engagement, from charedi through modern Orthodox. The retreat gives us the space to discuss everything.

Two parents at the retreat smile together

“Being parents of an LGBTQ kid or adult is just one piece of our role as parents, but for these four days we can really focus on this role. We can talk about being better advocates for our kids.”

And at this year’s retreat, with its focus on Orthodox LGBTQ role models, “the rabbis, teachers, community leaders showed by their example that there can be —there is — a place within Orthodoxy for our kids. They can have a future as observant Jews.”

It’s easier for anyone, child or adult, to feel comfortable when you don’t have to hide and you don’t think you’re alone. Bari “didn’t see herself reflected in anyone else at school — not at Yeshivat Noam, and not at Frisch,” Ms. Diamond said. “Of course, she was not alone. There were many many many others. But she didn’t know that. It wasn’t talked about.”

Ms. Diamond and her husband, Matt, have been members of Congregation Shaare Tefillah, an Orthodox shul in Teaneck, for 21 years, but for the past five years Ms. Diamond has been a member of Congregation Beth Sholom, also in Teaneck but Conservative, and she goes there almost every week. “It’s a completely welcoming space, and I needed to be in a space where my daughter feels comfortable and equal, and where I know that an engagement or wedding would be fully celebrated,” she said.

At college, where she is a sophomore, “my daughter is still observant, and she’s very happy. She goes to Chabad on campus, and she also goes to the egalitarian minyan, where she reads Torah and wears a tallis.

“Someone said to me recently, ‘Oh, your daughter is queer, so she’s not shomer Shabbat.’ That’s so hurtful. It’s not the case for her and for so many others. Many of our kids live their whole lives being told that they have to choose. They do not.

“Kids — and I keep calling her a kid but she’s not — often feel like they’re tolerated, but they need to be more than tolerated. They need to be fully celebrated. They need to belong. And that’s what Eshel does. It works to create spaces where LGBT kids belong. Many of them want Jewish weddings. They want Jewish futures. And as Jewish parents, we want family and friends to celebrate with us fully.

Rabbi Menashe East leads the Mount Freedom Jewish Center.

His support of Eshel to some extent is theoretical right now — although some MFJC members have grown children who are members of the LGBTQ community, they’ve all moved away, and “there are no couples as family units,” he said. “But if there were, I know that our community would be behind me in supporting them 100 percent and welcoming them with full inclusion.

“That is an attitudinal reality, the appropriate response, and the way that communities need to function.”

From left, Richard Langer, Hanan and Seela Berger, Nadiv Langer, Ronit Langer and Andrew Katz, and Jessica Langer

Part of that comes from his background at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox school where he earned smicha. “Chovevei has an orientation toward openness,” he said. “When I was there, we were encouraged to watch ‘Trembling Before G-d,’” the 2001 documentary that gave a first-person view of how hard Orthodox LGBTQ Jews tried to fit into their world, how often they failed, and how painful it was. “I think that since 2005,” when he graduated, “it’s become a more prominent part of the education.

“Chovevei has the attitude that we should encourage the broadest participation from our community members.”

He was connected to Eshel through the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; he has been a fellow at Hartman’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.

“As a synagogue, we are supportive of Eshel’s work,” Rabbi East said; he and the community would welcome LGBTQ members.

As Ms. Diamond put it, “It is not about inclusion. It is about belonging.”

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