We are a group of observant, Orthodox families from across the United States, including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On March 7, we will be meeting face-to-face–many for the first time–for the 2nd annual Parents’ Retreat, sponsored by Eshel, an organization committed to creating a safe space in Orthodox communities for its LGBT members.
We are just like most of you, with one exception: Our children are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). Each of our children told us on a fateful day some months or years ago that they are not heterosexual. It is who they are and who they will always be.
It is with this thought in mind that we would like to have a virtual conversation with you. Let’s assume for the moment that some weeks or months ago a member of your immediate family approached you, telling you that he or she is LGBT. You love them and begin to think beyond yourself and your family and begin to consider your precious Jewish community. Here is where the conversation begins.
We start by asking for your understanding, respect, and perhaps even acceptance of our children as members of the Orthodox community. While the medical and psychiatric community affirms that being homosexual is no longer considered an aberration or an illness, most Orthodox communities have not expressed the same acknowledgement and acceptance. Lack of acceptance, or failure to acknowledge and address the fact that LGBT Jews are–and always have been a part of the Orthodox world–is not a solution. Failure to acknowledge does not make the issue disappear. In fact, closing one eye on this matter leads to fractured communities, family alienation, and documented suicides. No one wants this for their family, their friends or their community.
We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.
We are not asking you to do the impossible and place yourselves exactly in our shoes. Rather we simply ask you to consider having this conversation in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, a community conversation. All of us are in this together. If nothing else this is an issue of bein adam l’chavero, “between man and his fellow man.” All conversations need a setting. Imagine yourselves sitting around the Shabbat table. You have just finished Kiddush and are about to eat with family and a few friends. Think about the statements below and how you would respond. These are in no particular order and we are sure some are more sensitive than others. So, just pick a few, and begin…that’s how most of us did it with our families, slowly, carefully, needing time to absorb and appreciate the circumstances and the people around us.
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. Have you considered how this core Jewish principle of human dignity might shape your view of LGBT people?
- We believe that being LGBT is not a matter of choice. Do you feel that most people discover rather than choose their sexual orientation?
- If our children could choose, they would likely have chosen to be straight. Whether or not you believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice, how might this consideration that it is not a choice affect your community’s policy of welcoming people who identify themselves as homosexual?
- With regard to respecting privacy, do you or your rabbi ask congregants how they behave in the bedroom? Do you or your rabbi ask people in your congregation if they obey all mitzvot involving family purity laws? Are singles asked about their pre-marital sexual practice? What would you do if you knew that such laws were not observed in private by others? Would you think such people should be excluded from participation in shul?
- Have you asked yourself what would happen if everyone who attends your minyan had to submit to an “Aveyrah (transgression) Test,” that would include Lashone Harah (bad mouthing), Genayvah (stealing), Genayvat Da’at (lying), tax cheating, spousal abuse, and so on, and that flunking such a test would disqualify them from receiving any honors at the synagogue whatsoever? And have you considered that all of these (other) aveyrot are committed by choice? Are you aware that the phrase Toevah (translated by some sources as abomination and by others as forbidden or taboo) is applied to cheating in weights and measures just as it is applied in Leviticus to homosexuality? In our experience the “Gay Test” is one of the few that an Orthodox minyan seems to apply far more often than the “Aveyrah Test”.
- Do you hear homophobic jokes in your community? What do you do when you hear them? Do you perform the commandment of Hocheach Tocheachet Amitecha (rebuke your fellow Jew) and stand up for our children, relatives or friends who are the object of these so-called jokes?
- Have you asked yourself and your congregation if it is just the appearance of openly accepting LGBT individuals or couples into your shul and not any aspect of halakha (Jewish law) as applied to gay people, that bothers you?
- Do you know that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the general population are and have always been LGBT and that the Jewish population is no different? (With a congregation of 300 this means 15-30 individuals are LGBT). This percentage does not change based on any dress code. Cloth, knitted, or leather kippot (skull caps) do not change this percentage and neither does the color or brim size of your hat, or the length of your skirt or sleeve or whether or not you cover your hair.
- Do you realize that with these significant percentages someone in your extended family or social circles – child, brother, sister, grandchild, aunt or uncle, niece, nephew or friend – is, or will likely be, discovering that he or she is LGBT and may not have yet shared this knowledge with other people?
- Do you know that when you chase an LGBT person from your congregation – either overtly or via social pressure – you might be encouraging that person to leave Orthodoxy and perhaps even Judaism altogether?
- Do you know that by shunning an LGBT congregant, you are also shunning that individual’s family? Do you realize that very often it is not just the LGBT person who leaves the Jewish community or Orthodoxy but his or her entire family?
- Did you know that twenty- to forty-percent of homeless youth are LGBT, most likely because their families have rejected them and they feel they have nowhere to go? Did you know that suicide rates among LGBT youth are significantly higher than in the general youth population
- How well versed are your rabbis and lay leaders about LGBT issues or about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants or their family members? For example, do your rabbis or leaders know which institutions or organizations (Jewish or secular) might help him better help and advise these congregants?
We are hopeful that in a few years all Orthodox communities will be able to have this conversation in an open forum that include all its members. Today that is not the case.
We are asking you to encourage your rabbi to respectfully consider these questions and to learn about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants and their family members.
We hope that all synagogues, shuls, shtiebels, and their Rabbis think about the above issues and the serious implications they have for the health of their communities. By avoiding these issues or simply denying they exist, we are ignoring, rejecting, and losing LGBT Jews and their families.
Addressing these issues will not change Jewish law but it will encourage dialogue and begin to lessen needless pain and fear, debilitating isolation, dangerous depression, as well as hatred and discrimination of LGBT youth in the Orthodox world. After all is said and done, these Jewish souls are our sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, parents, neighbors, or friends.
Eshel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The Eshel Orthodox Parents Retreat is planned for March 7, 2014: to register for the Parents’ Retreat or to learn more visit http://www.eshelonline.org.