Author Archives: Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein

Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein

About Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein

Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein is a professional Jewish Educator. She directs BeYachad, Bringing Jewish Education and Best Educational Practices together. She and her husband live in Elkins Park, Pa. and their family includes four children.

An Orthodox Mother’s Response to Homophobia in Her Community

Last month, an article entitled to Warning: Hollywood’s Coming For Your Home and Children!  by Robert C. Avrech appeared in the Jewish Action magazine.

warningOne morning, shortly after this issue of the magazine reached homes, I received an email from a friend who was extremely upset by this article and its vehement and mean-spirited diatribe against our homosexual children and members of the community.

In short, Mr. Avrech posits his view of what a moral community is and it does not include our LGBTQ members—nor does it include divorced families, single moms, and a whole litany of others he considers to not be upright, including all hues of feminism.

Among many other things, the author laments the gay couple in Modern Family and the fact that “homosexual radicals” have pressured A&E to cancel Duck Dynasty because “the far left has demonized Phil Robertson, the family patriarch as a homophobe because he supports traditional marriage.” Parenthetically, it is important to remember that the patriarch of the show Duck Dynasty was called homophobic not because he supports traditional marriage but because he compared homosexuality to bestiality and other vile stereotypes.

Further, Avrech states, “Today it is militant homosexuals who drive the agenda. Tomorrow it will be sharia-yearning Islamists demanding sitcoms about happy-go-lucky polygamists.” To call this overtly and supremely offensive does not even begin to address the problem with such flawed reasoning. His use of histrionics does not do honor to him nor to the magazine that published this piece.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

Sunnie, her husband, and her children.

So, why am I and so many other parents and families in the Orthodox community so upset? This magazine comes into Orthodox homes several times over the course of the year. For about 10–13% of us, just as in the general community and in the larger Jewish community, our homes include LGBTQ loved ones.

How can we possibly bring together our beautiful family members and celebrate our chagim (holidays) and Shabbat, our simchas, and so much else with this yellow journalism present?

I return to the email I received from my friend a month ago.

My friend, who has a gay child and is part of our ESHEL community of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews and their families, was so hurt and devastated by this article. Within a few days of the article being published, about nine families in the same situation were sending emails back and forth. During that time a letter was crafted and sent to the editor of Jewish Action. I still do not know whether or not the magazine will publish the letter.

The problem we in the Orthodox community confront is that seemingly moderate venues still lean to the right in terms of lack of acceptance and honest discussion of what the challenges are, and instead opt for immediate dismissal.

Dismissal of our beautiful, intelligent, and amazing children and family members is not something we can live with or accept. Judaism does not teach to do this but rather espouses maxims for living such as “judge the other favorably” and “do not judge another person until you have reached his place.”

Further, there are texts that clearly cause us to question time held notions of binary categories of sexuality. We know in modern medicine about the continuum of how The Creator of All has created us and this is even acknowledged in our Jewish texts (check out Mishnah Bikkurim, Chapter Four as a wonderful example).

Inclusion and acceptance of others has always been a challenge in Jewish Law. Included in those categories of how and if one should be included are women, those who have mental defects or illness, the lame, the hearing impaired, and yes, those of us who are left-handed!

However, what is fascinating to me about Jewish law is the great extent to which our venerated teachers of old will go to in trying to include as many as possible and to be gentle and caring to all, as we find in Masechet Hagiga, for those of you who want yet another substantial text reference.

As a Modern Orthodox Jew (or as I like to call it, a Halachically observant and accepting of the multi-vocality of Jewish expression Jew), I find these texts and so many others comforting. However, what is more important to me is for all of us to realize that the texts say what the texts say, not what individuals with their own agendas want them to espouse in support of their own personal agendas. Often Talmudic discussions end with “it’s a difficult matter” or “this cannot be resolved” or other expressions acknowledging that simple answers are too often inaccurate and more often potentially harmful. I would caution all those who are in the Halachically observant range to consider this important teaching of our beloved scholars of old and those today as well.

Sunnie's children.

Sunnie’s children.

What have we, our group of concerned parents of LGBTQ Jews in our observant families, learned from this, or rather confirmed yet again as a result of this experience? Advocacy is critical as we protect and cherish the ones we love so dearly.

It is so important that we stand up and speak on behalf of our wonderful family members when others seek to marginalize or worse, malign them. After all, we are all aware that language used can bring death as well as life, as we learn in Mishlei (Proverbs).

Let us commit ourselves to bring and cherish life together—the life and potential and contributions of all Jewish community members, including the LGBTQ children, parents, siblings, relatives, and friends among us.

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Posted on January 9, 2015

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Jews Have an Obligation to Accept, Protect, and Value

I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.

Rachie & Liz

Rachie & Liz

Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.

Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.

As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.

My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.

Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.

Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.

However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by.  Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.

Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.

Posted on March 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy