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.
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.
On The Torch, Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg share why for both women and LGBT people, allies can make a real impact.
The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Continue reading here>>
Ami wrote this right before he left for college this fall. He bravely chronicled coming out at his Orthodox high school while still a student. He was recently chosen as a “young visionary” of the Jewish community by The New York Jewish Week. You can follow Ami @thesubwaypoet.
A Kavanah for College
Shushan Purim — the day after the Purim that Jews outside of Jerusalem celebrate — is the day that I came out of the closet to my closest friends. I was barely 16 years old, and came out not knowing a single other LGBT person, let alone another LGBT Jew. The irony of coming out of the closet on Purim was lost on me until recently.
Coincidence though it might have been, on a holiday we celebrate by dressing up and hiding who we really are, I chose to share my deepest secret with my best friends. In doing so, I embarked on a journey that changed the way I would view both myself and the path my life would take.
For many, coming out of the closet was a way to escape from religion — some were chased away, others left voluntarily. Coming out in high school, however, was the exact opposite for me. Instead of distancing me from religion, it changed how I approached my Judaism. Ultimately, it brought me closer.
I grew up in a very religiously right-wing community in southern Brooklyn. I was the only one of my peers to attend a coeducational high school, and one of a few to be attending college in the fall. I felt alienated even before I realized I was gay and came out of the closet. Coming out, for me, only served to reinforce the divide that I felt between myself and my community. That gap became so wide that my family eventually felt forced to leave the community, and lost contact with all but a few people from the neighborhood that I considered my hometown.
I came into high school expecting mostly to pass through without being noticed. I wanted to be lower on the radar than I was in middle school, where I was bullied for being effeminate and un-athletic, and for living in a neighborhood farther away from everyone else. I didn’t want to “find myself” — whatever that meant.
Instead, I did. In coming out of the closet, I found my way back to religion, I found a community, and I found my passion. High school, for me, was as much about academics as it was about incidentally finding a group of friends who were accepting enough for me to open up to them about the secret that I had sworn I would never reveal to anyone, and who would encourage me to seek out — or create — opportunities to make a change in my high school. When the door to one community shut me out completely, the window to another community opened. It was these friends, and this community that I sought out and ultimately found that would redefine the way I would approach religion and my identity as a gay, Jewish teen.
When I came out, I did so to virtual silence. I was one of a handful of students to have come out while still a student at my school. Few people I came out to had ever met a queer teen before, and fewer still had met one who was out in an Orthodox Jewish day school like mine. (To be fair, though, when I was coming out to these friends, I hadn’t met a single other openly LGBT Jewish teen attending a Jewish day school, either.) It was this silence that prompted me to cultivate a community inside my school of people who cared about the LGBT community, and seek a community outside of school that would allow me to synthesize my gay and Jewish identities.
In school, my friend and I co-founded the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, which helped me find people who were passionate about discussing issues that were often pushed to the side, and also helped put the same ideas into the minds of the rest of the student body: now, others were beginning to think of the same issues that I had to face when I was coming out of the closet. Outside of school, I became connected with Keshet and Eshel, where I met other queer Jewish teens (through the former, at their shabbatonim), and queer Orthodox Jews (through the latter, at their retreats and through their Speakers’ Bureau training). For the first time in my life, I felt as if I no longer had to hide an integral part of who I was. I was a gay, Orthodox, Jewish teen. And for the first time, something felt right.
As I look forward to college, I realize that my opportunities were somewhat limited. I was only able to go so far in high school. College — and especially the program I will be attending — will allow me to study my Judaism not only from an academic perspective, but from an experiential perspective as well. There, I will be able to study the Jewish community’s history and philosophy, which will give me the background I need to create a lasting change in the Jewish community.
High school was a time for me to help myself find the resources that I need. Now, I have those same resources at my disposal, and more. In college, I hope to begin creating resources for queer, Orthodox teens that can be much more readily available than just one club at one school, and to find ways to reach out to communities that might be more isolated than my high school. I hope that college will be a time when I lay the groundwork for work that will help others come after me, so that no other queer Jewish teen will ever have to feel the alienation that I once felt as a quiet, closeted Jewish teen in southern Brooklyn.
In September, a family member came out to me after months of struggling with his sexual orientation. He cited the earlier version of this very blog post, which appeared on my personal blog, as a source of strength. I hope it might help others as well. – GG
He stood up on the fireplace of the room that nearly every member of our school was occupying. He began to speak. He thanked all of us for welcoming him into our community, for making him feel like he had been here his entire life. What he had to say was very sweet, but that’s not what he came to tell us. That’s not why he paused the end-of-the-year festivities.
He and I hadn’t been close until that year. For whatever reason, I never made an effort to connect with him. I figured he was just another typical out-of-towner. But when I began to write for him, when I began to give him a look inside of my head, into my beliefs, that’s when it all changed.
In the middle of the year, I wrote an article calling for the discontinued usage of gay slurs. In my article, I proposed a hypothetical situation in which a Jewish, homosexual student was forced to hide who he was for the sake of avoiding chastisement. I concluded the article by proclaiming my hope that one day, just maybe, a student at my school would have the courage to challenge the Orthodox day school status quo by coming out to the student body. At the time, this was merely a hope. To be honest, I never saw it happening. Though it’s entirely realistic, and even factual, that Orthodox day schools across the country include a large number of closeted homosexuals, I never imagined somebody I knew would have the courage to actually come out. After all, they would be jeopardizing their reputation and opening themselves up to the possibility of seclusion and rejection.
I’ll always remember the night he came out to me. I was giving him a ride home when he stopped our conversation to have one of far greater importance. He beat around the bush for a few moments, but eventually cut to the chase. When he finally squeezed out the two most revealing words, I wasn’t sure how to react. I could have delved into a deep, philosophical conversation about the causes of homosexuality. I could have done the typical song and dance, congratulating him and telling him how courageous he is. Or I could have rejected who he truly was.
But I didn’t do any of these things.
Instead, I drove around the city for two hours, asking silly question after silly question. I felt like a teenage girl. But he fielded them all. He showed me what it truly means to be comfortable with who you are. Not once did he blink, not once did he swallow his words, not once did he feel uncomfortable. He was ready to be himself around me, and that’s something I will never forget.
Our friendship went from one of exchanging the occasional pleasantries, to one of immense depth and closeness. He has become someone I regard as a best friend. He has become my backbone in many instances, offering emotional support whenever I need it. He has become an inspiration.
It was nice of him to thank us for welcoming him into the community, but that’s not what he came to tell us. He paused for a moment, all eyes on him, and somehow mustered up the courage to become who he is:
“One more thing, and I really am feeling quite happy tonight so this is why I’m telling you. I am gay. I am coming out tonight. Thank you so much.”
Being that this sort of public coming out is unprecedented in our community, I didn’t really expect the reaction that his coming out brought.
It seemed like time suspended for a moment, like everything was hanging in the balance as I awaited the reaction of the many who had not yet known his sexual orientation. I knew some would be taken aback by it, because, after all, homosexuality is still somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for many people. I even expected some to cause an uproar, to publicly rebuke his coming out as a sign of disgust.
But I didn’t expect what actually happened.
Almost everybody in the room went ballistic. We yelled, clapped, and celebrated this momentous announcement. Suddenly the diffuse group organized into a line. Students young and old lined up to hug him, to tell him congratulations, to accept him. The moment was so overwhelming that it moved me, along with many others, to tears.
I’ve always been a confident person, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve always been courageous. But when I met him, when he came out to me, when he imparted on me that it’s okay to be yourself, suddenly I felt like I could do anything. I began to write about the things many people didn’t want to discuss. I began to let my passion drive controversial conversations within my sometimes rigid community. I began to accept myself for who I am, and do my best to correct my flaws.
His coming out was something he and I have discussed for quite some time now. He was apprehensive about it at first, but after countless conversations in which we discussed the importance of being who you are, he was ready to do it. His coming out in such a public form was one gigantic step toward the rest of his life. He no longer had to hide. He no longer had to keep up a facade. He no longer had to try to stay content being someone he is inherently not.
He could finally be free.
The thing is, though, his coming out stretches far beyond just him. His coming out is going to impact this community, this school, so much. His coming out has pushed many to recognize the reality that is homosexuality within Judaism.
In a Jewish community that is so stagnant, this sort of monumental occurrence is going to have a vast impact on the ideological scheme of things. The topic of homosexual acceptance has always been discussed solely in hypotheticals. We’ve all had our own opinions on how to resolve religion with sexual orientation, but we’ve never actually had to translate those opinions into practice. Now that our hypothetical world has become reality, we must take a definitive stance on what is so sadly deemed an “issue.” This coming out was the first of its kind, and I hope it won’t be the last. Many community members may be up in arms, but many more will not be. And those who aren’t will be supportive, they will be accepting, and they will do their best to spread their attitude of tolerance to the other, more close minded members of the community.
This is a progressive world, folks.
He did something so notable by getting the literal ball rolling on this issue of homosexual acceptance within the Memphis Orthodox community. The hypothetical ball is no more.
When I entered high school, it was the norm to call someone a faggot or a queer. It was okay to throw around gay slurs, despite the fact that those few words could tear someone apart inside. As my years have flown by and the school’s attitude toward homosexuals has drastically shifted, the norm has become acceptance. By the start of this year, many had cut down on their gay slur usage and enhanced their tolerance, especially in a public sphere, paving a pearly path out of the closet for him. With the already growing acceptance within our school, it’s inevitable that more is to come. His announcement slapped many of my schoolmates in the face with reality. They now know someone who is homosexual. They now have a friend who is out. They now recognize that your sexual orientation doesn’t define who you are as a person.
I’m not entirely sure how his announcement will impact his relationship with various students at the school, but I genuinely hope that those students don’t change their behavior as a result of discomfort. His announcement has given us, the student body, a chance to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe being who they are. The overwhelming support he met after his announcement only reaffirmed my belief that this school, and perhaps this community, is headed in a new direction than in years past. To see all of my fellow classmates hug him, congratulate him, and even praise him was something I will never forget.
When it was finally my turn to congratulate him, I held him tight and told him that he was my inspiration. I told him that he was my hero. And he is. He’s taught me that, despite all of the struggles that it may bring, being yourself is the only way to live. He’s taught me how to love myself for who I am. He’s taught me that I have a voice. He’s given me a reason to become an even stronger proponent of gay rights in particular, and civil rights as a whole.
When I say that he has changed my life, I’m not simply throwing around cliche phrases that sound nice. I mean it. This year has been one of immense personal growth. I truly believe that how far I’ve come would not have been possible without his help.
An eighteen year old did something no one has ever done in this community. An eighteen year old exemplified courage to the fullest extent. He is so young, yet he’s wise enough to know that he is capable of impacting those around him for the better. I never thought I would be writing a post like this. I never thought I would see someone come out in front of my classmates. But I couldn’t be happier that this is all happening. I couldn’t be more inspired, more moved by the courage he has shown.
When I look back at the beginning of Summer 2013, I’m going to remember the graduation. I’m going to remember the overwhelming sadness that rushed over me as I listened to my best friends utter their parting words. But, above all, I’ll remember when one person changed an entire city.
There’s nothing more to say to him than thank you. We all have a reason to appreciate the person he is and the courage he possesses. We all must note that what he has done is just that – notable.
He’s set me on a path to find myself, and, with his inspiration, I feel as if I have the courage to become who I’ve always wanted to be.
“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right I support it.”
Gabriel blogs at http://thoughtsofajewishteenager.blogspot.com, where this post originally appeared.
April 4-6, 2014: LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbaton:
Join us for a weekend of fun, community, and learning for and by Jewish LGBTQ and allied teens! Meet new friends, learn about LGBTQ organizing and identities, and celebrate a lakeside Shabbat with a warm, vibrant community of LGBTQ and ally teens and adults
When I thought about my future as a kid, the image of a wedding would come into focus. A beautiful huppah, my beaming parents, and adult me standing next to the love of my life with whom I’d build a Jewish family. Judaism was always a strong and important force in my life, one I cherished. My commitment to carrying on my heritage was a given, particularly charged by the fact that I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors. But as I grew into my teens, that image of my future became distorted when I realized that there would never be a bride in white standing next to me. At the time, I could never imagine a second groom wearing a kippah at my side either. Merging a Jewish path and a gay identity felt like a pipe dream.
Growing up, I was a student at an Orthodox yeshiva. Each day in Talmud class, we analyzed traditional Jewish laws and values in ancient Aramaic, but I was surprised to find how often the Rabbis brought the conversation to current politics and the ‘evils of the modern world’. While the study of Talmud was characterized by rich and dynamic debate, ‘evils’ like homosexuality were taught as black and white —they were inherently wrong, case closed. These lectures on the ‘abomination’ of being gay scared me to my core, as I was simultaneously discovering that I was most definitely attracted to men. While I was being told it was against everything G-d and Judaism stood for, in my soul it was the most natural and honest thing I could feel.
After many years of fear and confusion, and the occasional suicidal thought, I reached the light at the end of my teenage tunnel: my freshman year at a large, liberal college. There, I met a group of supportive, down-to-earth friends who challenged me to look in the mirror. One late night in February, I got up the courage to come out to my parents…via Instant Messenger (after all, it was the early 2000s). Hiding in the warm light of a computer screen, I communicated words to them I never imagined articulating. I held my breath and stared at the words, waiting. What followed were lots of questions, fear and worry. It was done, out in the world and irrevocable.
The years that followed proved to be a bumpy landscape for me and my family, with highs and lows as we navigated this new reality. While I had gained newfound self-acceptance, my life had become more secular and my connection to Judaism a bit fainter. My mother worried that I’d never find happiness, and my father felt conflicted and hurt. The good news was that they still loved me, but they were slow to understand me, and I became increasingly frustrated that they weren’t progressing faster. By my senior year though, I had to admit that they were making an effort. They read books on Judaism and Homosexuality, turned to my hometown rabbi for support, and started telling friends. I came to realize that my parents are human too, that they were figuring out all of their feelings just like I was, and they needed the same love, patience and gentle respect from me that I was seeking from them.
In time I had become very comfortable with myself and my life as a gay man, and imagined that I’d eventually find a partner, but my hope of having a Jewish family was a distant memory. I would enjoy the occasional Shabbat dinner with my family on Friday night, and then hit the bars in Hell’s Kitchen with my friends on Saturday night. My gay identity and my Jewish identity were like tolerant neighbors who refused to socialize with one another. After many failed first dates and unfulfilling excursions in online dating, I realized that finding someone who could understand my faith and share in my family’s culture was more important than I thought. And then one ordinary Monday afternoon in September, I took an elevator ride that changed my life.
David and I struck up a conversation between floors two and six, and I instantly felt a connection. We shared a ton in common, and remarkably, he happened to be Jewish too. The first time I brought him to my parents’ Shabbat table, I nervously held my breath during quiet introductions. My father began reciting the blessings, and David put on a kippah and chanted them along with my family. I watched my parents relax, settle in, and get to know him. Over the course of that dinner, something changed for my parents. My homosexuality had transformed from an abstract, scary idea into something beautiful and palpable: the connection they recognized between me and David, holding hands next to each other, laughing and kibitzing with them at their dinner table.
Fast forward to May 19, 2013. There I was, standing under the chuppah, looking into David’s eyes. My parents are in front of me on one side of the chuppah, and his are behind me on the other. I’m surrounded by our closest friends and family, listening to a rabbi pronounce us LEGALLY married in the state of New York and before G-d. I pinch myself. This is not a dream, this is really happening. My parents have tears in their eyes, but they are the joyful kind. Later, we dance. I spin my mother around the dance floor, and my father and brother lift me in the air on a chair. I watch my parents give a toast with pride. I realize that it was possible after all.
I don’t mean to suggest I have it all figured out. My feelings about the intersection of traditional Judaism and the modern world are still complicated. I still have the same big questions about how Torah fits into modernity that I had as yeshiva boy. But now, I ponder those questions and work to make sense of the world alongside my husband at our own Shabbat table, filled with humor, love, and a deeper understanding of meaningful Judaism than I ever had during my time at Yeshiva. Our relationship has actually brought me closer to my heritage and has provided me with a stronger understanding of its place in my modern life. What I do know is this: I didn’t have to choose one path at the cost of another. For the first time in my life, my Jewish identity and my gay identity have blended to one—just me. All of me.
“There was a deep sense of comfort, of relief, of finally feeling like we could be ourselves.”
“I was amazed at how liberating it was to spend time with others with whom we have so much in common.”
“Being in a community that truly felt like a community for so many reasons that are absent in my day-to-day life experience in our Orthodox community.”
— Eshel Shabbaton attendees
When I was 24, I came out to my parents the day before the gay pride parade in New York City. My parents and I were closer than close, and they knew everything about me, except for this. I carried around this decade-old secret in shame, pain and confusion.
The day I unleashed my secret, I felt like I was walking a foot above ground. It was the end of hiding, a realization that I was not going to change and an indication that I had achieved some degree of self-acceptance. My friend came to pick me up the next morning, to escort me to the parade to march with 500,000 other people down Fifth Avenue, steps away from my parents’ apartment. It was one of the most freeing and jubilant days of my life.
A series by Jewish moms and dads with LGBTQ children.
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our second post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by “MBSD,” an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD. You can read the previous post in this series, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here.
A peaceful Shabbat walk in the woods. I neared a bubbling brook, stood on a footbridge and gazed down at the streaming water, contemplating the beauty of Hashem‘s creations. I saw a wide bed of rocks of various shapes and sizes. There were boulders to the left, boulders to the right, even some in the middle. Together they formed their own community; each rock was an integral part of a whole entity that had a beautiful stream flowing through it. It was a metaphor for the ideal harmony we’d like to see in our Jewish communities. We are a people that share the same religion yet come from different backgrounds with different viewpoints. Still, we’re all connected by our love for Torah, that stream of energy that unites us. Continue reading
According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b) Continue reading
As we’ve explored in earlier posts by and about Orthodox Jews who are also LGBTQ (including a round-up of blogs, a video from hip-hop artist Y-Love, what it;s like to come out at an Orthodox high school, and an interview with the first out gay Orthodox rabbi), being Orthodox and LGBTQ is complicated. Luckily, in recent years there have been a growing number people and organizations providing support, safe space, and resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Eshel, dedicated to building “understanding, support, and community for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in traditional Jewish communities,” is a prominent example of the work being done by, and on behalf of, LGBT Orthodox Jews.
In January 2013, the author of this post attended a shabbaton organized by Eshel. These reflections originally ran on his blog, Orthodox, Gay, and Married Jew. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share his powerful post.
Like angels in the sky
in a garden full of glory
the galaxies so brilliantly related
on that first page of our story
The shabbaton started with davening on Friday night. I had been to support groups in the past, both for JQY or Jewish Queer Youth (an organization based in NYC whose primary objective is to give support to young men and woman struggling with issues related to being LGBT; please see www.jqyouth.org for more information) and a non-religious (and non-agenda driven) support group for gay married men (if you would like information about this group, please email me). When I went to these groups, which had about 10-20 people, I was scared and overwhelmed. Continue reading
Judaism is the great religion of welcome. The root of our faith is modeled on the actions of our forefathers and foremothers who set the groundwork for the foundational nature of Jewish life. Abraham, the archetype for all future Jewish generations, was fundamentally a person of chesed, kindness. One of the enduring images we have of Abraham is the picture of his tent open from all sides ushering and welcoming in visitors even when he was physically not well. Abraham though imparted to us not only the value of welcoming but instructed us on how to implement it.
The Torah shares with us the lengths to which Abraham went to make his visitors feel at home and indeed to transform the relationship of host-visitor into one of equal partnership and respect. Genesis 18:1-8 records Abraham insisting that his three unexpected visitors stay for a while and the subsequent rush that he and his household underwent to prepare an elaborate meal for them. It was Abraham’s intent to make his home, which was the model for the way of life he was introducing to the world, maximally inclusive and welcoming. Continue reading