A pioneering survey of Orthodox parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children released last week found that many families remain closeted in their communities because of disapproval from rabbis or other community leaders.
Of the over 100 parents surveyed from across the country, nearly a third of respondents (27 percent) said they viewed their rabbi or community as homophobic, and over 73 percent of parents said there have been no public forums or classes on the topic of LGBT Jews in their community. According to the study, Orthodox day schools do not make public policy statements about the treatment or admission of LGBT students or staff or about teacher training on the subject. Eshel, a nonprofit organization that aims to create community and acceptance for LGBT Jews and their families in Orthodox communities, conducted the survey. The organization is set to host its fourth annual parent retreat in May.
Among the survey’s other key findings was that synagogue rabbis are among the last resources parents seek out for help when their child comes out, despite an increased focus on counseling across rabbinic school curricula. Yeshiva University’s RIETS program, the largest Orthodox rabbinical school in America, requires two semesters of pastoral psychology as part of the core curriculum, and even offers a dual master’s program with the Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
Still, of the 80 percent of parents who chose to seek outside help, only 9 percent of parents interviewed chose to seek assistance from their synagogue rabbi.
“Parents are legitimately concerned that a rabbi’s response will only be more wounding,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and co-director of Eshel. “They are fearful that a rabbi will prioritize his role as defender of the tradition, and ultimately make matters worse.” Though congregants would approach a rabbi about a financial crisis or an extramarital affair, “no one challenges the moral reasonability of that prohibition,” he said. “Rabbis would be able to reflect a concern for the norm of loyalty while being compassionate to the difficulties people face. Here the rabbi is struggling with a text and tradition that is actually itself causing the suffering." This situation leaves rabbis "utterly conflicted," which makes it challenging for parents to seek their support, he added.
2015 Eshel retreat for parents of LGBT children. Photos courtesy of Eshel.
Mindy Dickler, a parent interviewed for the survey, described the deep sense of loneliness and isolation she felt when her son came out to her as gay during his freshman year of college.
“We had no idea, no suspicions — we were taken completely off guard,” she said, describing her and husband’s reaction when their son came home for the Rosh HaShanah holiday and broke the news. An active member of the Modern Orthodox community in Baltimore, she immediately felt “very much alone.”
“I couldn’t think of any other family with a gay child. At every other stage of parenthood — from ‘mommy and me’ classes to planning bar mitzvahs to choosing a high school, I had a parent peer group going through the same thing. Now, I had no type of support.”
Dickler first reached out to PFLAG, a nonsectarian organization for LGBT families and allies, for support. She met with a group of other parents in a church. While the experience was “very validating,” she craved a Jewish context and community. In 2012, one year after her son’s reveal, she helped launch JQ Baltimore, an outreach and support group for LGBT Jews and their families. Though she has asked many Orthodox rabbis to refer parents to her group, only a handful have done so, she said.
“They [the rabbis] said they don’t know of families with gay children,” she said. The Eshel survey results, indicating that most parents with LGBT children don’t consult a rabbi, validate her own personal experience. “The fear-factor is too great.”
Today, Dickler’s son has left the Orthodox community. The survey found that nearly 60 percent of Orthodox LGBT children choose not to attend synagogue or to leave the observant community altogether.
“Orthodoxy has to figure out how to be more accommodating,” said Richard Feczko, 65, whose youngest son, now 28, came out to him and his wife after completing four years at an Orthodox high school in Boston. “Jews are leaving the tent left and right—what kind of idiot says ‘we’re not going to let you in,’” he said.
Some parents in the survey described a deep sense of loneliness after their children came out as gay. Courtesy of Eshel.
According to Feczko, whose son has “drifted” from Orthodoxy, Orthodox gay couples have to be willing to embrace the role of “pioneers” as much as the shuls that accept them do. Though he is not optimistic that change will happen quickly, he is hopeful that is “will happen.”
Optimism places him in the minority, according to survey results. Seventy percent of parents believe that there will be either no progress at all or only modest change in the attitude and discussion about LGBT Jews within the Orthodox community.
Naomi Oppenheim, a business analyst from Teaneck, N.J., whose daughter came out during her freshman year of college, counts herself among the optimists. Though she is deeply saddened that her daughter, now 27, left the Orthodox community because she didn’t feel “safe or welcome,” she believes the “enormous change” she’s witnessed in the Jewish community over the last decade will be magnified moving forward. Over the past several years, LGBT awareness within the Orthodox community has been increasing. JQY, an organization founded in 2001 to promote understanding in the Orthodox community for young gay Jews, today serves over 600 LGBT young adults in the New York area. Keshet, a national grassroots organization, provides inclusion training for LGBT individuals and provides families with resources and guidance.
“I never would have predicted things would change so drastically or so quickly,” Oppenheim said. “It definitely gives me hope for the future.”
The mother of a 20-year-old transgender daughter, who preferred to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, said that the moves forward she has seen in recent years are mirrored by more insistent pushback. When her daughter came out at age 18, she and her husband were “startled.”
“We had no hint of anything when she was growing up,” she said. “Gay was on my radar, but transgender was not. It was very hard to accept at the beginning.”
Still, after expressing unconditional love for their child, she and her husband were among the minority to inform the rabbi of their child's situation. While he was “personally kind to us,” the overtly negative views about LGBT Jews that he expressed “from the bima” didn’t change.
“While he was personally kind, he continued to preach that LGBT people can’t be reconciled with Orthodox Judaism,” she said. Though they have remained in the community, her family has come up against some pitying attitudes, though many in the community have been "completely accepting."
“Trans is harder not to talk about than being gay. When someone asks, ‘How are the boys?’” she said, “you have to mention that one of the boys is now a girl.”
A strange role reversal often takes place when a LGBT child comes out to his or her Orthodox parents, said Rabbi Greenberg. “Parents will often ask the child not to tell anybody, as they try to come to terms with this new reality,” he said. “The child has to be the one to assure that parent that it’s going to be alright.”
One parent, who asked that we not use her name for privacy reasons, described the response she had when her 16-year-old son came out to her when he was 14.
“It’s an amazing thing — when a kid comes out of the closet, sometimes the parents go right back in,” she said. Her son’s revelation caused her to question her role in the community, she said. After coming back from a pluralistic LGBT Shabbaton, she said her son told her that many of the participants from Reform and Conservative backgrounds described how Judaism has given them a place to be themselves.
“It’s hard to know that for my son, it’s been the exact opposite. Orthodox Judaism is where he feels he doesn’t have a place — where he said he feels like an ‘abomination.’ Ultimately, that makes me question our place. You raise your children to want to be in this community, and then the community tells them we want you — but not that way.”
She has since switched her son from an Orthodox high school to a pluralistic Jewish high school. The change has been essential to his happiness, she said. “He now feels he can be fully himself, and he’s not angry anymore.”
Still, she is insistent that the larger Orthodox world recognizes the LGBT conversation as a community issue, rather than just a case-by-case question. “This is not just about one person getting an aliyah or not,” she said. “It’s about understanding that each LGBT child is connected to a family, and each family is connected to other families. The patchwork of our community will be damaged if we try to uproot one thread here, another thread there.”