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Finding a Place for My Family under the Umbrella of Ahavat Yisrael
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Finding a Place for My Family under the Umbrella of Ahavat Yisrael

An Interview with Shlomit Metz-Poolat by Miryam Kabakov

JOFA Journal
JOFA Journal

Miryam Kabakov: Tell us about your family—how it began, and what it looks like now.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat: Like many other Modern Orthodox Jews, I married at a young age. I met my [now] ex-husband through friends at college. We were married for twelve years and had one daughter, J., who is now sixteen. During my marriage I began to realize that I was gay, and eventually, after coming out to myself, I came out to my ex-husband, my family, and friends. Not only were my friends understanding and supportive, but my ex-husband and some family members were as well. Everyone in our circle realized that our daughter came first and did not deserve to be harmed in any way by our divorce. It was an uncontested divorce that culminated in the maintaining of a friendship for more than twenty-five years, remarriage for us both, and one well-adjusted and very much-loved teenager.

In 2005, more than a year after my ex-husband and I separated, and I had received my get, I met my life partner, and we eventually bought a home together, settled in the same community I had lived in with my ex, and began raising J. in a blended family. My ex eventually remarried as well, also stayed in the same community, and J. realized that life for her included “three moms and one dad,” as she put it. She very quickly realized that it was not such a bad thing after all, since she simply had more parents who loved her than the average kid did!

Recently, my family grew even larger as my partner and I took in two children, M. and E., whose mom is a dear friend who is terminally ill with breast cancer. Our families blended together easily, and the kids moved in before leaving for summer camp. We are looking forward to their joining us full-time when they return, as are our hevra in town, who have embraced them. They will both be attending a Jewish day school near our home, which we required of both of them, despite their lack of observance over the past several years. They, too, are willing to blend into our family and live in an observant home, respecting our practices, and being loved and cared for in return. That is our new and larger family as it exists today.

MK: Have you had an easy time becoming part of the Orthodox community where you live?

SMP: I was always part of my community because I arrived in it as a straight, married, and observant woman. When that changed—the straight, heterosexual married part only—I found it relatively easy to divorce, come out, and date again, since I have been blessed with some amazing friends. Finding my life’s partner was truly Hashem’s gift to me, as she too made raising J. her priority. My hevra grew to love my quiet soul of a partner and embraced her as well. Everyone could see that she was so good for both J. and me. That being said, when we married and I hyphenated my name for legal purposes, before DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned, the rabbinic leadership in my community took offense at that. My shul of nineteen years removed me from its membership because of this. Apparently, hyphenation became against halakhah!

Despite the homophobia and discrimination, we decided to stay because we realized that the people in our community are kinder and greater than their leaders. We have built a life for ourselves, a home that is a drop-in center every Shabbos, that welcomes everyone, that houses a Modern Orthodox minyan every Friday night, and is a place that we love to call home. I think our community is what we and our friends have made of it.


MK: How does the Orthodox community that you are part of accept and include your family (or not)?

SMP: The rabbinic leadership, plain and simple, not at all—except for a kind and charming Chabad rabbi who has welcomed us into his shul. Unfortunately, it is too far for us to get to regularly on Shabbat, but we are there on Purim and for Eicha, as well as for some events here and there. The community itself, for the most part, has embraced us. Of course, there are those few who are filled with hatred for Jews who are different from themselves, but truth be told, those people are irrelevant in our lives. And as much as they drive the hatred and homophobia we have experienced at the hands of the rabbinic leadership, we are inspired by those who rise above it, and by the very fact that there are more who support us, express that support, and build a community with us, than there are those who wish to drive us away. I have always been a glass-is-half-full person, and that is the driving force behind our making the best out of a tough situation.

The yamim tovim are also made easier for us simply because there is a shul around the corner from us where we have friends and find a place to daven for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is part of the largest shul in our town, whose rabbis also will not grant us membership (because they feel they must abide by the errant rabbinic ruling of the shul that removed me), but we feel that we must have a place to stand before God during the yamim noraim, to hear the shofar, and to fast with our community. A family attending that shul buys us tickets as part of their family, and we become honorary family members for those days, simply because the community members are more understanding of ahavat Yisrael than are their leaders.

MK: Have you ever been excluded from religious ritual moments in your shul?  

SMP: As Modern Orthodox women, we are not really missing out on ritual inclusion, such as for minyan or leyning, but not granting us membership—even each one of us as a single person—makes us feel unwelcome in certain shuls. Thus, we do miss out on community events and inclusion during the davening, where we could otherwise be witness to the rituals of the Jewish people on any given Shabbos or hag.

MK:  Are your s’mahot [happy occasions], life passages, milestones, yahrzeits, etc. announced in shul like everyone else’s? 

SMP: An unequivocal no. For example, just trying to figure out how to wish a mazal tov to our daughter on the occasion of her bat mitzvah became a question of who could be named in the shul announcement. Sadly, they (the same rabbis who would later take my membership away) would not allow my partner to be named, despite the fact that my partner had raised J. since she was four years old. So we simply wrote it as “Mazal tov to the family of J.” We just rolled with the punches and when I gave my speech, with those very rabbis present in the room, I said a very loud and public mazal tov to all the relevant parties and featured my partner in some funny stories about raising our daughter. I really am not one to take things lying down!


MK: Where do you feel more at home—in a welcoming Orthodox
shul or in an LGBT Jewish group or synagogue like Beit Simchat Torah in New York?  

SMP: I feel most at home in a welcoming Modern Orthodox shul. I love the Modern Orthodox tziyoni world; it is where I was raised, and it is really the only Judaism I know and feel comfortable building my family life within. That being said, I know there are welcoming Modern Orthodox shuls out there; sadly, my town does not have one of them. But I, my family, and some of my dear friends intend to change that. We hope slowly to bring together enough allies and LGBTQ Jews to form a Modern Orthodox shul within my community—one that truly practices, embraces, and radiates ahavat Yisrael!

MK: Have you been able to enroll your children (child) in day schools and camps easily? 

SMP: I am thankful to Hashem that J. graduated from a Modern Orthodox elementary school, was accepted into a wonderful yeshiva high school, and has shined because there are rabbis and educators who cared more about the education of an observant Jewish child than about whom her mother loves. She also attended an amazing B’nei Akiva sleepaway camp and had two wonderful summers there. She currently works in a Modern Orthodox day camp and has become quite the mature and responsible young woman, along the way. I am finding that these schools and camps have slowly found a place for children of LGBTQ Jews because they recognize that ahavat Yisrael must prevail.

I have faith that my fear of not finding such places for children of LGBTQ Jews is rapidly becoming a thing of the past within the Modern Orthodox world, as I witness these places embrace and accept these children.

MK: Describe the upcoming changes your family is about to have and how the community has responded.

SMP: Becoming moms to two more teenagers, fourteen and fifteen years old, is an absolutely overwhelming feeling. But we rise to the occasion because of the support we find around us. Their mom and I met eight or nine years ago when we spoke on a panel at the LGBT Center in NYC, about being gay and finding a place within religion for us. Luckily, we kept in contact. Along the way we would touch base or meet up, and she supported me through my own battle with breast cancer, with her knowledge about the disease and what I could expect. I now recognize that we met for a greater reason, and her children are that reason. Our friends see that too.

I think that the community, in recognizing what we are taking on, wants to be part of this special moment and mitzvah too. Every one of our hevra is finding a way to help, to be there for us, to invite them, to include them, and to make them feel cherished and loved. Our friends also make us feel like we are all in this together and that we are truly not alone, despite rabbinic attempts to exclude us. To see people run to do mitzvot for us and for them is truly witnessing Hashem’s creations at their very best. Being part of that has been an almost unbelievable, moving and great emotional experience.

I think what I am most happy about it is that we, as LGBTQ Jews who have had to care for each other and have had to form our own safe places and welcoming communities like Eshel and JQY [Jewish Queer Youth], are lucky enough to witness change occurring within the larger Jewish community. Our generation and the next are finding ways to include us in communal life.

All over the world, rabbinic leaders are finding ways as well, and I am looking forward to what the future holds—a future in which community members and their leaders are on the same page in finding a place for us all under the umbrella of ahavat Yisrael.

And to those who do not, I am certain that they will simply be left behind.

MK:  Regarding your desire for community, what do you most wish you had that you don’t have right now?

SMP: To feel an equal member of a community synagogue, with all the bells and whistles that come with membership, in a shul that practices a love for one’s fellow Jews, even for one who is different. I have always said that it is easy to practice ahavat Yisrael for a Jew who is just like you, but the real challenge is doing so for the one who is not. I pray for that day to come, for it cannot come soon enough!

 

Shlomit Metz-Poolat is a career prosecutor. She is a graduate of Yeshiva University High School for Girls. She writes for The Blogs: Times of Israel about being an observant gay Jew. She and her partner of twelve years are raising three children and live in New York.

Miryam Kabakov is the executive director of Eshel and the editor of Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires (North Atlantic Books, 2010), a collection of writings about the challenges and joys of LGBT Orthodox Jews. Previously, she was New York program director and national program director of AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps, coordinator of LGBT programming at the JCC Manhattan, and the first staff member of Footsteps.

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