We are always taught the value of passing on our traditions, teaching and Jewish practices to our children, even in the daily words of our Shema, “veshinantam levanekha.” I know that my husband and I take great pride in our four children, who are involved and engaged in the Jewish community in so many different ways. One daughter is a lawyer; she, my son-in-law, and their four daughters live in a wonderful community and I enjoy that awe that comes with seeing their family repeat the holidays and observances, community involvement, commitment and the shomer mitzvot way of life we instilled in our children. Another daughter is a successful professional as well, having completed medical school and a residency in family medicine and beginning a fellowship in palliative care, looking to practice medicine for underserved people and to educate their minds and inspire their souls as well as heal their bodies. Her twin sister and her spouse live in the same community she does outside Boston; she is the senior synagogue organizer for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, getting Jewish communities to care about issues that confront us as Jews and Americans of all ages and nationalities and situations in life. Our youngest is our son, a college student attending Northern Arizona University, pursuing his dream of becoming a professional photographer. All of them are engaged in Jewish life and community, committed to making our world a better place, and caring about the social justice causes that are connected to the foundational Jewish values we all hold dear. Oh, I almost forgot—the doctor and Jewish community professional are lesbians, and the second spouse is my lovely daughter-in-law.
So, you ask, how can this be? How can an Orthodox or halakhicly observant person even engage in or begin such a conversation? This is what I believe to be true through observance of individuals, research I have done, study of Jewish texts, and consulting various medical resources that are critically important to consider. We are all born with our own points of identity in terms of sexuality and gender. In fact, the Talmud lists seven (or eight, depending on how you prefer to count) different gender identities, and engages in discussions from time to time of how we include all in our communities and should facilitate the process by which we all do as many mitzvot as possible. There are, to be sure, limits on many of us in various aspects of life—including those who are left-handed, women, those with hearing or sight impairments, those missing limbs, children, those with limited understanding, those who suffer from various challenges, those not having reached full physical maturity regardless of age, and so on. That being said, these discussions are NOT about exclusion, nor are they about defaming any group; rather, these discussions attempt to address the breath and breadth of Torah and halakhah in terms of how we go about our lives given our various circumstances. The case could and must strongly be made that this is just as true regarding those in our community who are LGBT and not on the binary scale for sexuality or gender.
To that end, enter Eshel, the Orthodox LGBT Inclusion and Advocacy organization. Its mission statement indicates that “Eshel’s mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. … Eshel creates bridges into Orthodox communities to foster understanding and support.” As part of its work, it has been my honor to direct its Welcoming Shuls Project (WSP), in which we connect with rabbis and communities that we can recommend to Orthodox LGBT Jews, as well as their families. We are all too aware of the suicide rate and other particular dangers in the LGBT community. When we have members of OUR families who are both LGBT and want to stay in the observant Jewish community, it is our particular obligation to practice the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, saving lives and not endangering those who are our parents, siblings, children, loved ones, and friends. We teach “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur”—do not separate yourself from the community; but how can we teach this if we do not ensure that we have places in our larger Orthodox Jewish community for our LGBT members to feel welcomed, accepted, and valued for the important human beings they are? One of the main challenges for Orthodox families, to whom this need for inclusion extends, has been articulated by many as follows: “When the LGBT member of our family comes out of the closet, the rest of the family goes into the closet.” How sad this is; do we really want to lose entire families and generations of potentially important and involved members of our community?
We acknowledge that there are halakhic challenges, though NOT the obvious one that people point to necessarily, as this story is so much more involved and multifaceted, having little if anything to do with those verses in Vayikra.
The real challenges are: How do we engage our LGBT community members with respect and honesty? How do we all show that respect for each other, with all sides having realistic expectations?
This is part of what we have been trying to assess in the Welcoming Shuls Project. To date, more than seventy Orthodox rabbis have agreed to be interviewed; the summary findings of this project can be found on the Eshel website. These shuls and communities are located in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC in the United States, and Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec in Canada, as well as in Jerusalem.
Generally, these and many other rabbis indicate that they are aware that there are LGBT Jews in their community. Further, there is a shared feeling that all Jews should feel welcome and validated. The main challenges at present generally involve families of same-sex couples and some issues around transgender persons. That being said, so much progress has been made in the past few years; even the difference in conversations we are having since we began WSP twenty months ago is palpable. When I speak with these rabbis, I begin by introducing myself and the work of Eshel; I then engage them in a conversation about our children and share the accomplishments of my own, if we know each other on any level (which often happens in our small Jewish world with its few degrees of separation). It is then that I share the fact that two of my children are lesbians and ask if they could come and feel welcome in their shuls. Through this personal interaction, I have established a safe place for them to say yes, and they do just that. With respect for each other and reasonable expectations on all sides, this is workable and can even have wonderfully positive ramifications for our communities.
As one rabbi said to me when I asked him if I could recommend his community to parents of LGBT children and the LGBT persons themselves, he replied (knowing one of our children), “If they are half as committed and knowledgeable as your child, please send me all of them!” That is what we want to be able to offer our LGBT loved and cherished ones, and it is happening. There is no question that this is a process, but we are making significant inroads.
The goal is for the entire community to gain from the collective benefits that we all receive from the WSP program members.
May we continue to go from strength to strength in ensuring a future of observant Jewish lives and community inclusion for all our members.
If you know of a rabbi with whom we should be communicating, please contact us. For more information about Eshel and the Welcoming Shuls Project, visit http://www.eshelonline.org/. And please feel free to contact this author at email@example.com.
Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein directs Beyachad, a program that brings best educational practices to Jewish education. She also currently serves as educational consultant to Eshel, the National LGBT Inclusion Consortium for the Orthodox Community. Dr. Epstein received her B.A., M.S., and Ed.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and has published widely on women of faith, LGBTQ inclusion, environmental sustainability, prayer, and the importance of interfaith and intrafaith dialogue.
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