By Ian Thal, Advocate Staff
When Shabbat begins on April 26, Orthodox parents and adult relatives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children will gather for a retreat to discuss their own concerns and challenges, and to formulate strategies for full inclusion of those children and their families in Orthodox life.
The event was organized by Eshel, an organization that supports LGBT Jews who wish to maintain their commitment to Halachic principles. Though the retreat is being held in Waynesboro, Pa., its genesis began with a request from a mother in the Greater Boston area.
In an interview with The Advocate, that mother requested anonymity. While the fact that one of her sons is gay is “an open secret” in her community, she said, “Most of our family … many of our friends… we have not told yet.”
Coming out is a process not just for LGBT people but also for their families. “My husband and I are at different points in our journey,” said the mother. “My husband is ready to [publically] advocate [for LGBT inclusion in the Orthodox community]; I am not.”
It was after her son returned from an Eshel retreat that she asked if there was something similar for parents who otherwise may feel isolated. “This retreat is enormously important,” she said. “Parents have shared [similar experiences] with me but are not [yet] ready to go on a retreat.”
Miryam Kabakov, Co-Executive Director of Eshel, said, “I have heard parents tell me that they are considering relocating because they have found out their children are LGBT [and] they feel that they, or their children, won’t feel welcome back into their shuls. So parents have a similar challenge as their children, as far as acceptance goes. …[Eshel doesn’t] want people to have to leave their communities.”
The mother expressed similar sentiments, saying, “I know families who have moved because of this.”
Kabakov explained that careful consideration was given to the retreat’s location, noting that many attendees would not be ready to be open to identifying themselves to their own communities as parents of LGBT children. “We couldn’t use a retreat center with a lot of Jewish groups,” she said.
Care had to be taken to minimize the possibility of accidental contact between parents and anyone they might know from their home congregations. At the same time, dining had to be strictly kosher. Many hospitality campuses with that capability end up hosting multiple Jewish groups at the same time.
“All parents will be respected and be expected to respect others’ feelings about their children’s gender and sexual identities,” said Kabakov.
The Capital Retreat Center was selected for those reasons, as well as its proximity to major airports and large cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Kabakov said even those attendees who might have the greatest difficulty with their children’s LGBT identity will be “motivated [to attend] simply because they love their children and want to maintain a relationship.”
Not all Orthodox parents remain anonymous. Sabina and Rich Feczko actively work for LGBT inclusion in their community. Rich is Director of Finance and Administration for Keshet, a grassroots organization for LGBT Jews. Sabina is a founding member of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection, a program in which families going through the coming-out process are paired with mentors of a similar religious background, be they secular or Orthodox. The Feczkos both plan to attend the retreat.
Sabina said coming out “was a process for” their son Matt and “it has to be a process for parents. It’s been six-and-a-half years and we’re in a different place.”
She added that “one of the benefits of Orthodoxy is that you are immersed in a community,” and members of a shul rely on one another in both life’s struggles and celebrations. As a result, the fear of communal disapproval adds another layer of complication to the families’ coming-out processes, on top of the challenges non-Orthodox families face.
Often, Rich said, “[The families] don’t feel like they can turn to their own community. This is doubly difficult because Orthodox people look to their communities for support.”
Sabina said for an Orthodox Jew who lives in accord with the Halacha, the problem for full acceptance stems from the biblical proclamation often rendered in English as “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination.”
Sabina added that there are 613 mitzvot and that “everyone I know picks and chooses.” She questions why in some Orthodox communities, breaking that particular mitzvot – and not others – can lead to ostracism.
The anonymous mother observed, “Shuls don’t know who is having an affair or cheating on taxes – things that violate the Torah – and can get honors. …You can be the most upright Jew, but if you’re LGBT,” you can be ostracized.
“G-d is the One who judges. It’s not another person’s right,” said Sabina.
The most widely circulated Orthodox positions on homosexuality do not agree with one another. Both the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (2011) and “Declaration On The Torah Approach To Homosexuality” both consider the Halachic injunction but also weigh it against mitzvot of compassion, love, and a harmonious family and communal life. Each attracted more than 200 signatories from Rabbis and other prominent community members.
The Torah Declaration’s authors took a stance that “same-sex attractions can be modified and healed,” claimed that same-sex attraction was the result of “emotional wounds,” advocated some form of “conversion therapy” to make LGBT Orthodox Jews conform to a heterosexual norm, and took the notion that the idea of a “Gay Orthodox Jew” was not acceptable.
The Statement of Principles, while still insisting on the Halachic prohibition on homosexual acts, took the opinion that “the question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.” It noted that “most of the mental health community” regards therapies that seek to change sexual orientation to be “either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many.”
The Statement also discouraged pressuring LGBT Orthodox Jews to either marry someone of the opposite gender, or to remain in the closet. While not giving blessing to same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, it discouraged ostracism of any LGBT member of the community who wishes to perform mitzvot, attend services, or their children.
A November 2012 statement from the Rabbinical Council of America stated that it could not endorse conversion therapies, citing a lack of scientific basis for its effectiveness, as well that harm it has been known to cause.
For some LGBT Orthodox Jews and their families, the Statement of Principles was a cause for hope, but as Sabina stated, “I was thrilled to finally see something, but it did not go far enough; there are caveats. …For kids just coming out, it does not give them what they need: full acceptance.”
Rich said, “The outside world sees Orthodoxy as monolithic [but] there is no official position,” adding, “It is what it is: a statement by a group of Rabbis. It’s not more than that and not less than that. The Rabbi’s job is to be true to Halachic principles and to help the individual in front of them.”
Matt Feczko, Sabina and Rich’s son, stressed the importance of parental support. Though he does not view himself as Orthodox, he said his religious status is separate from the LGBT issue.
“It’s very important for me to have approval from my parents, especially as the youngest of four children, he said. “My parents are just loving people.”
Matt said he came out to himself on May 7, 2006, while spending the year in-between high school and college in Israel. He told his parents when he returned home that August.
“The hardest thing for my mother was that I had not told her earlier,” he said.
But he noted that it was “not possible to be out” earlier: “I didn’t know gay people before that. I didn’t know non-Orthodox people before that.” For him, it was a problem of “knowing that you’re different, but not having someone you can relate to.”
When Matt started college and became involved both in Hillel and LGBT groups, he discovered that many of his peers had not been supported by their families, or felt alienated from Judaism because of who they were.
“When [my mother] heard that there were parents who were not supporting their children, she was shocked. She wanted to help parents understand.”
The anonymous mother reports that even though it was a shock when her son came out, “I toldhim that I’m glad we don’t have secrets in our family.”
She and her husband consulted with the openly gay Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel, whose book, “Wrestling with G-d & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” their son had read before coming out.
“Rabbi Greenberg made a lot of sense, but [he] has a stake in this,” she said. “I wanted my son to be armed and have armor.”
The family traveled to Israel and met with a Rabbi they greatly respected. “I had the sense if a Rabbi could be courageous and creative with Halacha, it would be him.”
The Rabbi gave the opinion that the passage often cited to justify the prohibition on homosexuality is mistranslated and misinterpreted, saying it refers solely to exploitative and violent acts. The mother said he gave her “a list of communities around the world [that] would be accepting” of her son.
She described her son as appearing afterward, as if “he had had a million pounds lifted from his shoulders.”
Summing up her feelings toward her son and his orientation, she said, “This is how G-d created him and that is who he is and we love him. How can you hate someone created by G-d? It’s not about [me and my husband]; it’s about him [and] ultimately about whom he’s going to love and spend his life with.”
Eshel’s retreat for Orthodox Jewish parents of LGBT children will run April 26-28. The retreat will be fully shomer Shabbat, and dining will be under strict Star-K Kashrut supervision. For more information visit eshelonline.org.