Orthodox? LGBT? New Survey Examines Orthodox Parents with LGBT Children’s Sense of Belonging, Rejection to their Communities

From the movie "Who's Gonna Love Me Now?"; courtesy Heymann Brothers Films.
From the movie “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?”; courtesy Heymann Brothers Films.

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Only 9 percent of Orthodox parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children who sought help from an outside source when their children came out appealed to their rabbi. More than 32% of parents stated that their rabbi does not even know about their child. Nearly half (49%) of rabbis have not publically said anything about the topic of LGBT people.

These statistics and other similar ones are among the results of a new survey published by Eshel, an organization dedicated to creating community and acceptance for LGBT Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The “Survey of Orthodox Parents with LGBT Children” provides a snapshot of these parents’ sense of belonging or rejection to their communities, defined as synagogues, rabbis, friends and families, schools and camps.

“We wanted to see if there was a common experience among these parents,” said Eshel Executive Director Miryam Kabakov. “We had some assumptions and we wanted to check them out. … We wanted to understand what it is like to be an Orthodox parent of a LGBT person.”

Eshel sent the survey to 300 parents within its own database and disseminated it online through social media. Just over 100 people answered the questions, penned by member parents and edited by Kabakov. The majority of the parents were from the U.S. – 61% from the Northeast. The ages of their LGBT children ranged from 12 through 49. Some 14% said their child came out less than one year ago, 49% within one and five years ago, and nearly 30% more than five years ago.

The survey is an important communication piece, according to Kabakov, who said that the majority of Orthodox individuals who come out as LGBT leave their Orthodox community “because there is no place for them,” which can be particularly upsetting to parents. This coming out can also lead to alienation among siblings and parents of LGBT people, which leads to further attrition.

“So many parents of LGBT children feel alone in their home communities,” said Mindy Dickler of Baltimore, Md., whose son came out four-and-a-half years ago. “There are not people to talk to that can understand what they are going through. … There is a lack of communication within our Orthodox community around LGBT issues.”

The survey, which was conducted ahead of the annual Eshel Parent Retreat, supports Dickler’s sentiments. Many respondents remain closeted to their communities because of homophobic speeches by rabbis or other community leaders (22%). Synagogues and synagogue rabbis have remained largely silent on the issue of LGBT Jews, with little or no public discussion. More than half of parents (53%) said their synagogue prefers not to discuss the subject of LGBT Jews at all.

A large majority of parents said that participation in synagogue rituals for their LGBT child was either not applicable (67%) or there was another answer not offered (16%). In commentary, parents stated other related issues that troubled them including rabbis not acknowledging the birth of a grandchild born to the parents’ gay child and not allowing a transgender child to sit on his/her preferred side of the synagogue mechitza.

“Why does anyone have the right to close the door on them?” Dickler asks, referring to her son and other LGBT Orthodox Jews. She said she hopes the survey will bring the discussion of LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community “out of the closet.”

“If a rabbi doesn’t appear to speak negatively, that is not enough,” said Kabakov. “People have to be out there, talking about LGBT people in the Orthodox community and addressing their needs. With any group that doesn’t fit into the traditional model Orthodox model – divorcees, people with disabilities, people with anything that differentiates them from the majority of people – it is not enough just to say, ‘You are welcome.’ You have to make the shul accessible.”

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn says he has been personally dealing with these issues. His synagogue welcomes LGBT people and allows them to participate in services, but said he has seen some of his Orthodox colleagues struggle to do the same. He calls the plight of Orthodox LGBT people “a tragic story,” but believes the Modern Orthodox community has “made tremendous strides in the last five to 10 years.”

Shuls have become, if nothing else, aware of the reality that this issue is not going anywhere,” said Katz. “There will be gay members in our shul. Once we thought we could use reparative therapy. The reality is that doesn’t work. They are here and we have to make them a supportive space.

“Some shuls are moving faster than others, and that is understandable.”

Katz explained that the whole notion of homosexuality presents a theological challenge for Orthodox rabbis. The Bible and God prohibit it, yet such people exist.

“God says no and here it is,” he quipped. “Some people are much more adaptable to making peace with these conflicting values. For others, it depends.”

According to the survey, rabbis are supportive to their congregants on an individual level. More than 20% of rabbis told parents to “love our child no matter what.” Nearly 17% openly embraced the children and family.

“We are moving in the direction that to be an openly gay person is OK,” said Katz. “You are not at fault. This is who you are and it doesn’t matter.”

He continued, “Can we expect to get to a place where these people could have halachically sanctioned [approved by Jewish law] healthy sexual lives? That is a more complicated process.”

Katz said as time goes by, people are becoming less removed from knowing an LGBT person or even being related to one. This, he says, will help pave the way toward more acceptance.

“In the end of the day, the Bible says it is an abomination,” says Katz. “But I think we can come up with sophisticated ways to move around this. The LGBT community deserves our support.”

Added Eshel’s Kabakov, “The parents are the future in this cause. They are the ones that love their children more than anyone and a lot of them are not afraid to speak up.”