Ortho­dox familes and their gay chil­dren

Lov­ing par­ents learn to be ac­cept­ing of their les­bian, gay and trans­gen­der chil­dren. Can Ortho­dox so­ci­ety in Is­rael learn to do the same?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ALAN ROSENBAUM

‘We knew that some­thing was both­er­ing him, but we had no idea.” In Au­gust 2005, Michal Mintzer of Efrat, a mother of six chil­dren and a teacher at a girls’ high school in Gush Etzion, knew that her 17-yearold son, Sefi, was un­happy. The pre­vi­ous year, they had trans­ferred him from the lo­cal Efrat yeshiva high school to a dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tion in Jerusalem, hop­ing that the change of scenery would help, but he re­mained un­set­tled.

Mintzer re­calls the phone call she re­ceived one after­noon late that sum­mer from an anony­mous caller.

“Do you have a son named Sefi?” the caller asked. “I need to speak with your hus­band.”

Mintzer replied that her hus­band could not come to the phone.

The caller per­sisted, and said, “What I have to say is some­thing that it is not proper to tell a mother.”

The caller then came to their Efrat home and in­formed them that their son Sefi was gay. The man had thrown his own gay son out of his home, knew that Sefi and he were friends, and came to the Mintzers’ home, hop­ing to find his son. Michal Mintzer says that upon learn­ing that his son was gay, her hus­band could not con­tain him­self. He sat in the cor­ner and cried.

“Sefi came home a lit­tle later,” says Mintzer, “and didn’t know what I knew. I asked him if I could see his phone. He handed me his phone, I opened up his list of con­tacts, and I saw many un­fa­mil­iar names.

“‘Who are th­ese names?’ I said. Sefi be­gan to cry and he said to me, ‘What are you do­ing?’ I said to him, ‘I un­der­stand, Sefi, that you have a life that I know noth­ing about. I want to know every­thing now. What is your life? Who are you?’”

Sefi ran out of the house, and Michal found him sit­ting at the bus stop.

“We be­gan talk­ing. It was the first con­ver­sa­tion on the sub­ject, but it was a very good dis­cus­sion. I told him about the man who had come to our home, and then he told me that he had been go­ing to the Jerusalem Open House [for Pride and Tol­er­ance], the com­mu­nity cen­ter that pro­vides re­sources for the city’s LGBT [les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der] com­mu­nity, for the past cou­ple of years.

“I asked Sefi, ‘Are you sure that you are gay? Per­haps you are on the spec­trum? Maybe you are some­where in the mid­dle?’ He told me that he was cer­tain that he was gay. I said to him, ‘You are our son. We’ll see where this goes and what will be.’”

The next morn­ing, Mintzer con­tacted the Jerusalem Open House, and met with the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s head.

“It was im­por­tant for me to see it and to know that I could rely on them,” she says. “It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize and un­der­stand your child’s world.”

AC­CORD­ING TO Ben­jamin Katz, a psy­chol­o­gist and PhD. can­di­date at He­brew Univer­sity, and board mem­ber of Sho­val, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that at­tempts to in­crease the ac­cep­tance of LGBT in­di­vid­u­als in the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in Is­rael, the per­cent­age of les­bians, gays, bi-sex­ual, and trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als among the Ortho­dox pop­u­la­tion is the same rate as most other com­mu­ni­ties – be­tween 4% and 9%, depend­ing on the sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods used.

Ortho­dox par­ents may demon­strate var­i­ous dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions when learn­ing about their

child’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Some may cut off the re­la­tion­ship with their child, while oth­ers will ac­cept them as they are. Even within a sin­gle fam­ily, dif­fer­ent mem­bers may ex­hibit dif­fer­ent de­grees of ac­cep­tance or re­jec­tion of chil­dren, sib­lings, or grand­chil­dren that have come out of the closet. Psy­chol­o­gists and ther­a­pists ex­plain that when par­ents first learn the news, they may feel as if the wind has been knocked out of them.

Talya Roth, a Jerusalem-based psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice, ex­plains that when par­ents find out that their chil­dren are les­bian, gay or trans­gen­der, they need to go through a process of ad­just­ment be­fore they can fully ac­cept the change. “In the same way that LGBT in­di­vid­u­als them­selves have to go through a process, they have to un­der­stand that their par­ents have to go through a process as well, and they shouldn’t ex­pect full ac­cep­tance in a sec­ond.”

Roth adds that for many Ortho­dox par­ents, find­ing out that their child is LGBT is a shock­ing piece of in­for­ma­tion. “They might go through a level of griev­ing, the loss of the dream, of what they ex­pected for their child’s life.”

“If a kid comes to you with this kind of an­nounce­ment, take a deep breath,” she ad­vises. “You can say, ‘Wow – that’s a big piece of in­for­ma­tion, and I need to process it. Give me some time to get used to this idea.’”

Michal Mintzer pro­cessed what she had learned from her son, be­gan to read and study about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, and rec­og­nized that her son was gay and not on the spec­trum.

Her first de­ci­sion was not to share her son’s sex­ual iden­tity with many other peo­ple. “When Sefi was 17, it was im­por­tant for me to keep his pri­vacy. A 17-year-old is not nec­es­sar­ily aware of the con­se­quences of a pub­lic an­nounce­ment.”

Mintzer ex­plains that Sefi’s sex­u­al­ity even­tu­ally be­came known in the com­mu­nity. “I didn’t speak about it with any­one in the com­mu­nity, and I wasn’t in­ter­ested in speak­ing with any­one.”

Mintzer told a few close friends about Sefi, though when one of her ac­quain­tances sug­gested that they con­sider con­ver­sion ther­apy, the dis­cred­ited prac­tice of try­ing to change an in­di­vid­ual’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion from ho­mo­sex­ual to het­ero­sex­ual, she re­al­ized that they could no longer re­main friends.

Mintzer told her chil­dren as well as her sib­lings about Sefi’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, who were all ac­cept­ing. She says that within the ex­tended fam­ily, there were those who were un­able to ac­cept the fact that Sefi had a male part­ner and didn’t feel com­fort­able hav­ing him at­tend­ing fam­ily events. When Sefi and Daniel mar­ried in 2018, the en­tire im­me­di­ate fam­ily at­tended. Sefi has a master’s de­gree in bioin­for­mat­ics from Weiz­mann In­sti­tute, and he and his part­ner live in Tel Aviv.

“I can ac­cept that my son is like this,” she says. “I love him as he is, but that is not the only thing that makes him what he is. Be­ing ho­mo­sex­ual does not de­fine him.”

DEVORAH AND Rachi Mess­ing of Ra’anana moved to Is­rael from Bal­ti­more three years ago. They were not ter­ri­bly sur­prised to learn that their mid­dle son, Jake, was gay.

“We didn’t have a huge com­ing out,” says Devorah. “It was not very dra­matic.”

When Jake was in ninth grade, he told one of his friends, who told her par­ents, who then men­tioned it to Devorah and Rachi.

“We weren’t so shocked. We were wait­ing for him to tell us. We told him that we had heard about it from his friend’s par­ents, and asked him why he didn’t feel that he could tell us di­rectly. Once he felt more com­fort­able that we knew about it, he was more open about it, but he didn’t make any an­nounce­ment.”

Mess­ing says that Jake felt that the peo­ple who were his good friends in the Bal­ti­more Jew­ish com­mu­nity would still love him, though she says that a few teens from NCSY were hurt­ful and mean and posted un­kind com­ments on Face­book.

Mess­ing adds that since Jake was at­tend­ing a non-Jew­ish school, his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was not an is­sue for his class­mates, be­cause sec­u­lar teenagers no longer con­sider it an is­sue.

Mess­ing in­formed her fam­ily. “Our sib­lings and our par­ents were okay with it. They said that they love him, which was nice. We were not ashamed of it,” she says. “If you’re hid­ing it, you can’t have a re­la­tion­ship with peo­ple, be­cause they don’t know the real you. It’s a non­is­sue be­cause we don’t make it the fo­cal point of who he is. It is not his main iden­ti­fy­ing fac­tor.”

“We found in Is­rael that he had more sup­port, be­cause there are sup­port groups he can go to where he can be his hon­est self.”

Jake stud­ied in Jerusalem after they first ar­rived, and fre­quented the Jerusalem Open House, which has so­cial and sup­port ac­tiv­i­ties. He also joined Is­rael Gay Youth, which is the largest LGBT+ or­ga­ni­za­tion in Is­rael.

“He is much more re­laxed here, be­cause ev­ery­one he meets can know, and he is not be­ing se­cre­tive.

In Bal­ti­more he felt that per­haps not ev­ery­one knows, and he couldn’t feel 100% com­fort­able be­ing him­self.”

Jake’s friends come to the Mess­ing home fre­quently to visit.

“Not all of his friends have par­ents who are so open-minded and lov­ing,” says Devorah. “My son has friends whose par­ents wouldn’t let them stay at home, and they don’t feel wel­come in their own houses, and that is ter­ri­ble.”

She adds, “When kids come out of the closet, the par­ents go into the closet. You don’t know whom to tell or trust.”

“He’s my son, so I love him, and I don’t know how to do any­thing else. This is who he is, and what he has been given. We want him to be happy, and we want him to find some­one who he can love, some­one who can love him the way we love him. We wouldn’t want him to be lonely and sad. This is not how we imag­ined our lives, but this is what it is.”

NAOMI GRANAT moved to Is­rael 14 years ago from Dal­las, and lives in Beit Shemesh with her hus­band, Mark. They have six chil­dren – three from her first mar­riage, and three from Mark’s first mar­riage. Her mid­dle child, now 19, was born a girl, and now iden­ti­fies as a boy, go­ing by the name MJ. Naomi says that she no­ticed a change when “his style of dress be­came a bit more mas­cu­line, with but­ton-down shirts, pants in­stead of skirts, and a shorter hair­style.”

While still iden­ti­fied as a girl, MJ was a star stu­dent at the Amit Shachar school in Beit Shemesh.

“When we signed up for the first day of 12th grade and were fill­ing out the health forms,” says Naomi, “MJ scratched out the name that was listed, and wrote ‘Michael.’”

MJ be­gan to at­tend Is­rael Gay Youth events in Beit Shemesh, and met Opal, a trans­gen­der girl, whose as­signed gen­der was male. “When we met Opal, we weren’t sure if MJ was gay or trans­gen­der. We thought it was two girls in a re­la­tion­ship.”

MJ has been un­der­go­ing testos­terone ther­apy and iden­ti­fies as a boy. Naomi says that he tried do­ing Na­tional Ser­vice, but it didn’t work out. He cur­rently lives at home and re­mains in his re­la­tion­ship with Opal.

“Our friends have been so ac­cept­ing,” says Naomi with her Texas twang. “Peo­ple that come to me and talk to me want to show sup­port and are proud that we are ac­cept­ing of our child.”

Yet, oth­ers are not aware of the change. Adds Naomi sadly, “One of my neigh­bors said, ‘I haven’t seen your daugh­ter in a while – the blond one with the blue eyes.’ I was in a hurry and didn’t know what to say to her.” Granat’s voice trails off. “It’s too much to ex­plain when you are just in pass­ing.”

Naomi says that re­li­gion wasn’t the big­gest is­sue when deal­ing with her child’s trans­gen­der is­sues. But she says that, early on, she had an ex­change on Face­book with Rabbi Sh­muel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom – The Na­tional Syn­a­gogue in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Herzfeld wrote that there is a spe­cial place for trans­gen­ders in his con­gre­ga­tion, and they must view ev­ery­one in the con­gre­ga­tion as a bless­ing. If some­one has been in­sulted or emo­tion­ally hurt, then their prayers are the most pow­er­ful. “That was all I needed,” says Granat.

Granat, a baker, who is wear­ing a T-shirt bear­ing a de­sign of a multi-hued rain­bow cup­cake with the slo­gan “Y’all means All,” says that her friends’ pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­ward MJ in­spired her to be­come more ac­cept­ing. “I said to my­self that I need to come to a place of ac­cep­tance and stop fight­ing. Once you come to that place of ac­cep­tance, it takes so much pres­sure and stress off, it is in­cred­i­ble.”

Roth notes that par­ents should ac­cept what they are feel­ing about their LGBT chil­dren with­out judg­ment.

“We feel what we feel au­to­mat­i­cally. Feel­ings are le­git­i­mate and are part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.” At the same time, she notes, “Peo­ple can change and can shift their points of view.”

THE LES­BIAN, gay, and trans­gen­der chil­dren dis­cussed in this ar­ti­cle are no longer ob­ser­vant. Yet Roth says that in Is­rael to­day there are nu­mer­ous LGBT in­di­vid­u­als who are ac­tively re­main­ing within the frame­work of the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity.

“There are Mod­ern Ortho­dox gay peo­ple who are liv­ing fam­ily lives with Jew­ish val­ues, and who want to con­tinue the val­ues of their par­ents, just with a part­ner of the same sex. There are many more gay peo­ple re­main­ing Ortho­dox.”

Roth speaks highly of Sho­val, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that is ded­i­cated to in­te­grat­ing LGBT in­di­vid­u­als into Ortho­dox life. The name of the or­ga­ni­za­tion is an acro­nym for the He­brew words “She­hakol Bara Lichvodo,” which mean “every­thing He cre­ated in his honor,” at­test­ing to the idea that all that God cre­ated in this world has pur­pose and im­por­tance.

Rabbi Aaron Lei­bowitz, who heads the VeAni Te­fila syn­a­gogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neigh­bor­hood, says, “Over the course of 5 years, I en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tions with LGBT mem­bers of my com­mu­nity in Nahlaot. I found that faceto-face con­ver­sa­tions in which it stopped be­ing an is­sue and started be­ing about peo­ple to­tally shifted my per­spec­tive.”

Lei­bowitz adds that fam­i­lies who are strug­gling in his com­mu­nity have told him that the at­ti­tude that he mod­els has been help­ful to them.

The shift­ing of at­ti­tudes in the mod­ern Ortho­dox world, says Lei­bowitz, can be cred­ited to those in­di­vid­u­als who came out of the closet and de­clared them­selves Ortho­dox.

“They are the pioneers, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for Ortho­dox rab­bis to ig­nore this is­sue and pre­tend that it doesn’t have to be dealt with.”

Can Ortho­dox fam­i­lies of LGBT chil­dren and Ortho­dox so­ci­ety as a whole be­come more ac­cept­ing of LGBT in­di­vid­u­als in their midst, espe­cially if they want to re­main ob­ser­vant?

Granat says wist­fully, “It would be nice if the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity was the place where they felt ac­cepted and com­fort­able. Peo­ple are very judg­men­tal ev­ery­where, whether they are re­li­gious or not.”

Mintzer notes that ac­cep­tance of an LGBT child does not mean that one must agree with every­thing that is deemed “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect.” The most im­por­tant thing, she says, is to keep him as a part of the fam­ily, and un­der­stand that he is what he is, and that his na­ture can­not be changed.

Says Mintzer, “Schools need to distin­guish be­tween the pro­hi­bi­tions in the To­rah re­gard­ing spe­cific sex­ual acts and the pos­i­tive com­mand­ment of lov­ing one’s neigh­bor, which ap­plies to all peo­ple, who have been cre­ated in the im­age of God. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is not a value – it is a re­al­ity. The value that schools should be teach­ing is tol­er­ance and ac­cept­ing peo­ple as they are.”

(Dan Kupfer)

THE GRANAT fam­ily, with MJ (left).

(Micha Paul)

DEVORAH AND RACHI Mess­ing with their chil­dren, in­clud­ing Jake (right).

(Cour­tesy)

MJ WITH OPAL.

(Natalie Schor)

MICHAL MINTZER with her son Sefi.

(Micha Paul)

PSY­CHOL­O­GIST TALYA ROTH.

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