NEW YORK — Mindy Sager Dickler was speechless when her youngest child Ely came out as gay.
“I couldn’t speak. My husband told him ‘We love you, you’re our son and it doesn’t change anything,’ and I just went to him and hugged him tight,” Dickler said of that Rosh Hashanah weekend five years ago.
She remembered going to bed that night with a lot of questions.
“It was a new reality. I remember realizing that everything I always assumed, that all my kids would grow up and get married to someone of the opposite sex — that was a given that was just in the back of my mind. And then ‘pop!’ It was gone and I had no new image with which to replace it,” she recalled.
And then a few weeks later Dickler had an epiphany.
“I remember thinking, he was created in God’s image the same way I was. There can be nothing wrong with that. It was a very comforting thought for me,” she said.
And so began Dickler’s journey to come out as the mother of a gay child; a journey many parents make, but one that can be especially fraught for members of Orthodox and Haredi communities. In these circles conformity is the norm and LGBT children and parents often feel stigmatized and ostracized, said Miryam Kabakov, co-director of Eshel, a New York-based organization that provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and families in Orthodox communities.
Most parents seeking support services from Eshel remain closeted because of homophobic speeches by rabbis and other community leaders or because of positions held by community institutions or family members. Indeed, rabbis are the last person many Orthodox parents of LGBT children would go to for help, Kabakov said.
“LGBT individuals are gaining more acceptance in American society, but recognition still remains a very sensitive matter in the Orthodox Jewish world. Strides are being made, slow and steady, but work remains,” she said.
Initially, Dickler wasn’t sure where to turn for support. She found out about PFLAG, the National Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays. However, after attending a few sessions of the secular group she felt something was missing. As an Orthodox Jew, Dickler wanted something a bit more spiritual.
Through Eshel, Dickler, who lives in Baltimore, said she found the support she needed, particularly at the annual retreat.
“It was a game changer for me. There are not that many places where you can go and be your total self. Every part of yourself is welcomed. It’s awesome,” Dickler said of the retreat.
‘There are not that many places where you can go and be your total self’
This year’s retreat, May 5-7, will be centered on the theme “Happy, Healthy and Holy.” As in years past it will help answer questions Orthodox Jewish parents ask when a child comes out. An experienced faculty of rabbis and lay experts will lead workshops and text study.
“When a child comes out there are so many questions. For the kids, it’s letting go. They feel liberated. If they are telling the parents it generally means they are coming to terms with it. But for some parents, it’s like ‘what do I do with this information?’” Kabakov said.
Parents wonder how to keep their child safe, or to whom in the Orthodox community they can turn for support and guidance. Some have questions about medical and emotional ramifications for a transgender child. Others want to know what halacha (the Jewish code of law) says about homosexuality. And some want to know how one child’s homosexuality might affect other children’s chances of finding a match within the Orthodox community.
It remains a sensitive matter in the Orthodox Jewish world, as demonstrated by a confidential survey Eshel conducted last February. About 300 Orthodox and traditional Jewish parents with LGBT children participated.
Kabakov said she tries to explain that the priority for parents of LGBT children is acceptance and happiness.
‘For some parents, it’s like, what do I do with this information?’
“Getting the parent to understand the kids’ struggle. The greatest predictor of suicide is parental acceptance. Drug use, depression and other damaging behaviors go down when acceptance goes up,” Kabakov said. “The parent can choose to be accepting or rejecting. A lot of what we do is getting parents to accept kids for who they are and for who they are telling you they are.”
According to the San Francisco-based Family Acceptance Project, acceptance and family support helps prevent health and mental health risks for LGBT children and youth, including suicide, homelessness and HIV.
Retreat participants come mostly from the US, but also Israel, the UK and Australia. Over time the parents become very close, inviting each other to weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations, Kabakov said.
It’s about seeing they aren’t alone, finding community and quieting the negative voices of synagogue, school and community members.
“My own coming out, as the mother of a gay son, has been slow and steady. At first it’s testing the waters,” Dickler said. “I think of it as concentric circles. You start with those close to you, who you can trust with the information, and move out from there.”