We in the religiously-observant Jewish community hold onto fundamental teachings and standards of behavior that dictate what should be the ideal application of the system of life that is taught by and exemplified in halacha, the Jewish laws that instruct and informs our lives daily. However, we often live in the reality that falls far short of this ideal on so many levels.
One area of challenge that has received increased attention in our contemporary Jewish world is that of inclusion and validation of our LGBT members. While we duly note that in the non-Orthodox world, this issue has generally receded as a challenge and that acceptance of all on this spectrum is taken as a given in most settings, this has been more of a challenge in the Orthodox Jewish world. There have been expressions of anger and frustration that the Orthodox world has been perceived as slow and even reluctant to acknowledge this reality of life, and more importantly the individuals for whom this is life.
We must understand a critical element, namely, what it means to be Orthodox: When one consults the foundational texts and teachings to examine what is correct and acceptable regarding every aspect of life, the process of how we move to a place of understanding is different. It is intentional and it is as connected to years of evolving understanding of the text that so defines us, our Torah, as it is to the reality of our lives in the present. This is the nature of halacha, the law of Jewish life: It moves along and does evolve within the parameters of its definition, as the root of the word suggests.
Enter Eshel, the consortium of Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families. This important group began officially in 2010, though its history dates back before that. It states as its mission “to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.” Annually LGBT members of our Orthodox world gather together for support, validation and community. Similarly, the parents of LGBT Jews in our Orthodox world also come together annually for the same sense of sharing and validation, being able to freely interact with others as parents who love our children and value their being wonderful human beings and engaged and observant Jews.
This year’s parent retreat was held May 13-15 at Berkshire Hills Retreat Center. Our keynote speaker was Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a well-known lecturer and rav, and author of “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View.” Rabbi Rapoport dialogued with the parents at the retreat to understand what can realistically be expected and how halacha is quite helpful in distinguishing between “what we are,” that is how G-d made us, and “what we do,” as well as what halacha says and how we can and must show the same compassion to each other that the Master of the World shows to all of us daily.
Eshel is clearly at the forefront of this entire issue and is in many ways the go to resource for teachings, texts, speakers and initiatives to promote an embrace of our LGBT community members in the Orthodox Jewish community so they do not feel shut out, as has too often and too painfully been the case in the past. To address this, Eshel has embarked on a Welcoming Shuls Project in which we are interviewing Orthodox rabbis throughout North America to ascertain where LGBT community members can feel welcome and comfortable. We are continually heartened by the increasing number of our religious leaders who are acknowledging that we have a responsibility, a chiyuv, to welcome every Jew into our religious spaces, insuring that all are safe and respected.
Additionally, we still have a long way to go in educating our communities and leaders. Further, through parent surveys, provision of educational materials and classes as well as programs, the wide reach of the work of Eshel is expanding.
Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein is a parent in the Eshel community as well as a Jewish educator in Philadelphia.