“Coming Out” in the Jewish Family

As many lesbians discover, being true to oneself has a price… Jewish families have both a harder--and an easier--time accepting gay children

A little more than a year ago, Rabbi Stacy Offner’s life was in flux. Offner, a lesbian, had decided no longer to be silent about her sexuality, sparking a bitter controversy over her tenure at the reform synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she had officiated for three years. Under extreme pressure, she resigned.

Yet for Offner, an episode which had seemed like the end of a career has turned into a promising beginning. Several months after her resignation, she was approached by members of her former congregation who had broken away to start a congregation of their own. They wanted Offner to be their spiritual leader. In August 1988, Offner became the rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah, the first synagogue ever knowingly to hire a lesbian rabbi.

The congregation, which held its first meetings in a pizza parlor, has grown from 40 to 105 households — of which approximately ten percent are gay. It has a religious school and a temporary home in the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul. At Offner’s first service, on Rosh Hashannah, 400 people showed up, a quarter of them attending an open house afterward in her home, where she lives with her partner and her partner’s two teen-aged children. Offner says, “With this congregation, I can be a proud parent — a whole person.”

In recent years, lesbians have become increasingly visible in America. Spurred by recent court decisions, they are living together more openly and, due to modern science, they are having babies or adopting children in such numbers that some jokingly refer to a lesbian baby boom.

Yet the taboo against homosexuality — which runs deep in Jewish culture and religion — has made “coming out” a difficult process, especially for Jewish women. Jewish lesbians suffer from “invisibility,” which, says Evelyn Torton Beck, editor of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989) often has a “trivializing, disempowering and ultimately debilitating effect.” Those who reveal their sexual orientation do so in careful, incremental steps, first, to peers within the gay community, next to family and friends, then to the community-at-large or work environment. “When you decide to come out as a lesbian, you are putting yourself on the liner continues Beck. “You risk your family, your friends, your job. In spite of that, you remain totally invisible.”

Yet visibility, with the reward of being true to oneself, has a price — as many Jewish lesbians who have come out discover. “Jewish families have both a harder — and an easier — time accepting gay children” explains Aron Cooper, a San Francisco psychologist who produced the documentary, “Parents Come OuC about parents whose children are gay. “It’s easier because of the Jewish tradition of liberal tolerance and respect for human rights; it’s harder for Jewish parents because of the emphasis on being part of a family and having children — and the myth that lesbians don’t have children” he says. In Jewish culture the focus on the family is strong, and the pressure to procreate is great spurred both by religious injunction and by Jewish history.

“I am not just my parents’ child. I am an historical event whose role is to make up for lives that were lost;’ says one 35-year old lesbian whose parents survived concentration camps. It took her twelve years to tell her parents about her homosexuality. Now, she and her partner are thinking about adopting a child.

“If a man doesn’t marry, it’s societally acceptable. If your daughter doesn’ t marry a doctor or a lawyer,” says Aron Cooper, “you aren’t going to run and tell your neighbors. If she is a lesbian, you certainly aren’t going to tell them:’ And in fact, few parents, even those who have accepted their daughters’ gayness, are willing to talk about it publicly.

When a child turns out to be gay, most parents suffer tremendous guilt and shame. When Cooper searched for parents of gay children for his film, he contacted dozens of rabbis in the San Francisco Bay area. Not one had ever had a member of his or her congregation confide that a child was gay. “The stigma is too great;’ says Cooper. “Parents feel it is their fault, that the family life was disturbed or dysfunctional in some way.”

Beraice Becker, a San Francisco Jewish community worker, said that when her older daughter “came out” to her over 25 years ago she had no one to turn to. “Years later I visited a doctor, who was also a Lubavitch rabbi and he told me, ‘You have been cursed by God.’ But I never blamed myself. I thought of it as some kind of passing phase.” She also encouraged her daughter to see a therapist who told Becker that her daughter was “too feminine” to be a lesbian. Both Becker’s daughters are gay, and it has taken her a long time to accept this. “What made it easier for me was that I’ve always been open-minded and accepting of non-traditional attitudes and behavior.”

On the other hand, once having dealt with some of the shock, anger and guilt, a Jewish parent often finds a way to come to terms with a child’s homosexuality. “Some parents actually sit shiva for a gay child, but that reaction is extremely rare,” says Dr. Robert Rosenbaum, a Princeton psychologist who treats gay and lesbian clients primarily. In fact many Jewish parents are quite supportive, comprising a large percentage of the leadership in organizations such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (Parents-FLAG) that serve as support groups for parents of gay and lesbian children.

Paulette Goodman, national president of the federation of local groups of Parents-FLAG, recalled that when her daughter first told her she was a lesbian, “I thought that she was just angry and rebelling against me. Then I saw a slide show of a gay pride march and saw gays in wheelchairs, deaf gays and blind gays holding banners, and realized that they wouldn’t have chosen to be gay on top of their disability. Their being lesbian or gay wasn’t a matter of choice — it is who they are.” After that realization she was more accepting of her own daughter’s identity as a lesbian. She now comments, “We have to help our children be the best they can be no matter what their sexual orientation.”

A Washington, DC, attorney and lesbian mother of two children was proud of her parents last year when they marched in a gay rights demonstration in their hometown of Durham, North Carolina. That kind of support, she said, did not come overnight. “My parents are Conservative, religious Jews. It has taken them years to be comfortable with my sexuality, but they were never rejecting.”

When the lawyer had her first lesbian relationship at age 22, her parents sent her to Israel to get over it. Six years ago, when she and her female partner decided to have a child through artificial insemination, her parents were uncomfortable with the idea. But through the children — they have a five-year-old and a five-month-old — her relationship with them has grown. “Since we had a family, my parents have become much closer to my lover. They are selective about whom they tell, sometimes even guarded, but then they can be quite open — like marching in a demonstration.”

“At first I couldn’t believe it when my daughter told me she was gay,” said a retired New York City school teacher. “I thought she was rushing into something and needed to give it more thought.” Later when her daughter asked her to participate in a radio discussion of homosexuality, she refused because she was frightened she would lose her job. This caused a lot of anger between them. But now she says, “I love my daughter’s lesbian partner and only wish that married people could be as happy as they are.”

According to Rosenbaum, a parent’s basic psychological structure will determine how well she or he works the issue through, and it is the single most important factor in determining how well the parent will adapt. Some parents will try to talk a child out of it. Others may accept the child and her lover but never acknowledge the nature of the relationship. Still others will fully embrace it.

Linda Holtzman, a Philadelphia rabbi, told her parents she was a lesbian seven years ago. Since then, she and her partner have had two children — her partner gave birth three years ago and Linda last July. “When I told my mother I was thinking of getting pregnant she wanted to disappear. When I actually did, she changed dramatically. She realized it would be the only way she would have a grandchild;’ said Holtzman, an only child. But her mother, she said, has never acknowledged the relationship — not to others, nor to herself. “She tells people that her daughter is into her thirties, not involved in a relationship and wanted to have a baby before it was too late. She still doesn’t understand why my partner is financially responsible for my son should something happen to me. She thinks it should be her. She just doesn’t get it.”

As difficult as it may be to come out in the Jewish family, for most lesbians, the Jewish community at large is that much harder to crack. Modern Jewish practice has come a long way since the Bible legislated that, “If a man should lie with a man as with a woman, both have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood shall be upon them,” but Orthodox Judaism still condemns homosexuality. The Conservative movement is considering the issue, and Reform and Reconstructionist movements have passed resolutions which oppose discrimination on the basis of lifestyle or sexual preferences. But, according to gays and lesbians, most synagogues do not welcome those with alternative lifestyles.

In a situation similar to Stacy Offner’s, the decision to come out also cost Linda Holtzman her job. For four years as a rabbi of a straight congregation she had no trouble staying in the closet — until she and her partner decided they wanted children. Even then, she didn’t tell the congregation about her sexuality, but asked that time off for co-parenting be written into her contract. “They freaked out about that — a single woman having a baby” said Holtzman. “But I believe, on some level, they knew.” Holtzman resigned and took a part-time position at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College of Philadelphia, where she had been ordained.

Frustrated and rebuffed by prejudice, lesbians and gays are increasingly turning to alternative congregations for acceptance. There are 25 gay and lesbian congregations across the country, the largest of them in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. For some, these congregations are the answer. But for others, they are not enough. A good number wish to remain loyal to their branch of Judaism — the alternative congregations tend to be unaffiliated — and those with children are searching for synagogues that can support religious schools.

To be accepted into mainstream Judaism is still the dominant wish for many gays and lesbians. Jewish gay leaders are concerned that negative attitudes and the unwillingness of organized religion to bend are chasing many away from Judaism altogether — something the faith cannot afford. “When I go around the country making speeches, the major thing I discover is the unwillingness of Jews to see us as a people within the community,” says Evelyn Torton Beck, who, in addition to her writing, is a professor and director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Maryland and a professor in the school’s Judaic Studies Program.

According to Beck, a Holocaust survivor, for many lesbians, being gay and being Jewish are intertwined. “When you put yourself at risk as a lesbian, you are more willing to come out as a Jew — and face the anti-Semitism that goes with it. Once you begin focusing upon who you are, you get in touch with who you were when you were younger. Unexpectedly it is then that many discover their Judaism.”

Beck is hopeful that as more lesbians come out and people begin to talk about these issues there will be a gradual acceptance, and lesbian Jews will feel less isolated. The Washington, DC, attorney belongs to a gay synagogue; her daughter attends the Hebrew school of a straight congregation. She is optimistic: “I’m concerned that both my children will have to put up with a lot of bigotry, but I believe that in the end the Jewish community will be more accepting. My own dream is to be comfortable someday in a heterogeneous synagogue — and that it becomes a support in my family’s life.”

Carla Cantor is a freelance writer who specializes in family and health issues. She lives in New Jersey