"The Power of Knowing You Are Not Alone" by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
3/17/14- In Haaretz and Tablet Magazine, a pair of articles about Orthodox parents of LGBT children discuss the challenges of their predicament and an organization that is helping parents navigate their new world after their children come out. The organization is called Esheland I think they are doing very important work.
There is a difference between the two articles. Haaretz gives more superficial and less optimistic view of the overall situation. While Tova Ross has written a pretty comprehensive and optimistic take on the work Eshel is doing and the progress being made in the community.
I think it’s very important to have a place for parents in the Orthodox Jewish community to discuss and work through the issues that arise when an Orthodox Jewish son or daughter comes out as LGBT. There are social consequences that need to be addressed. There are priorities that need to be reevaluated. Most importantly, there are stereotypes and biases that must be reevaluated. Eshel helps parents traverse these issues and many more. It’s great work and supremely important.
The Tablet article makes a very important point that is really the core of the issue for Orthodox parents. It also is a trapdoor into greater understanding and compassion for Orthodox LGBT people. Quite simply, there is great power in acknowledgement.
Parents of LGBT people are going to through something very difficult for them. They have preexisting ideas about the way their children will turn out. Others in their community have the same preexisting ideas about their children. Finding out that those dreams and aspirations are not going to come to fruition can be crushing. Dealing with recalibration is important. But even more important is the feeling of knowing that others are going through the same thing. Knowing that you are not alone can make all the difference between being defeated by a challenge and rising up to a challenge.
When we feel alone, our pain is compounded exponentially. There is pain in our specific struggle but loneliness makes that pain so much more difficult to handle. Even if the pain we feel is not being fixed by others, just knowing we are not alone gives us strength because we no longer need to fight off the pain of being alone. We can channel our efforts into dealing with our specific issue. Eshel gives parents the strength of knowing they are not alone.
It’s something that is so often overlooked. There is so much that can be accomplished by simply knowing that others share in our struggles.
Ironically, or maybe not, this was the core of one of the longest Facebook comment threads on my Facebook page. A short personal account by the very same Tova Ross became the focal point of a lengthy conversation.
The soul of my point was to express the great power of empathy and give strength to others by telling them that they are not alone. Many people wanted to argue whether sharing Tova Ross’s story equalled condoning her decisions or whether her decision merited condemnation. To me, those are not even close to the real issue. What I felt from her article was an attempt to do what Eshel is doing for parents of LGBT people. It told people that they are not alone in their struggles. And while people might deal with their struggles in their own way, some might remain more observant as they struggle and others may be unable to maintain their observance levels as they work through their issues, there is strength in simply not feeling alone.
This is a big part of what I am trying to do as a rabbi. To many people, the role of a rabbi is to present the uncompromising ideals of Judaism. I agree. That is part of a rabbi’s role. But there is another role as well. That is to give people the strength to deal with their struggles. I have found that the best way to do this is to demonstrate that we are not alone in our struggles.“Other people are going through the same things you are going through.” When people hear that, a sense of relief that they have not felt in a long time, creeps into them. The power of this feeling cannot be underestimated.
It’s true that some people may read about the struggles of some other person who may have dropped some of their observance and make their own justification for making the same choice. I acknowledge that this is a possibility. But I think that we must do everything we can to help alleviate the pain of others. That’s in our hands. Their choices are in their hands. Besides, how healthy is it for people to adhere to Jewish law from a place of pain? It’s hard for me to believe that this is good for Judaism overall.
It remains a nearly universal truth that acknowledging struggles and sharing common experiences does so much to relieve the pain of our individual battles. Struggles are normal. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. You don’t have to feel alone. You are not alone.