Israel's LGBT Orthodox Community: Living in two worlds

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

DEVORAH AND RACHI Messing with their children, including Jake (right). (photo credit: MICHA PAUL)
DEVORAH AND RACHI Messing with their children, including Jake (right).
(photo credit: MICHA PAUL)
‘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-year-old 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.
THE GRANAT family, with MJ (left). (Credit: DAN KUPFER)
THE GRANAT family, with MJ (left). (Credit: DAN KUPFER)
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. n 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.”
MICHAL MINTZER with her son Sefi. (Credit: NATALIE SHORE)
MICHAL MINTZER with her son Sefi. (Credit: NATALIE SHORE)
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 face-to-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.”