Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
Eshel is a spiritual home for people who have no other place to go. In the last few years, there has been extraordinary progress in the acceptance of LGBTQ people in American society and in much of the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, LGBTQ people continue to face isolation and rejection. This is particularly true for ultra-Orthodox Jews who come out and then endure lengthy and painful divorce processes. Eshel serves their unique needs by organizing a weekly support groups for ultra-Orthodox single parents and children who are negotiating the complexities of sexuality, religion, and family.
“Eshel,” literally means “tamarisk tree,” referring to the tree that Abraham and Sarah planted in Genesis 21:33. Jewish tradition has understood this act as an expression of their commitment to inclusion. All people were welcome, no matter who they were or where they came from, under the shade of their tree. Eshel works to realize Abraham and Sarah’s vision - a spiritual home that includes everyone.
Finding acceptance and support they is hard enough for most LGBTQ Jews, who already long for that sense of warmth and comfort because of the rejection that they so often face in the Orthodox community. But LGBTQ Jews from insular, culturally and religiously conservative ultra-Orthodox communities have unique needs that are even more complex. Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer sets several painful processes into motion, all at once - being cut off from family, community, and support networks, building a new life outside of the ultra-Orthodox world (often without higher education or professional experience) and - perhaps most heart-wrenching - fighting a grueling child custody battle. These parents must handle all of these major life transitions, all while coming to terms with their own sexualities and identities.
In most of society, LGBTQ and Orthodox Jewish identities are in conflict with each other. For ultra-Orthodox single parents, the challenge of LGBTQ inclusion is compounded and made immensely more difficult by having to completely rebuild their lives and fight for their families at the same time. At Eshel, Jewish wisdom teaches us that everybody deserves a spiritual home, where all identities are welcome and nobody is left to struggle on their own. The Jewish wisdom behind Eshel’s work is about inclusion, unconditional support, and providing a safe space regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Nobody should have to feel isolated or alone because of who they are. Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed guests of all kinds, so too, Eshel is a spiritual home for everyone to be their full, authentic selves. Eshel’s support group embodies the inclusive wisdom of Abraham and Sarah by providing a space for LGBTQ ultra-Orthodox single parents to support each other and be supported by each other.
LGBTQ ultra-Orthodox Jews are caught between two worlds. As out members of the LGBTQ community, they are shunned by their ultra-Orthodox friends and family. At the same time, the wider LGBTQ community is not accessible because of the risk it poses in custody battles. Many of these parents are court-mandated to raise their children in an ultra-Orthodox environment and are thus prohibited from attending secular LGBTQ programming. If these parents were to bring their children to a secular LGBTQ community event, their ex-spouses could use that as leverage in court to gain exclusive custody of their children. Given these precarious family situations, every choice that these parents make about their children has implications for their court proceedings. As a result, the only available outlet for this group of people to build community is with other people like them - gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer ultra-Orthodox single parents.
To support these parents in their complex journeys of identity, sexuality, and family, Eshel’s support group for LGBTQ ultra-Orthodox single parents and their children meets every week in a confidential location in Brooklyn. These meetings allow the parents to offer each other emotional support, build friendships, and feel a unique sense of camaraderie and shared experience that can only be experienced in an LGBTQ community. For many participants, these meetings are the only spaces in their lives where all of their identities are welcomed and affirmed. Eshel is a spiritual home where they can experience this Jewish wisdom first hand, finding and sharing support in a Jewish context, without shame in their full identities.
While the support group meets for the parents, Eshel also offers recreational activities for their children as well. Two dedicated Eshel community members attend each meeting to lead sports and fitness activities for the children of the group members. Since physical education is generally not taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, providing children with this experience is a fun and educational way to teach valuable skills, support healthy habits, improve their self-esteem.
Moving forward, Eshel plans to expand the support group to include special dinners around the Jewish holidays, birthday gifts for children and seasonal gift packages, and an annual overnight retreat for families.
For the last few months, a group of 15 parents and 25 children and have attended the support group every week. Participants have praised Eshel for giving them the strength, inspiration, and safety to rebuild their lives and embrace their identities in a traditional Jewish context. These meetings provided a much-needed respite from the often exhausting custody battles.
The support group’s founder explains why this initiative is so important, “when I got divorced in 2009, I received a tremendous amount of help from an ultra-Orthodox organization that supports divorced women. They had weekend retreats for parents, holiday parties for children, back-to- school supplies drives and coupons for discounts at local stores. Most importantly, they provided me with a community of parents like myself who were struggling alongside me with the new challenges that came with being a single mom, and gave my children friends who understood their unique family dynamics. When the organization learned that I was queer, they shut me out and cut off this vital source of support.”
Because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, these single parents cannot get the kind of vital support that would otherwise be available to be them from the ultra-Orthodox community. Eshel’s support group exists to fill in that gap.
One participant told the facilitators, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. My son looks forward to these meetings every week. He feels special to have this and he feels so much affection from you. My daughter is so happy to go and she loves these weekly events. For both of them this is something extraordinary. Thank you!”
Wherever they go, LGBTQ Orthodox Jews are almost always outsiders. This is especially true for ultra-Orthodox single parents, for whom venturing outside of ultra-Orthodoxy for the first time can be a terrifying and lonely experience - all the more so when their lives, relationships, and support systems have just been upended. To reach this highly vulnerable population, Eshel needed to meet this group on its own terms and establish a support group that was specifically for ultra-Orthodox single parents.
In applying Eshel’s Jewish wisdom, we have learned that LGBTQ inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Rather, providing a safe space for certain populations requires us to tailor the program to fit their specific needs. For some participants, the personal risks and feelings of fear and isolation can be so great that this Eshel support group is the only LGBTQ-inclusive space that they can access. And this is only possible because the support group is so niche. While it started with a tight-knit handful of single parents who already knew each other, since then, the support group has grown through personal networks and word of mouth. Based on feedback from participants, we know that the group would not have grown at this rate had it not been specifically built for this niche population of ultra-Orthodox single parents. This experience has taught us about the importance of meeting the unique needs of every kind of LGBTQ Jew and it has strengthened Eshel’s ability to support and build community for the people who need it most.
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