My grandma was the epitome of a babushka — a loving, overly emotional Russian woman, and I was the apple of her eye. She called me "Stevenyu." For her, I could do no wrong.
So when my mother learned that her first-born son, an Orthodox rabbi, named after her father who died in Auschwitz, was gay, she couldn't bear her mother-in-law's naivete. She blurted out, "Eleanor, Steve is gay," and then left the room.
Grandma, however, had decided to ignore the comment. Not sure how to respond, she pretended that nothing had happened. Later, when I came home for a visit, I was asked by my father to go see her and explain things.
I asked her if she had heard that I was gay, and she said yes. I asked her if she understood what that meant. I explained to her that I would probably not end up marrying a woman because I just didn't feel those feelings, but that I did feel them for men. I told her that I would probably end up with a man as a partner instead.
She paused and let out a huge sigh. "Ohhh," she said. "I saw this on Oprah." I waited to hear what that might mean. "Well," she said, in a slightly wry fashion, "It's all right with Oprah, and it's all right with me, too."
And then she added, so that I would understand that this was truly how she felt: "Anyway, you know dear — I love you, no matter what."
The Oprah story is an example of a growing trend of acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender people in the larger society. Over the past decade, we have seen a great social movement of increased integration of gay and lesbian people into the social fabric of the country. At the same time, people with all sorts of religious affiliations are choosing not to leave their home communities, and instead are challenging those communities to respond with tolerance and become more welcoming.
But we're not out of the woods yet. A recent study demonstrated that putting up a welcome sign doesn't actually change much. Reform Magazine's recent cover article on bullying had no reference to gay, lesbian or transgender teens. While the Conservative movement has opened up the field by allowing the ordination of gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies, there's been little or no real change in Conservative congregations.
In the Orthodox world, a new statement of principles signed by nearly 200 rabbis and educators demonstrated a new level of understanding and empathy. Still, a revered and powerful rosh yeshiva recently suggested that it might just be a mitzvah for gay Orthodox teens to commit suicide.
Of course, the differences between the movements here should not be minimized, but what is shared from left to right is the difficulty we all have in shifting social expectations and norms, in admitting that one or two kids in every Hebrew-school class are gay or lesbian or transgender. On that score, there is room for improvement everywhere.
It's time for those who claim to be welcoming to do something about it. Since most Orthodox rabbis were horrified by the rosh yeshiva's words, they can sign the statement of principles that calls rabbis to sensitivity and empathy, and prohibits "embarrassing, harassing or demeaning" gay people www.statement ofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com.
The fear of every gay kid is that my grandmother's adage is not true — that they don't love you, no matter what. Some things matter so much that the most important people in your life will not recognize you, will pull away in disgust, and will abandon you in one way or another.
That is why this past weekend at a retreat center on the East Coast, more than 140 gay Orthodox Jews convened for the first time to support each other and reach out to Orthodox communities. Celebrating Shabbat together were young and old, men and women, from Modern Orthodox, haredi and Chasidic Jewish worlds.
This weekend at a Shabbaton, we will be reaching out again at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell. These represent efforts at making our communities places where my grandmother's adage is the beginning of the conversation — no matter what.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at CLAL, and the author of Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.