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LGBTQ Mentoring Program Takes Off

January 23, 2013 By:
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Joanna Ware (left) and Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg watch “Glee” at a meeting for JFCS mentors.

Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg took a call a few years ago from a parent concerned about the man her daughter was dating.

Rosenberg had met the man while visiting her own daughter in Minneapolis and had offered to answer the worried mother’s questions.
 
“I was able to say, ‘Your daughter is dating a mensch, and that’s all you need to know,’ ” said Rosenberg, a Jenkintown resident who likes the word and authored a book titled Raising a Mensch
 
Rosenberg saw the man’s character as being more important than the fact that he now identified as a man but had been born a woman.
 
She could counsel the mother because she understood what it was like to wonder about the shape of a life connected to the LGBTQ community. Her daughter had come out some years before as an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College. 
 
Last week, Rosenberg was one of eight local people sitting around a table at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service offices on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park. They all shared a close connection to the LGBTQ community and wanted to become mentors to others in the Jewish community adjusting to life with a loved one who has come out.
 
Keshet, an organization that advocates for Jews in the LGBTQ community and has started similar mentoring programs in other cities, sent a trainer to the meeting. The Philadelphia group, known as the Parent and Family Connection, will operate with the help of JFCS and match a mentor with families looking to have a conversation.
 
“It’s something that people often don’t talk about, or maybe they informally network,” said Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, who works at JFCS and will serve as one of the mentors. “They may not feel comfortable sharing the news in their social circle or finding people to talk to,” said Goldberg, who also heads the local Board of Rabbis. The mentor program “is an easier way to do that.”
 
Rosenberg, who will chair the group, said she started off “just talking the talk” after her daughter’s coming out. She has since become an increasingly staunch gay rights advocate, volunteering for the YES! Coalition, an organization that pushes faith communities to be more inclusive, and sitting on a panel at a Jewish LGBTQ workshop in 2011. After developing relationships with friends of her daughter, who is now a rabbinical student, Rosenberg said she feels particularly comfortable talking to parents and family of someone who is transgender.
 
“That was the area that was the greatest learning curve for me. I never knew a transgender person or, at least, I didn’t think that I did until I met my daughter’s friends,” Rosenberg said.
At the meeting, the volunteers watched a few clips from the television show Glee. One scene showed a father having “the sex talk” with his gay son.
 
Mike Oswald, the only man in the room and the father of a transgender son, said he was impressed by the dad’s warnings and advice.
 
“Hopefully, you get all those values across somehow, but to deliver it all in one place” is remarkable, he said.
 
Joanna Ware, the Keshet training coordinator, presented situations that mentors in the Boston program had faced. In one scenario, the father of a 12-year-old transgender boy approached a mentor with worries over what to do about the boy’s Bar Mitzvah approaching. The grandparents were prominent members of the congregation, and he worried about making them uncomfortable.
 
One mentor suggested waiting a few years to hold the Bar Mitzvah. Another suggested holding a smaller, private ceremony. The point is, there was no one definite answer.
 
“In one way, I think that part of becoming a Jewish adult is giving honor to your grandparents,” Rosenberg said. “But I have this sort of visceral reaction of — too damn bad.”
 
Sunnie Epstein, who has a gay daughter and belongs to an Orthodox congregation, has counseled other parents and families in the Orthodox community and will act as the primary mentor for that community. She said queer people who are Orthodox often feel isolated. 
 
“In the Orthodox community, you get, ‘Oh you can’t be gay,’ and in the gay community you get, ‘You can’t be Orthodox,’ ” Epstein said. 
 
Epstein said she always tries to bring Jewish text to any conversation in the Orthodox community about LGBTQ issues.
 
And that means going beyond the verse in Leviticus that is often cited as a reason to condemn homosexuality. 
 
“There are many other texts on the topic,” she said, “and to run an entire world based on one line or one sentence or one proscription is absurd, and until we are willing to do that with every other” aspect of life, “it’s extremely problematic.”

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