On October 11th, Congregation Beth El celebrated National Coming Out Day. Beth El Congregant and Executive Director of North Jersey Pride, CJ Prince, taught sixth and seventh graders of our Jewish Learning Center about inclusion, acceptance, and equality.
This past Shabbat, the Shabbat following National Coming Out Day, CJ shared her story with our congregation and community. We read Parashat Noach, the story of Noah’s Ark that Shabbat and read of the rainbow, the Keshet, as a sign and symbol of God’s promise to protect all of God’s creatures. The rainbow is the symbol of the LGBTQ community as well, not just because it represents diversity, but also because it represents love and protection, the same love and protection that God promised all of us following the flood. We at Beth El also celebrate all, building a safe and inclusive community for all, exemplified by that very rainbow.
The following are the words shared by CJ Prince at Congregation Beth El in honor of National Coming Out Day:
Thank you to Rabbi Olitzky for inviting me to speak today, on National Coming Out Day. For those not familiar with the origins of this special day, it started the year after the 1987 march on Washington. More than 250,000 people gathered on the mall in DC to demand equal rights for gays and lesbians. It was decided by the movement’s leaders that having a positive day celebrating revelation, honesty, wholeness would be a nice change from protesting negative stuff. And there was still plenty of negative stuff. Just the year before, in 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a ruling that upheld the state of Georgia’s right to arrest same-sex couples for being intimate in the privacy of their own homes. So although the American Psychiatric Association had removed “homosexuality” from the list of pathologies in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in in 1973, it was still essentially illegal to be gay at this time. So we weren’t crazy; we were just criminals.
Right around this time, ’86, ’87, I was a teenager in high school. I attended Yeshiva University High School for Girls. I had wanted to attend the co-ed Frisch School in New Jersey, also Orthodox, but my father insisted that I had to go to an all-girls school, so I could “concentrate on my studies.” Somewhere in ninth or tenth grade I became aware that something was different about me. My hair was permed like the other girls. I wore big belts and neon sweatshirts and long jeans skirts, like everyone else. But I didn’t have crushes on boys like the other girls. I had crushes on girls. That was a pretty big difference—and I was completely freaked out. Because being gay was bad. And invisible.
In the 1980s, the only gays on television or in movies were either asexual and alone or criminals and psychopaths. Very few celebrities were out. Melissa Etheridge hadn’t even come out yet, let alone Ellen Degeneres or Jodie Foster, who were deep in the closet with all the other gays. There was no Glee, no L-Word, no Queer As Folk, no Orange is the New Black, and certainly no Transparent. As far as anyone knew, there were absolutely no gay people in my hometown of Monsey, New York. For those who haven’t heard of Monsey, it’s a tiny Orthodox Jewish enclave in Rockland County, about an hour north of here, sometimes called Monsey-eer-hakodesh. My rabbi, Reb Moshe Tendler, was vocally, vehemently, anti-gay, although to be honest it didn’t come up much in his divrei torah. But if it had, it wouldn’t have been warm and fuzzy. The only time I heard a reference to gay was when my parents and their friends would call a man a faygele. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I gathered it wasn’t a compliment.
So I worried a lot—quietly. When I was 17, I entered Stern College at Yeshiva University on an early admissions program. I was becoming increasingly concerned about what I saw as a huge impediment to my destiny, which was to marry a man and have children. Fortunately, engagement announcements were a daily event at Stern, which did a good job of reminding me of the time pressure I faced. I knew I had only a year or two until the clouds of suspicion would gather about my lack of a steady boyfriend. I had no choice but to work on changing it. I found a therapist through a friend. I went to her, explained the problem and told her I needed to fix it. I said, I have just two years until I have to be engaged. Tick-tock. She said, okay, we can try that. But you may have to accept just the smallest possibility that this isn’t something you can change. It may not be something you fix. I told her that that was all fine for her other patients, but for me, we’d have to change it. Deep inside, though, a part of me sighed with relief. She was the first human being I had ever told, and she didn’t expel me from the room. She even implied that I might be okay just as I was. Food for thought.
Still, I still didn’t see a light at the end of my tunnel. I couldn’t see how it would all be alright. I did have passing thoughts about suicide, but I never acted on them. Instead, I went for a year in Israel and after spending a soul-searching and very chaste year in yeshiva—I decided I was so religious that I would be shomeret negiyah, a rule that meant I could not touch boys. Which was very convenient. I asked my father if I could stay in Israel for shanah bet, a second year of yeshiva. Israel felt safe, a haven from myself and my reality back home, and I wanted to stay. I knew if I went back I’d have to find out more about who I was and that seemed like it wouldn’t end well. I thought for sure my parents would be thrilled, but to my surprise, they denied my petition. My mother had dropped out of college to have my brother and never finished, and I think she was determined that I would be the first woman in the line to earn a degree. They said, come back and finish college and then if you want to go back, okay.
Fortunately, they let me transfer to Barnard because I was miserable at Stern—and because Barnard was all-girls, too. At Barnard, I found my people. And by the time I graduated I was pretty sure I knew who I was. And I was equally sure that my parents could not know what I knew about who I was. So I kept my life a secret for the next five years. During this time, I abandoned all yiddishkeit. I believed that there was no place for me in a Jewish context and no room for my Jewish identity if I was going to embrace my gay identity. And after 22 years of living as a good Jewish girl, I felt it was time to let my other identity have equal time. The truth is, I was angry and I was hurt, and I just jettisoned it all. It was just too painful to try to integrate these two halves of me, so I didn’t.
Then, in the mid-’90s, I found Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan. I was in awe of a Jewish house of worship that invited people not to check one identity at the door, but to bring all identities in to be welcomed, accepted, celebrated. There, I didn’t have to choose between being Jewish and being gay. I could just be.
Still, I always went home to Monsey for the High Holy Days. My father was one of the chazzanim at the shul and it was just assumed I would be there so long as I wasn’t married. But during those years, I was not observant at all in my life, and Yom Kippur behind a mechitzah became unbearable. So when I was 26, I attended my first Yom Kippur at CBST. It was an incredible experience to be asking for forgiveness, but not for who we were. When we said the al cheyts, we said the traditional ones, but then we added in a few. Al cheyt she-chatanu lefanecha…for the wrong we have done before you by rejecting a part of ourselves. For the wrong we have done before you by being ashamed of how you created us. For the wrong we have done before you by keeping ourselves hidden from the people we love.
By ne’ilah, I knew the time had come to tell my parents. I did a trial run with my older brother, Jay. It took me a couple of stiff drinks to get the words out, but when I finally said, “I’m gay,” he said, “Yeah…and?” So apparently I hadn’t been as good at hiding this as I thought. He didn’t know whether my parents had a clue, and I didn’t guess they did. But I was emboldened by this experience. Maybe it would all be okay.
So I made plans to go home to Monsey for a Shabbos and at some point over the day, I would tell them. It was only after we lit candles that I realized this might not have been the best plan. We didn’t drive on Shabbat or use phones and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, so if it didn’t go well, I was kind of up a creek. So I twisted and agonized about this for about…twenty-four and a half hours. I’ll tell them at dinner, I thought. Hmm, no, I’ll tell them at lunch, after my father’s had some bourbon for Kiddush. No maybe after he’s had a nap would be better.
Finally, it was evening. My father had gone to shul for maariv and my mother and I were playing card games together. I was trying to get up the nerve to tell her, but felt as though I might literally be sick. We finished our 20th game of gin rummy.
“What should we play next?” she asked.
“Well…how about we play truth or dare?” I said.
“How do we play that?” She looked worried.
I took a deep breath. “That’s the game…where I tell you the truth.”
Mind you, this was not part of a plan. I had not rehearsed what I would say and had no idea what I was talking about. But I had to start somewhere. After that opening, though, I just couldn’t get it out. The words wouldn’t come. It’s hard to explain what that moment is like unless you’ve long hidden a fundamental, unchangeable part of yourself—from the people closest to you—and then decide one day to suddenly reveal it. The best analogy I can make is that it’s akin to wearing a mask over your face for decades, believing that what’s underneath it will be hideous to everyone else. Then one day you decide to take off the mask, hoping people aren’t as horrified as you think they will be. The fear is overwhelming, literally paralyzing. Long agonizing minutes passed. Tears streamed down my face but the words just wouldn’t come. Finally my mother took my hand.
“Just say it,” she said.
“I know. And it’s okay.”
She cried a little. I cried a lot. We hugged. Then I asked her what she thought my father would say. She wasn’t sure. She asked me what I was most afraid of. I said that I thought he might not love me anymore if he knew. She said, “Why don’t you let me tell him and let him come to you.”
So I ran upstairs to my old room to hide while my mother sat down with my father when he came home from shul to tell him all that I’d said. It was only a few minutes later that I heard his footsteps running up the stairs. He found me and wrapped me in a big hug.
“How could you think I wouldn’t love my best girl because of that?” he said. Then he added that he wished I didn’t have such a difficult road ahead of me. But I left Monsey that night knowing that my road had just become a little bit easier to travel. I was really, really lucky. Having heard many, many stories about rejection by parents, I know just how lucky I was, and am.
Of course, over the next few years, we had some steps forward, some back, some anger, some bargaining, some denial. Lessons were learned. For example, I learned if you let too much time lapse after coming out without talking about it, the coming out expires and you have to do it again.
But by 2001, they were almost there. Not ready to march in the parade, but they had almost accepted that this was who I was. Almost. And then in February of that year we found out my brother, Jay, had a very rare form of cancer and his prognosis was not good. It took nine months from start to finish. He was 41 years old. He left four children, the youngest was two. Tonight, coincidentally, I will light a candle for his 14th yarzheit.
His death crushed all of us. And of course, my parents were, quite literally, devastated. Things changed after that, between us. It was almost as if they knew, having lost a child, they would never risk losing another one. Their children, however imperfect, however unexpected, were gifts from Hashem and they were going to cherish every minute they had with them. They not only came to my wedding in 2003, but they walked me down the aisle. My father gave a beautiful dvar torah during the dinner. My mother passed away the very next year from breast cancer—another devastating blow. But I was grateful that before she died, she knew me. My father has been nothing but one hundred percent supportive since. That’s a big deal considering how many times he has had to come out to other people he knows and meets, since I’ve had children. He loves his granddaughters to the moon.
When we moved out to New Jersey, I was sad to leave CBST. I thought I’d never find that sort of welcoming community again. But I was wrong. Beth El is a truly inclusive Conservative synagogue. It welcomes all to “come as you are.” Worship here as yourself. Don’t check your identity at the door; bring it inside and we will not only accept it, but celebrate it. I can’t tell you what that means for me, what it would have meant to me as a young person, and what I know it means today to the teens and kids even younger who suspect they may be LGBT and are terrified of the consequences of revealing who they are.
When Rabbi Olitzky arrived at Beth El, he immediately reached out to me and to North Jersey Pride to see how we could partner and make Beth El an even safer and more inclusive space for LGBTQ members. Beth El was a proud 2015 Equality Sponsor of North Jersey Pride this past year and more nachas I could not have schepped.
Over the past two decades, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides. We can now marry in every state in the country—something I never imagined I would see in my lifetime. There are lots of out and proud celebrities, gay-themed shows on television, films, and so on. But it is still legal to fire someone for being gay in 28 states. We also have a ways to go on transgender rights. We are still fighting entrenched homophobia in our culture. And the biggest threat is to our youth. Young LGBT people are still at a much higher risk for depression and suicide. They are bullied at a much higher rate. They often feel isolated and feel unable to seek help. They don’t see the light at the end of their tunnel, just as I couldn’t see it, even though it really was there.
We deal with bullying in our schools, which of course we should, but that’s just one leg of the stool. If we don’t model that inclusiveness in our homes and in our houses of worship, how can we ask our youth to live it in school?
At Beth El, inclusiveness seems to be the norm. That’s what the quiet, closeted gay teen in the back of the shul sees. She sees it’s okay out there. The air is fine. She doesn’t have to live in fear or in silence. I, for one, have tremendous gratitude for that.
I thank Rabbi Olitzky for the invitation to speak to you, and I encourage you all, if you are not LGB or T, to celebrate National Coming Out Day by coming out as an ally to someone you know, someone who you think might be a little uncomfortable with it or someone who you might feel a little uncomfortable talking to about the topic. The next time you hear a joke or a stereotype or a slur, even if the speaker didn’t mean any harm, say something. You just never know who’s listening.
Every time you stand up and speak out, you make this world just a little bit safer for all of us. You become a light unto others. And you become an active part in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Shabbat Shalom.