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SA Jews relate their experiences of coming out

  • MoiraComingOutPanel
Thirty years ago, Fiona de Kock married a Catholic who converted to Judaism. She was happily involved in the Jewish community over the years, but, she recalled, “As time went by, I realised something was missing.”
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | May 31, 2018

Ten years ago, she came out as a lesbian. “It was not an easy transition. I loved my ex-husband and I still do – there was drama, a huge amount of pain and guilt,” she said.

De Kock was speaking at a panel discussion titled ‘Coming out: the Jewish experience’, held under the auspices of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

“I couldn’t align being a lesbian with being Jewish,” she explained, labelling her relationship with the religion as being one of love-hate. Nevertheless, she found herself working for a Chabad rabbi. She described her time there as “two years of non-judgment, meeting the most amazing people. Today I can say that I am a proud Jewish, gay mother. My children have accepted my sexuality and endured my partners.”

Despite having been “terrified” of being excommunicated from the community, she said she was never judged by any of her Jewish brethren.

Ross Levin confirms the sentiment. “When facing ‘coming out’, one of my greatest fears was being shunned by the Jewish community and denied the opportunity of enjoying my two young children’s bar and batmitzvah.”

For the first 33 years of his life, Levin had lived with a “highly repressed sexuality” and was married to “an amazing woman” for 10 years. “But I realised I was not living my truth,” he related.

“Towards the end of our marriage, my ex-wife could see that something was bothering me. ‘I am conflicted in my sexuality,’ I told her.”

She made him promise that he would not leave her before she was ready for him to do so. In the event, they stayed together for a further 18 months.

“My ex-wife supported me in ‘coming out’ to my parents, which had been my biggest fear,” said Levin. As it turned out, his fears were groundless, with his mom encouraging him to come out to the community.

“But guilt, shame and fear held me back from telling my kids.” His son asked why they were getting divorced and whether Levin had “done something wrong”. So I told him: ‘I’ve realised that I like boys more than I like girls.’

“My son said: ‘Thank you – I thought it was something we’d done.’”

But, added Levin: “It’s one thing to know your truth, another struggling to live it.”

Today Levin and his marriage partner await the birth of their daughter by surrogate. “I look forward to bringing her up in a Jewish home and the Jewish community. The community has been tremendously supportive, but I’ve realised that not everybody can accept it.”

In contrast, Dr Anastacia Tomson’s experience was a harrowing one. “When I was outed against my will, people said things like, ‘You are an affront to G-d’ and ‘You are an abomination.’ It took me a while to realise I wasn’t,” she said.

“If you’ve got something against someone because of who they are, the problem is with you. Don’t couch it in religion.

“I had run-ins with my community. It was a bitter pill for me to swallow when I was told there was no place for me in the community. I felt the void. I suffered at the hands of ignorance, hatred and prejudice.

“I’m one of the survivors,” she continued, adding that 40% of LGBT individuals attempt suicide at least once in their lives. “This doesn’t include those who have been beaten, raped and murdered, or who’ve engaged in substance abuse. It doesn’t include being disowned by your family.

“It’s no one’s job to judge me – I’ve made my peace with my Creator.”

A gay student in the audience commented on “how Orthodox spaces alienate homosexual people. I feel so unwelcome at shul.

“I had no help at [a Jewish ] school, I felt so alone and abandoned,” he said. This event marked the first time that he had felt welcome in a Jewish space.

“Is there more we can do?” he asked.

Rabbi Nissen Goldman, co-director of Chabad on Campus at the University of Cape Town, addressed the event. Speaking to SA Jewish Report days later, he agreed that more needed to be done.

“The practical ramifications of a gay kid feeling unwelcome is that he leaves the community. While we don’t have the power to change what the Torah says, we do have the power to change how we treat individuals.

“If someone is choosing to mistreat another Jew based on their struggle with one of the 613 mitzvot – we have community members who struggle with far more than just one. What about the mitzvah of keeping Shabbos, keeping kosher, against adultery or any of the mitzvohs that every single one of us struggles with?

“We cannot honestly say there’s a basis for mistreating a fellow gay Jew, while we accept every other Jew who struggles with other mitzvohs. It’s a personal prejudice not based on Halacha.

“We as rabbis and Orthodox leaders need to be committed to the Halachas that place a premium on life and the value of life,” he said. “It’s not fair for gay Jews to be paying the price in terms of their emotional, mental, physical and even their religious lives for our theological comfort.”

Stressing that he was not condoning anything, Rabbi Goldman said: “If you can’t be celibate without seriously harming your health – we break Shabbos for health – and you keep 612 mitzvohs to the best of your ability, you’ll have a damned good argument to make if you go up to Heaven after 120 years.”

Focusing her attention on the school environment, facilitator Marlene Silbert introduced the Charter for a Compassionate School, which she has constructed to make schools safe places for LGBT students. It was recently endorsed by the Western Cape department of education and will be distributed to all high schools throughout the province.

Chairman of the Board Rael Kaimowitz said it represented all the Jews of Cape Town. “The board embraces difference, and with forums like these, we try to create real inclusive spaces.”

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