By Ethan Joseph
Let me start from the beginning of my family’s history. My mother was the only child of a single mother living in the Bronx. She embodies the New Yorker persona—she’s loud, loving, affectionate, fiercely loyal, and everything else one can think of. She went to Hebrew school from first grade on, and went to synagogue pretty much weekly. After she went to Camp Ramah, a Conservative Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires, at the age of thirteen, she vowed to keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and participate in the holidays. My mother continues to do so to this very day, and raised me and my two siblings in a religious Modern Orthodox Jewish home in my hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
My father was the oldest of three and lived a privileged life in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. He is a stereotypical Californian—calm, cool, collected, and mild-mannered, the polar opposite of my passionate, fiery mother. His family was, and still is, very secular. He became more religious later in life, as an undergraduate student at UCLA and then when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, along with his childhood best friend. He married my mother in 1991 and helped raise us kids in a Jewish home.
The experiences of my parents and the lessons they taught me instilled in me and my siblings the concept that religious identity is not something to be taken lightly. My parents both struggled among their family and peers when they decided to take it upon themselves to become more religious. I am a proud Jew through and through. I love participating in my family’s Sabbath meals, community’s services, and personal rituals because I find great meaning in it, and I believe it brings me closer to God.
I went to Jewish day school from my first day of preschool until my last day as a high school senior. Fortunately, the schools I attended were institutions that encouraged questions and debates concerning the text of books like the Torah and the Talmud. Even before I began to doubt my heterosexuality, one of the most fascinating conversations I had during my high school career was with my principal in my sophomore year about the Torah’s strong wording when it comes to male homosexuality, and the striking thing was that he strongly disagreed with the text on the issue. “We are all made in God’s image, are we not?” he began. “God made us precisely the way we are for the sole purpose of enjoying the world He created for us and to thank Him each day for it. What one does to enjoy this life is their concern and theirs alone.”
That stuck with me since then and helped me navigate the waters of coming out when I finally realized I was gay in September of 2015. I am incredibly fortunate to have a family who understands and loves me for who I am, regardless of my sexuality, and I realize how truly rare that is, especially in more religious homes. I first came out to my twin sister and my older brother over the phone before I headed home from my university in Massachusetts. I also think that, in a way, I have become more cognizant 0f and knowledgeable in my faith because of my sexual orientation, and vice versa. As a Jew, I always felt a need to advocate for those who have no voice, a trait I got from my parents—my mother went to many a Civil Rights rally and was active in protesting the Vietnam War and the human rights abuses perpetrated there. That sense of activism increased when I finally came out. Since then, I have delved into advocating for increased LGBTQ+ rights in the United States and around the world. I also have a deeper appreciation for my spiritual homeland Israel for its progressive views and laws concerning queer individuals in Israel. While one can find many issues with the Israeli government’s policies, something unequivocally good is its incredibly liberal policies for a semi-religious state: gay marriage is accepted and mainstream in the country, queer couples can legally adopt children, and it’s been illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace since the early 1990s.
I do not believe that I have ever felt closer to my Judaism than I have since I came out as gay to my family and community. While there were obviously more conservative elements who do not approve, I have been so blessed with a community that accepts me as I am and does not reject me because of an inherent, Heaven-ordained genetic trait