Menachem Penner & Gedalia Robinson: A Child’s Orientation

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Menachem Penner—dean of RIETS at Yeshiva University—and his son Gedalia—a musician, cantor-in-training, and member of the LGBTQ community—about their experience in reconciling their family’s religious tradition with Gedalia’s sexual orientation.

When Gedalia realized he was gay as a young teenager, his parents weren’t sure how best to deal with the information. They initially attempted conversion therapy, now known to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. They have since come to a happier, closer place in their relationship, characterized by love and mutual respect – but the road to this happy ending was long and indirect.

  • When did Gedalia and his parents realize he was gay?
  • How did they react to this information?
  • What was their initial course of action, and how has that changed over the years?
  • Do they have any regrets?
  • And what would they advise others in similar situations?

Tune in to hear Gedalia and Rabbi Penner discuss their journey towards acceptance and mutual understanding.

References:
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
When by Daniel Pink
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
JQY
Eshel
Keshet

Rabbi Menachem Penner (father) is the dean of RIETS, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and previously served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Holliswood in Queens. Rabbi Penner is an eloquent speaker and chazzan, well-known for his rousing lectures on prayer. Gedalia Robinson (son) is a singer-songwriter, musician, and cantor-in-training at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at JTS. Gedalia is well known for his powerful original music, his work with the Y-Studs, and as a member of Hadar’s Rising Song Residency. Gedalia came out as gay while in Yeshiva University and is a strong advocate and supporter of LGBTQ+ people living in and out of the Orthodox Jewish community. Gedalia currently lives in Philadelphia with his husband, Caleb, and dog, Booker.

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring our most complicated title for a topic, and that is Intergenerational Divergence: how parents and children with different religious identities forge together a familial identity even through their own differences. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish topics that animate contemporary Jewish life. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I remember exactly where I was, what day, and where I was sitting the first time a friend of mine came out to me and told me that they were gay. It was on June 18th, 2013, which I believe was a Thursday night. How do I know exactly where I was, where I was sitting, and what day it was? It was a major event. It was somebody who I’ve known my entire life who had texted me, “Hey,” we were meeting up the next day, he says, “I have something serious I want to talk to you about.” It doesn’t really explain how I know the exact date, time, where I was. The real reason why is because as he was texting me, and he eventually came out to me via text, this childhood friend who I’d known forever, was because as he was texting me, I was sitting and watching game six of the NBA finals, which if you were keeping score of the 2013, June 18th, what was going on in the NBA as I was having this very serious, sensitive, important conversation with one of my oldest friends? Game six was going on, and this was not any game. If you remember this was Spurs Heat in the very end of the finals, and as he was coming out to me, this was happening.

Announcer:

James catches, puts up a three. Won’t go! Rebound Bosh, back out to Allen, his three-pointer, bang! Tie game with five seconds remaining!

David Bashevkin:

So I was a little bit distracted, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I certainly was taking the conversation seriously. He was just texting me and sometimes it’s easier to text to a friend without talking face to face, especially when you have something really serious to tell them. I learned a lot from that kind of episode and conversation that I had, and we eventually spent a Shabbos together and spoke more about it. I think that what I learned most about that incident, because he really didn’t come out to anybody else, he didn’t come out to his family then, and it was information that I then knew. And I think that what I learned most more than anything else wasn’t just the way and the friendship that we still have, one of my closest friends: it was in many ways the way that I spoke afterwards to his family, and I realized that the question and the difficulties and the dilemma of what we oftentimes frame of the LGBT community and traditional faith communities, particularly the Orthodox community, is not just a theological question that is posed from institutions and communities and synagogues, though it certainly is.

It’s also very much a familial question, and I remember having a conversation with this friend’s extended family who called me up, and didn’t have a question about theology, didn’t have a question about God so much, or policy, or Jewish communal – he had a question about a family member, and he wanted to know, the person he knew all along, who he knew growing up, it was hard for him to reconcile, it was hard for him to understand that the identity and the person that he knew growing up is the same person that he now knows who is now out of the closet and openly gay. And that was really difficult for him, and it reminded me, and I think it’s an important thing that we oftentimes forget, that when we think about these differences, particularly as it relates to the LGBT community, yes, there are important theological questions to consider. Yes, there are important policy questions to consider. But I think at the heart of it there’s a familial question, and learning how to navigate differences in identity in a family can be very fraught, can be very challenging, and I think in many ways so much of the communal solutions and the communal way forward are going to begin with the ways that families have learned to negotiate and move forward, even when the person that they knew growing up now has this very different part of them that isn’t easily reconcilable with the religious community that they grew up in.

I think in many ways, I don’t want to say we get distracted, because it is an important question that we ask on the communal and institutional level. But it’s not the only question that we need to be asking. And I just want to reiterate again: I talk about this topic in the context of my Jewish public policy class in Yeshiva University, and I always remind everyone that in order to have a healthy conversation, it needs to be couched in absolute respect. And what I am reminding all of our listeners is that this is a real family, with real people, who are giving us a window into how they negotiated this very real issue in their family. And we’ll talk more about why this particular family, this was even something larger, but this is a privilege to listen to.

This is not a theological discussion. This is not a policy discussion about Orthodoxy and the LGBT community. The topic that we’re talking about this month is how families negotiate religious commitment and religious values within that family. And I just want to remind everybody, and we’re doing this for a reason before Pesach, that famous from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch that was quoted so often during the pandemic, that he would close our synagogues and our schools for a hundred years to remind the Jewish nation that the main responsibility in perpetuating our faith rests on the family.

So having a window into a family who negotiated between their religious identity, their religious values, which they’re extraordinarily committed to, and also the personal identity, the LGBT identity of a child, is something that is an absolute privilege to listen to and needs to be taken with ears of deep sensitivity, respect, and dignity. I’m asking that in a very direct way, appealing to our listeners to ensure that that is the context through which we listen to, and that we understand that peering into the family lens is not something that most people would allow themselves to do, would allow anybody else to do in their own lives. And the fact that in this conversation with Rabbi Menachem Penner and his son, Gedalia Robinson, formerly Penner, is really an absolute privilege and something that I feel, personally, quite a sense of responsibility that this conversation is properly crafted and appreciated to understand what we are trying to do and what we are not trying to do.

We’re not trying to solve this for all Orthodox communities or all faith communities about how, so to speak, we deal, and I’m doing air quotes, with the LGBT community. I’m actually thinking for a moment about that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and saying, “Let’s, for a moment, forget or sidestep the communal and institutional question, and let’s look into a family and how this family did this.” And this is a remarkable family.

Rabbi Penner is the dean of RIETS, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which is the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University, decidedly quite Orthodox. His son, Gedalia, is in the Cantorial School at JTS and is openly gay, and has advocated for LGBT issues, particularly within the Jewish community. And how somebody sitting at the head of an Orthodox institution with a son who clearly has values that are more difficult to cohere with Orthodox principles and Orthodox values is something absolutely remarkable, and listening to the way that they speak to one another and reflect on how they navigated their issue in their particular family is something that I think is absolutely instructive for any other families who are navigating certain similar issues. And even if you’re not navigating this particular issue, but as we’ve been discussing all month, I think that in ways big and small, every family is negotiating identities that are different.

This really comes back to the book that we cite in the opening video of 18Forty, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, which to me had an enormous impact of the way I think about children and families. And he talks about in that book about vertical identity and horizontal identity. Vertical identity is the identity that stretches upwards sequentially, parent to child, parent to child, stretching all the way back, that we’re part of a family, and we always hope and expect that is going to stretch back and be able to encompass all of our family members. But in this book he talks about a different type of identity. He talks about children, whether it’s a different orientation, whether it’s different physical capabilities that the children have, he talks particularly about children who cannot hear, or he talks about children who haven’t grown to – the dwarf community, he talks a great deal about. And it’s so remarkable, because he develops this idea of a horizontal identity: the notion that sometimes children are so different than a parent that they need another support group, they need another base of support to help them navigate and grow up.

And what I think makes this conversation so remarkable is that the vertical identity of parent to child, and the horizontal identity that Gedalia has developed in the larger LGBT world, they work together. This is a father who is deeply supportive of his son at the very same time that he’s advancing and training Orthodox rabbis to the world, and this is a son who deeply admires and respects his father, even at the same time as he advocates for the LGBT community. And seeing a family that is able to have and hold, in both hands, a vertical identity and also a horizontal identity, and not have them compete or undermine one another, is something that I think all families can learn from and all families should think about. So it is my absolute privilege and pleasure to introduce our conversation with Rabbi Menachem Penner and his son, Gedalia.

Hello, and welcome all to the 18Forty Podcast. This month we’re exploring the topic of intergenerational differences, the way parents and children negotiate and resolve – confront, in many ways – the differences between one generation and another, and today we have an extraordinarily privileged guest to have with us. We have a mentor of mine, dare I say a friend in many ways, Rabbi Menachem Penner, who is the dean of RIETS, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the rabbinic program at Yeshiva University. And his son, who I also will venture to say a friend, Gedalia Robinson. Gedalia Penner Robinson, who is Rabbi Penner’s son, and is also an accomplished musician. We’ll have links to all of his really beautiful, quite moving Jewish songs, Jewish music. And if you haven’t heard him already in one of the many acapella groups – odds are, if you’ve heard an acapella group, you’ve already heard Gedalia sing. Thank you so much Gedalia and Rabbi Penner for joining today.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

It’s our pleasure.

Gedalia Robinson:

It’s a pleasure to be here.

David Bashevkin:

So, to begin the conversation, we’re going to come out and talk right away about what the intergenerational difference that we’re talking about. We’re talking with different families and different types of differences. Rabbi Penner serves as the head of an Orthodox rabbinic institution, RIETS, very well-known. Gedalia, a graduate of Yeshiva University, is openly gay, and speaks very much to youth teens in the gay community – and adults, I’m sure. And I want to begin with the beginning of the familial story, because that’s what we’re most interested in today. So maybe we could begin with the question of, when did each of you realize that Gedalia was gay? Can you take me through the story of Gedalia coming out to the parents?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I think, Gedalia, probably you’d best start with that, because I think you knew before us.

Gedalia Robinson:

I can start indeed. Yeah. This question can be very complicated for a lot of folks who have the experience of some cognitive dissonance, and for whatever reasons around their social attitudes that they find themselves in around LGBTQ issues. That’s what causes some people to find themselves in their teens, or their 20s, or their 30s, or beyond and to say, “Wow. I’m gay.” For whatever reason, I was very blessed that that simply wasn’t the case for me, and therefore I simply knew as early as a person would typically know. My direction may have been atypical, but my progress was very typical, from as early an age as a person could sexually start to become aware –

David Bashevkin:

To know. Yeah.

Gedalia Robinson:

I knew. So that was my experience.

David Bashevkin:

Rabbi Penner, when did you first know? Did he have to approach you in a conversation, or you knew even before that?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

He did. He did have to approach us in a conversation. Remember that this is some 11, 12 years ago. I think today, perhaps the way the world is, my wife and I would have perhaps suspected it more. Gedalia grew up about as feminine as could be – not in dress, but in terms of his incredible sensitivity to people, some of his interests, things like that. I think my wife may have suspected a little bit, but I was really rather taken by surprise. Gedalia came home from a summer and shared with us what he felt. He had already clearly thought it out somewhat, including what his life choices would be, and it was obviously very difficult for us to hear. It was difficult for Gedalia to share.

David Bashevkin:

And Gedalia, did you consider whether to come out in person or in writing? It sounds like you came out in person. Was that something that you considered one way or the other?

Gedalia Robinson:

I wanted very much for it to be in-person.

David Bashevkin:

No I’m asking because I know for myself, when I would get into fights with my parents, particularly at a younger age, I sometimes found it easier to write them a letter, slip it under their door. I don’t know. That was always my preferred method of the healing process in writing, but it’s very powerful that you made a deliberate effort to have that in-person conversation.

Gedalia Robinson:

Yeah. As much as some other tendencies of mine may have been on the more dramatic side, I definitely felt that I was raised with the values such that an important thing such as this should be discussed in-person.

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I think that – not taking any anything away from the Bashevkin family – the relationships that parents have with their children will very often determine some of the ways they get through the bumps along the road. I’ll speak to other parents and they’ll tell me, “We had such a wonderful, wonderful close relationship, we shared everything, and now there’s this rift. Our son just came out to us and there’s this rift.” And what I try to assure them is that the 20 years of investing in their relationship will probably pay off. Yes, there’s going to be a very difficult time ahead, and a time of exploration for both, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the parent-child relationship. And if parents and children do have a close relationship, then that’s usually a pretty good indicator for them to be able to get through whatever it’s going to be, including something as perhaps as difficult as this.

David Bashevkin:

So I am a parent, I have very young children now, and I’m also a child, and any time that I reflect on the way… My son is now, he’s quite young, he’s four. I have a little girl. But my wife and I, at the end of the day, we always have a running tally of, “We should have done this. I lost my temper. I did – ” Any parent-child relationship is going to have a running list of things that you could have done differently, and I could only imagine that when you have something so large, a part of your identity that shifts in the middle of your development, I’m sure that there were things that each of you would have done differently. So I would almost ask each of you, as a parent and as a son, what would you have done differently in this process?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

So I’ll start on that one. I think that there’s two questions. One is from a parenting perspective, another is understanding sexual orientation and so on. It’s kind of difficult, it may be difficult for a parent listening to this podcast to really learn from the mistakes that we made, because we were dealing with very different realities, very different assumptions in terms of, what are next steps when a child comes out to you? It’s easy for us to hide behind that, but a decade is a long time in terms of different – We encouraged Gedalia, and he agreed, to go to reparative therapy, and that was the process that we started. I don’t think that we would have recommended that knowing what we know today, that for an individual with just same-sex attraction, regardless of any of the concerns about reparative therapy, just the question of whether it’s going to work. I don’t think, we wouldn’t have assumed that his orientation could change, and that was sort of the very, the whole beginning of this process was to figure out, how do we try to change Gedalia’s orientation? How does Gedalia try to change his orientation? That probably set us on a detour in terms of dealing with this. Not necessarily Gedalia himself, but certainly in terms of our relationship with Gedalia, and our relationship with Gedalia’s orientation, certainly sent us on a detour. So I think that today we would understand better how to begin to work together with him, rather than that focus of, let’s not deal with it. Let’s push it aside. Let’s see if this can change. Let’s give it another five years. So that delayed a lot.

David Bashevkin:

A hundred percent. In societal time, 10 years, it’s not the same, 10 years between television shows or taste in movies. I think that’s absolutely understandable. Gedalia, what would you have done differently, if anything, when you reflect on that process?

Gedalia Robinson:

So it’s also a little difficult for me to answer that question, because a hallmark of the experience for young LGBTQ people, especially in religious circles, is a tremendous feeling of isolation. Just not feeling like I had a grip at all on what to do, because I thought I was the absolute only person going through this experience, halo hoveh viyihiye. So it’s hard to say what I might have done with a clearer head because the signature of the experience is not having that. It’s, flailing, it’s being out at sea without any support.

David Bashevkin:

It’s being compounded by the fact that you’re a teenager at this time?

Gedalia Robinson:

Absolutely. So further, just didn’t have enough grip on the world to know what it meant to ask for support, or to reach out, or any emotional coping skills. Yeah, there wasn’t enough agency to be able to say that there was much that I feel that I could have changed if I’d done it differently. I do want to clarify following something my dad said. People ask me a lot whether I’m angry at my parents for sending me to reparative therapy, conversion therapy, gay-to-straight therapy – they’re all synonyms.

The answer is a resounding no. First of all, they truly did not force me to go. They suggested it strongly, and I went of my own volition. And also, at the time, 10, 15 years ago, it was truly just the right thing to do for a gay child in a religious community. Nobody knew how sexuality worked – still, people don’t. It was just the thing that you did for a caring child when you wanted them to have the hope of a more typical life. And it’s only recently that the medical community is aware of how extremely psychologically dangerous it can be, and all of the medical community has essentially banned it since. So, at the same time that it is something that I would not wish upon or suggest to any person – I would disadvise, I would say strongly not to – it is a piece of my story, and it was a thing that my parents did out of an act of love, and I’m not angry at them for it.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I think we both agree that probably it is a good idea to be speaking to somebody. I mean, people go to therapists for issues that are certainly much less disruptive with where they expected, and their parents expected, them to go in life. And I think that sometimes therapy in general gets a bad name, because until a certain point, the therapy was designed at changing orientation. Therapy, first of all, everybody should be in therapy.

Gedalia Robinson:

Right.

David Bashevkin:

Amen.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

That’s a separate issue. And certainly, every rabbi and rabbinic family should be in therapy, that’s also for sure. But certainly someone facing a challenge like this should be, and we’re happy that he had that opportunity. Gedalia likes to talk, and he’s very, very self-aware, and he’s very expressive. So for him, it was a very good outlet. So that I don’t think we would have changed. But that we sort of put this whole thing on a multi-year, and again, Gedalia was, you were what, 14, 15?

Gedalia Robinson:

Something like that.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

So we put this whole thing on a multi-year, let’s wait and see, that I think that we lost time to be developing our relationship and where to go with it over that time.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Meaning, just because that form of therapy, reparative therapy, is not something that you would recommend, or has very much been pushed aside, cast aside rightfully so by the scientific community, we shouldn’t bristle at the notion of going to therapy. That obviously is something that as a guide, to help a family through any sort of transition, we go. You go to therapy because you’re having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, all the more so with something far more essential to somebody’s identity, as a family that’s absolutely something that can be a helpful guide to take a family through that process.

So allow me to ask: what advice, and I would want to hear from both of you on this, even though Gedalia you’re not yet a parent, but what advice would you give to parents who are in the same position? Obviously I’m talking about parents in the year 2021. A lot has changed. It’s changed in different ways in different communities, but this is a question I get… I wouldn’t say frequently, but I wouldn’t say infrequently. This is a question, people reach out and they want to know, what do you do as a parent? What is the right way to react? Because a parent, I empathize, and it’s hard for a parent when you learn anything new about your child. You find out your child is having trouble in school. I remember, we found out one of our sons was having a little bit, a teeny tiny issue in school, my wife broke down crying. It’s so hard anytime you find that there’s something different, so to speak, about that normal narrative. So what advice would you give to parents who are going through something more similar to this to help them navigate that situation and process?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

So it’s a good question, and we speak, my wife and I speak to parents probably about once a week, a different set of parents, trying to talk to them and trying to… We’re a little bit further along in the process in a certain sense, and we’ve learned a lot. Really, most of what we learn is from Gedalia, but we’ve learned a lot, and we’re trying to help them. There are probably a couple of things that I think are difficult for parents to realize at first, at first. In other words, usually when we speak to a parent their child came out to them pretty recently, and they’re just spinning, their head is spinning. So I think there’s several things.

First of all, there is a certain amount of trauma. There is a certain amount of challenge with the initial coming out to the parents. And the initial facing itself, as Gedalia spoke about, of a person realizing that this is so. And that both the parents and the child are going to go through – I wouldn’t even say the child here. Both the parents as parents, and the individual who’s going through this, is going to go through a period of free fall. It changes everything. It’s a very big difference of the way that one expects life to proceed. Our community has pretty set steps that just, one leads into another, and of course we should acknowledge that sexual orientation is not the only reason, it’s the same thing which puts pressure on couples who are not able to have a baby.

There are just certain things that you take for granted that happen one step after another after another, and when you hit a roadblock there, it’s not going to be the way it seems, it’s very challenging for both parties. And I think first of all, parents have to realize that this is ultimately happening more to the child than to the parent. People respond to this, whether you call this a challenge… Whatever this disruption is, a changing of perspective, a changing of a sense of what’s going to be in the future, that challenge, that process, is so much more difficult for the child than for the parent. And it’s easy for a parent to look at it and say, “What is the child bringing home? Why did you do this to us? What does this mean for us? What does this mean for our other kids? What is…”

None of those things compare to the inner turmoil that the individual is facing. I think one of the things that we had to learn the hard way is to stop thinking about ourselves and to just listen to Gedalia. What’s he going through? And what is this for him, and what is the experience, and what does it mean to be gay? What are the challenges? What does it mean in terms of, what is sexual orientation? What is a person who’s gay looking for in a relationship? And just to listen to him, you don’t have to from a halachic, hashkafik perspective, listening is not the same thing as saying that we agree with next steps, or we agree with what God wants, or… But just listen. And that can be very difficult, because it is obviously a disruption and trauma for both parties. It’s hard when you’re going through trauma yourself to think about the other party. And parents have to realize that, when something like this happens, it’s happening to the individual more than it’s happening to their family. I think that perspective is a really important one.

You also have to realize that it’s a process for you too. I’m not suggesting that one needs to become comfortable with a gay lifestyle, with a halachic violation, whatever it is. But we need to differentiate between orientation, and action and decisions. A part of a parent’s challenge is to accept the orientation of the child. There’s something about it that we’re prejudiced against that makes a person uncomfortable when a person is gay. Over time that becomes much more comfortable. You understand, that’s who my child is, that’s the same child that I love, and that just becomes easier. It becomes easier. It doesn’t mean that you go into acceptance mode, and you say, “Okay, people do it.” That can be confused. But you just, it’s a process, and you become more comfortable, and it does get easier if the two parties are working together. To work together to re-establish the bonds, to tie up things that have become broken in the meantime with this breach.

I think the other thing which is probably the most important thing that I share with parents, and it’s a little uncomfortable to talk about this with Gedalia, except that I’m saying that I’m wrong and he’s right, so I’m easier to do that. But one of the things we get from parents very often is the question of, how much are we supposed to allow our child to win? He came home, he said he was gay, she said she’s a lesbian, and now they want to bring their partner home, and now they want X, and now they want Y, and when do we put down our foot? When do we say… That is something that you do think about as a parent. Why does he always get to win? Why does he always get to determine where this thing is going? You know what? As a parent, it’s not really about winning or losing: it’s about maintaining your relationship with your child. And it took a long time for us to assimilate that. Of course people need to be respectful. There need to be standards in a home. There are other children, there are other things. But it’s very difficult for a parent to differentiate between the rules that they’re putting into place because the rules really help, and the rules that parents try to put into place, or they’d hope were in place, just to maintain their dignity in order to stage a win.

Okay. You did X, Y, and Z, but you can’t do this. Well, why not? Is it because you have to feel like you’re in control of the relationship on some level? You know what? None of us are in control of the relationships that we have with our children. Hakadosh Baruch Hu set us up as parents, and children as children. That’s there. We’re parents and children regardless of any rules or anything else. So once my wife and I – and I admit, I had a tougher time with this. Once I got over the fact that it wasn’t about winning and losing in each encounter, but about, what’s the best way for us to remain a family? What’s the best way to continue to have our relationship? It changed. As I said, it doesn’t mean everything goes out the window. I sometimes will speak to a parent where the child is being so disrespectful that it’s just, it’s wrong. There are limits to what parents can take. There are limits to how they could be slapped in the face, so to speak. But that was never really Gedalia, even though at times he seemed to be pushing the limits a little bit, but it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about maintaining the relationship and doing almost everything you need to maintain that relationship, because to cut off a parent-child relationship is, it has to be pretty extreme in order to say that it’s not worth continuing the love for a parent and a child.

David Bashevkin:

That’s quite moving, quite powerful. I very much appreciate the winning and losing. That’s something that has implications regardless of what a parent is contending with in the way that they look at their children, thinking about how to remain that core, foundational part of the relationship. Let me move over to Gedalia and ask a similar question. Gedalia, what advice would you give to a child in a frum home contending with a similar situation?

Gedalia Robinson:

I mean, before all else I would say that it bears stating from my point of view as the child to be able to say this to the audience of children, in this or similar situations, to say the inverse of what my dad said for the parents. That it is not a winning or losing game. It’s really important to recognize that as the child in the situation as well. It is primarily our experience just by how the whole situation is set up. It is us who have the difficulty grappling with the sexual orientation or the gender variation, but as much energy as you can possibly expend – after you take care of yourself – on your parents, it’s really important to make sure that that is a symbiotic emotional experience and relationship, even more than symbiotic perhaps. I feel very fortunate that the case with my parents was that we could really be radically selfless in that situation, and really try to be there for the other when we’re at our best, certainly. And I felt like we were in a pretty good situation inasmuch as we really did understand that the other one was going through something really intense. But as much energy, if you’re going through this experience, as you can give to your parents to recognize that this is also an extremely difficult, potentially traumatic experience for them as well, that empathy will go a very long way in making your situation better when you can think about how much is coming from a place of love, and how much it’s coming from a place of fear. I think that’s a big piece of advice that I would give.

I would also say to know your resources. That’s number two, that’s a biggie. Which also gets complicated because as I said before, a big signature of the experience is flailing as a teenager and not being very worldly and not knowing where to go. So it’s advice that I give both parents and children. For example, parents, I mean I know that when my parents learned of my brother Matis’s diagnosis, when we learned that he was on the autism spectrum, the first thing that they did was they just went to every resource possible to try to learn more about it, to try to see what it meant to adapt to a life with a child with autism spectrum disorder – not to draw too many or too little comparisons between the disabled community and the LGBTQ community, of course, but understanding the parallels. It’s the same with LGBTQ kids. The problem is that because of the stigma, it can be very difficult for parents to feel like they can reach out to these organizations without compromising on their Yiddishkeit. And what is really important to communicate, either to the kids who are thinking this themselves or the parents, is to remember how you need to break past that in order to be able to support your child and make sure that they are, first of all, mentally healthy, and then also thriving.

The resources are numerous. Having resources in this situation doesn’t necessarily just mean having a person to talk to. There are multiple organizations who have many, many different kinds of support. There is a weekly drop-in center by JQY, the Jewish Queer Youth organization in New York City, that have weekly meetings that are just chill outs. They’re in-person in Manhattan, and now they’ve been converted to Zoom, where your kid, or you, can have a peer group and just feel normal, and have other people with similar experiences to talk to. And also, in the JQY drop-in center there are also mental health professionals, who will always be there, who specialize and are able to help you as certified mental health professionals with your experience. There are also organizations like Eshel and Keshet that have Shabbatons that have warm lines and hotlines, so importantly in case you’re genuinely in crisis. So understanding –

David Bashevkin:

I’m going to just jump in for one second. This might come off as very ignorant. I have no idea what a warm line is. It sounds absolutely wonderful.

Gedalia Robinson:

It’s a hotline, but it may function, not necessarily 24/7 –

David Bashevkin:

Oh, gotcha.

Gedalia Robinson:

But perhaps during business hours and be able to return your call ASAP during those hours. So for people specifically going through an LGBTQ Jewish experience, there is a number to call of people who will be able to, either just sympathize and talk with you, or to get you help and the resources that you need. So knowing your resources is absolutely a vital piece of advice that I would give to any child.

And lastly, it really does get better. It gets better because you get better. It gets better because the situation gets better, because the world gets better. And specifically in a relationship with your parents, it really gets better once you leave the house. As wonderfully as –

David Bashevkin:

That holds true across all parent child issues.

Gedalia Robinson:

I was going to say, it is not a uniquely LGBTQ experience. But certainly, when you’re able to have that healthy distance as consenting adults with some nice, healthy space, it really does get so much better. And beyond that, it becomes easier for the parents to be able to deal with the situation on their own terms, because they don’t have – For example, once my parents no longer had me in their face and talking about things that should be changed in the community and dah-dah-dah-dah and all this, it became much easier once I left for my parents to say, “What can we do? What actually makes sense for us? How can we step in? What’s our proactive role, that we can now use our own [inaudible] and take in LGBTQ-Jewish issues? I am very proud of the work that my parents have done to support LGBTQ Jewish families, that partially just really needed me out of the house in order to get off the ground, and I think that’s okay. I think that’s very healthy, and I think it’s worth noting that that can be a great step in the relationship between parents and kids.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

As you said, in general. It always gets a little easier. Can I just actually go back? Let me go back actually to the beginning of Gedalia’s remarks, because I do appreciate that Gedalia said that children should also be respectful to the parents, but let me just say, just focus based on both of our words, just one more comment. It’s not only a question of winning and losing. It’s just, and again, this is from so many conversations with so many parents. It’s also that it’s not really about right and wrong, and I think that’s important to say, to specify. In other words, I’ll so often hear from a parent, “It’s just not right for them to do that in my home.” And the child will say, “This is my home, and I have the right to do it.” I think what Gedalia and both of us are saying is, it’s really not about who’s right and wrong. You’re in a difficult situation together, and the question is, how do we make the best of this? How do we continue as a family? How do we continue our relationship? The more we talk about whether it is right or wrong, or you should be able to do it, you shouldn, it just really doesn’t matter. And from both sides. The kids need to be able to say that also. That, yeah, your parents are going through a really tough time, and maybe you do have a right to do this. But is that the best way to continue the relationship? And is that, how do you do that? So I think that that’s an important thing to stress.

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely, and I love the idea of space. I lived in my house, you always live like two years extra, past the point where you’re supposed to probably move out. And I remember those two years were hard for me, and I think that distance and that independence, it gives a little bit of space so one, the parent and child aren’t looking at each other as representatives of themselves at all times. It kind of cools that reflective, we’re not mirrors of one another. We can be different.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I just want to put in a pitch. Gedalia mentioned the number of organizations that are there for individuals struggling, as well as their parents’ families. I just want to put in a pitch for some new organizations as well. My wife and I have tried the beginning of trying to start a new organization, or a new way, for parents to get support. But I do want to put in a pitch, because the reality is, there is a need for more flavors of parent organizations. Hats off to the ones that are functioning now, and they really are meeting a need. There’s a tremendous void in the community, there’s really not a lot of places for parents to turn. But I personally think that there would be value in organizations that have more rabbinic input, and are coming from a slightly different perspective for the parents, and I’d encourage those who are looking for such a thing to work together to be able to create such an organization, or new organizations, and I’m happy to play a role in that process.

David Bashevkin:

So let me move forward and have you each reflect on one another’s communities. Rabbi Penner, obviously, is deeply, not just involved, that would be a deep understatement, as a representative in many ways of the Orthodox rabbinic world in RIETS. And thinking of the frum world that Rabbi Penner represents, and the LGBT world that Gedalia very much lives, what do you each wish the other’s community would understand, and perhaps – and this is very carefully worded here – realistically change? Obviously, every community has norms, and we spoke about this earlier in the podcast. Sometimes the issue is just the notion of community. Every community has norms. The comic book community has its own norms. But what do you each wish one another’s communities better understood and could perhaps realistically change?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I’d say Gedalia has taught us so much about this, why don’t you start with what you wish people knew?

Gedalia Robinson:

Happy to. The first thing that I would say is to check the notions of us and them. As much as my dad may represent the Orthodox community, and I may represent or live in the LGBTQ world, just remembering how silly it is to have an us versus them conception, because LGBTQ people are absolutely everywhere. They are your relatives. They are your friends. They are your neighbors. They are your shul members. Rabbis, they are your congregants and your constituents. We are everybody. The us versus them notion just does not hold water, and everybody will be better off once we recognize that the LGBT community is in the Jewish community. I think any rabbi that is giving a sermon, certainly any mashgiach ruchani in any high school that in a more religious background may be tempted to use the term “them” when referring to the LGBTQ community… It just doesn’t hold water. And thinking about that, checking that notion at the door, is really useful.

I would also say – this is one of the biggest misconceptions when talking to rabbis and community leaders that I would love to address – is that when LGBTQ people come to leaders and come out, they are very often doing that because they want to stay, not because they want to leave. It took me a long time to even realize that this was what was going on in the minds of community leaders. That they thought that people were there as this swan song, this big dramatic, “I’m gay!,” and then they slam the door and they leave, and they just wanted the rabbi to hear that before they left. And that is so not the case. First of all, it could take them weeks, months, if not years to build up the courage to come and to say that, and far more often where that is coming from is from a place of, “I am at wit’s end, and I care about my Judaism. The reason why I’m coming to you to tell you that I’m gay, or I’m lesbian, or I’m trans, or bi, et cetera, or queer, is because I don’t know what to do anymore with this and my Judaism, and I need guidance.

It’s a very, very intimate thing that we’re sharing with leaders, and it’s a very bad foot to go off of when the assumption on the other end is that, that is not an expression of confidence and of intimacy, but instead of harshness and of anger. So I very much want leaders of the community to recognize that when people come out. Furthermore, it’s really important to recognize how relatively traditional or conservative the values of LGBTQ people in the Orthodox community can be. A good number of my peers, for example, do not care to get what they understand to be halachically married.

David Bashevkin:

Conservative meaning politically conservative? Socially conservative?

Gedalia Robinson:

Correct.

David Bashevkin:

That’s a really important point.

Gedalia Robinson:

There are a lot of Orthodox LGBTQ people who, for example, when it comes to marriage, feel that it would be inauthentic with their experience and their relationship with Halacha to try to say that they want to get halachically married, and they opt instead to have ceremonies that revolve around either nedarim, or some other intimate expression of, I am solely yours, even if not in a way that is technically halachically binding. This applies to a lot of different areas, and is very important for people to recognize: that the values of LGBTQ people might not be as militant as you think they are. And even if they are, they are realistic, as you posed in your question, these people. And they care to be a part of the Jewish community, and not to stampede it, and to make it LGBTQ stomping grounds. So they care to have a relationship that is respectful and that is symbiotic with the Orthodox and the religious community.

The last thing I’d say is always remember the youth. The youth come first, and their mental health comes first. It is very tempting to want to make this a halachic conversation, and truly, real change will happen when we get to seriously talking about this as Halacha. And before we get there, we need to recognize that before we’re talking about gay marriage, we are talking about 14-year-olds who have very crippling mental health issues, and could potentially be in serious danger because they are extremely lonely, extremely depressed, and do not know where they’re supposed to go or how they’re supposed to continue in life.

David Bashevkin:

And separating out –

Gedalia Robinson:

This is a mental health issue. That is the first thing. When you think about all of the community members who are at your door, who seem to be annoying, and want to deal with this LGBTQ issue that you just don’t want to deal with, it’s too complicated. It’s not too complicated when the first thing you need to be talking about is making sure that people are safe. That kids are safe, that adults are safe too, but certainly – it gets back to the us versus them. These are your kids. These are kids in your community, and they are not doing well if they are in this situation.

David Bashevkin:

I very much appreciate that, and I think that safety issue, before even talking, and not even getting to the halachic aspect, but thinking about the mental health and the safety issue is obviously paramount, and so, so important. Rabbi Penner, do you want to weigh in on this coming from the other side? What you wish the community that Gedalia finds himself in, how you wish they would see the community in which you live?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Yes. I think there are a number of things that I would want to say, and here I’m stepping a little bit out of my parent of Gedalia role, and a little bit to a role I’m not as comfortable speaking about in this podcast, but a role as a rabbi, and as someone who helps train rabbis. I think there are a number of things that are helpful to know and understand. First of all, I very much agree with what Gedalia is saying about the us and them. Regardless of exactly what the statistic is, certainly my experience and my wife’s has been that there are many, many individuals in our community who face these issues, challenges, differences. We’re speaking to parents on a very regular basis. And I think there is a much greater understanding in the community, that there are many people who, through no choice of their own, have what we call different sexual orientations. And I think many rabbis really do understand that today. I think that those who identify as LGBT should not be afraid to come and speak to a rabbi.

I have no doubt that many individuals have had a bad experience or another, but I think that as time goes on, rabbis have become more accustomed to speaking to individuals about this. They understand better that there’s a large number of people in this situation. And I think that, at this point, one can expect when coming out to a rabbi to receive a listening ear, to actually get compassion. I don’t believe that most of the situations will be ones where one walks away shaking their head, or one walks away angry after speaking to a rabbi. Rabbis speak to people about this all the time. I mean, you could come out to your roommate and hope for the best, but maybe it’s the first time anyone’s come out to that person. If you’re talking to your local rabbi or your teacher in school or something like that, you’re going to be far from the first person who’s spoken to a rabbi about their sexual orientation.

And I think that you will get a listening ear, and you should expect the listening ear. That doesn’t mean that the rabbi is always going to say everything that’s politically correct. I wouldn’t harp on the political correctness of the words the rabbis use. A rabbi may not be clued in as to exactly how, and I may not be clued in, I may on this podcast be using the wrong phrases or the wrong things. You can’t expect everyone – well you can expect, but you won’t find that everyone really has all the lingo right. But in terms of compassion, in terms of a willingness to listen, I think that you will get that. Gedalia is mostly speaking about the first visit where someone comes and reaches out to a rabbi. I don’t think that – speaking to members of the LGBT community – I don’t think you need to be afraid to come talk to rabbis about what’s going on in your life. When you’re coming to the rabbi to affect a change in policy of some sort, pushing that an announcement be made in shul, or a different policy or membership or whatever that is, so there, we have to speak of the difference between compassion and concession.

Compassion is not a line that leads necessarily right into concession. It’s not true that necessarily as rabbis understand more and more about Jews from the LGBT community, that therefore their views on Halacha are going to change. Yes, there are some areas where change may be possible within the bounds of Halacha, and it could be that understanding where individuals are coming from can play a role in those decisions. But it doesn’t mean that compassion, if only rabbis really understood what was going on, therefore they would allow whatever it is. One shouldn’t, when they come to a rabbi looking for a change in policy, assume that if the rabbi says no, that means the rabbi doesn’t care, or it means the rabbi doesn’t understand. On the one hand, no one can understand anyone who’s going through a crisis. It’s very difficult for someone who is heterosexual to understand exactly what it is to be in the LGBT community. It’s difficult to understand. But that doesn’t mean that if a rabbi says no, he doesn’t understand, but if a rabbi says, “Yes, we can change this various thing,” that means that he does understand.

It’s just not that simple. It doesn’t work that way. A rabbi can be very, very loving, and compassionate, and understanding, and yet feel, and yet understand, that the Halacha can’t be changed, or even policies can’t be changed, because there are many other factors here. And I want to make one thing clear. It shouldn’t be stated that the rabbis wish they could abolish the prohibition of whatever it would be. They wish they could change the rules, but their hands are tied. I don’t think it’s fair to say that. I know it sounds much better to say that, to say, “We wish we could do things, but it’s in God’s hands, and we can’t do it.” I don’t think that’s really a fair way to look at something like this. We don’t believe, well, we don’t understand many of the different laws. We do assume that the laws are given by a loving God and a knowing God. And the fact that we don’t understand all of the laws, the fact that there are laws that we think we understand better, there are laws we think we understand less, it doesn’t mean that we simply look at Halacha the way one would look at a secular legal system, as something to work around.

As long as I don’t violate the laws, I can use every loophole. It’s not just that in Torah there’s a spirit of the law, but we believe the law was given by God, and therefore it’s not fair to say in defense of the rabbis, “Well, we wish we could change it, but at a certain point the rabbis can only do so much.” The rabbis don’t think it should necessarily change, because in addition for their compassion for and love for Jews who are struggling, there’s also a commitment to Halacha, a commitment to God, and a love, and a passion for their relationship with God. So on the one hand, if you come to a rabbi and the rabbi says, “That’s not something that we can change here as a congregation,” you shouldn’t see that as a reflection of the fact that the rabbi didn’t listen, or the fact that the rabbi doesn’t care, the fact that the rabbi doesn’t love you. But at the same time, it also doesn’t just mean that the rabbi’s hands are tied and he really wishes he could change things.

It’s very difficult to say that when it’s not a secular legal system, but it’s a divine legal system. And we believe that, again, we don’t understand, but not understanding is not the same as saying that our hands are simply tied. We believe that these are the way that the laws should be, and they present great challenges, they certainly do, and the rabbis are here to struggle with them together, but not always just to say, “It’s okay,” or to say we’re going to change this policy or that.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that idea of – and I think that contends with the general notion that I just mentioned before of how we approach individuals versus how we approach communities. And sometimes that larger edifice, the communal infrastructure, when it’s not able to accommodate you in every single way that you want, it doesn’t mean that the individuals inside of it aren’t looking to cultivate a very healthy, warm, and deep relationship in many ways. I think this question is more specifically for Rabbi Penner, and it’s definitely sensitive in a lot of ways and dovetails to what we’ve just discussed. Do you feel… Let me rephrase it. What do you think the differences are in the way that you approach this as a parent, which is really the focus of our conversation today, versus approaching this as a communal leader? Sometimes it feels that there’s almost two different languages, there’s the institutional language versus the parental language. How do you see those differences in your life?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I think it’s a really good question, because it speaks in a number of ways to my experience and to Gedalia’s experience. I think there really are a lot of differences of approaching this on a community level and approaching it on a family level. Today I’m really here talking as a parent, and I think that as a parent there are sort of two differences. First of all, I’m not entitled to speak for the Orthodox community, if there’s such a thing, about how they should approach it. Unfortunately, sometimes the way that ground is broken in these areas is for some rabbi to speak about it and to give his opinion. Well, I’m sure there are people out there who are entitled to an opinion. I don’t think that I’m entitled to an opinion in the sense that I should be speaking for the Orthodox community, for Yeshiva University. I think the way to do it is to try to build consensus amongst the rabbis, and then together to say, this is what we think an approach is. So I think first of all, we should be very careful how we speak for the community, whereas speaking as a parent in one’s own individual circumstance is very different. But more than that, I think that the approach needs to be different on a communal level and on an individual level.

As a community there are more factors to consider. I’m not saying that we need to put the needs of the many over the needs of the few always. I’m not saying that in this case necessarily the needs of the many conflict with the needs of a smaller group, a subgroup within the community. But while I wouldn’t say that there aren’t circumstances, I wouldn’t say there aren’t circumstances – I guess that’s a double negative. There are times when, even in a family unit, one has to say, “We can’t make this work.” There are situations where… We never asked Gedalia to leave the house. We miss many things about Gedalia being around. Especially now during COVID, we really can’t be with him. But there are times where, you know what? The right thing might be to say, “I don’t think you could be in the house anymore.”

I think that’s very, very extreme when it comes to a family. I think that should only be done as a real last resort. I don’t think religiously, in most cases, it’s the proper thing to do. I don’t think that Hakadosh Baruch Hu gifted you with a member of your family with the permission to cut off that member of the family, to say I’m done. I did, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, that’s it. I’m not a parent anymore. I don’t think that that’s a very easy thing to say. A child doesn’t have another family down the road to turn to if the child is not part of your family. Gedalia has found a lot of comfort in the Conservative world. He’s a student now at JTS in chazzanus, and I think it’s easier for a shul to say, “I’m not sure if we can accommodate what you need. Maybe there’s a shul down the road that can.” As opposed to a parent saying, “I’m not sure if this home can accommodate.” What if there’s no other home down the road?

I think that dealing with it as a parent just has to be… Again, forget about all the emotion involved, and the love that you have for your child, and the fact that you don’t want to create a rift. But I just don’t think it’s an option in most cases for parents to say, “Well, find a different family that works a little better for this.” That’s not the way Hakadosh Baruch Hu created these situations. So I think that on a community level, sometimes there needs to be… The red lines need to be drawn I think a little bit differently. There are consequences to a community saying that a person can do something that is against the Torah and still be a thousand percent part of the community. I don’t know how to solve all the issues within the structure. I don’t know exactly what to compare a gay couple in the shul to other types of things that happen. But it’s complicated. It’s complicated. As a community, there need to be certain standards, there need to be certain things.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Again, I’m not taking a position on any particular issue and how to deal with it, because it’s really difficult to figure out how to make things work on both sides for this. But I think as a family you have to have different standards. The other thing I would say is that just as a community leader, you have to do what’s right for your family. You have to do what’s right for your family. We are both, Rabbi Bashevkin, students of Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who taught us that you’re a father first, and your child only has one set of parents, and you have to make decisions based on what’s most important for the family. The surprising thing that we’ve found is that the more we love Gedalia – we didn’t do this on purpose – but the more we love Gedalia, the more people respect us, and not the other way around.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that. It reminds me in some ways the way Rabbi Sacks used to talk about the way that proud Jews are respected outside in the world, and the pride of a parent, and that resilience of a parent is something that I find extraordinarily moving. And that notion that you can’t open up a shtieble for a family, you can’t open up the shtieble down the block with another family, is incredibly powerful.

So we did mention that Gedalia is married, and I’m going to respect your own privacy and space and not ask about what you actually did in terms of attending Gedalia’s wedding. I know every family, there are so many considerations, that’s been the theme throughout. So we’re going to leave those personal boundaries off of this recorded podcast, but at the very least, you had mentioned to me that you had asked four different rabbis and got four different opinions about what you should do about attending Gedalia’s wedding. What I would like to know is, who are those four rabbis, and what did each of them tell you? I would pay you so much money for that information.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Maybe we could play a game, and I could give you the four names sometime, and you’ll have to guess. There were some very surprising answers. I’ll tell you, the look on my wife and I’s face as we – we did this on speakerphone with the four, one by one, and as each one said something differently, we just looked at each other and we’re like, “What? What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to know?” I think, we’d like to think that Hakadosh Baruch Hu guided us in a certain way towards whatever decision it was, but chas v’shalom we can’t claim that we know if we were right or wrong. Obviously everybody has to figure that out. But it was quite the adventure to try to figure this out.

David Bashevkin:

And allow me to just also say how moved I am by Gedalia’s capacity to watch a parent struggle over this decision. Meaning, the fact that he watched and knew that you were grappling and didn’t take that as an indication of anything short of your enduring love for him, and your enduring love for Yiddishkeit. And having the capacity to do that is not a small feat, and to do that with graciousness, and the fact that both of you have relationships, not only with each other, but with Yiddishkeit, is an incredible story and something I find incredibly moving.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I think just to go back to practical advice: if the first time you share with your child how much you love them, and the first time that you share with your child how much you love God, is when you’re discussing whether they can go to their wedding, it’s going to be very difficult. We should have done more of it. We didn’t do enough of it. We didn’t do enough of telling Gedalia how much we loved him beforehand. We didn’t do enough of expressing to him how much we loved the Ribono Shel Olam and how committed, but we did some of that certainly over the years. And that’s where, again, when something like this happens, it’s going to be in the context of everything else. And I think that Gedalia appreciated that this is not the first time we struggled with something because we tried to figure out what the Ribono Shel Olam wants. We weren’t making up this excuse to deal with our own personal discomfort. So I think that’s right.

David Bashevkin:

Don’t wait. Don’t wait to say –

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Don’t wait, because you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know what… There are always going to be bumps in the road.

Gedalia Robinson:

And it’s worth mentioning that this is the relationship, for parents and kids both, this is what it looks like. It takes a whole lot of trust and a whole lot of belief in the unconditional love that goes both ways, but to have this relationship is to have these values that are not the same, that are expressed, communicated. That are expressed because you can trust that the other person is taking it as an indication of wanting to be in a deep relationship with them despite having very different beliefs. Communicate, communicate. That goes for everything that we’ve been saying. If you’re a parent and a kid, communicate.

David Bashevkin:

It goes for everything –

Gedalia Robinson:

If you’re a rabbi who doesn’t know what to do, communicate. Talk to the other LGBTQ people. Talk to the rabbis – everybody will be happier if we just communicate.

David Bashevkin:

The only thing I would disagree is, it’s not just about LGBT. This is about relationships with one another –

Gedalia Robinson:

Absolutely.

David Bashevkin:

And we always have competing values that don’t need to undermine the foundation of our relationships with others. And thank you both so much. I always end my interviews with quicker, shorter questions, if you’ll humor and indulge me. This is the quick part, hopefully this is the easy part. If somebody gave each of you a great deal of money, a great sum of money, that allowed you to take a sabbatical with no responsibilities, as long as you wanted, to go back to school and get a PhD, what do you think the title of your dissertation would be?

Gedalia Robinson:

Is that for me or for my dad?

David Bashevkin:

That’s for both of you.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Gedalia, you could still reasonably do that, so why don’t you try to answer that first?

Gedalia Robinson:

Oh my goodness. What would the title be? It would probably be called, Yeshivish: A Linguistic Journey of Four or Five Languages.

David Bashevkin:

I love that.

Gedalia Robinson:

I’m a real linguistic nerd. I love lexicography and linguistics.

David Bashevkin:

Oh I love that.

Gedalia Robinson:

I have a lot of fun with Yeshivish.

David Bashevkin:

Like Sarah, what’s her name? Mitzvah girl, Sarah [inaudible], maybe I’m getting the name wrong, but I absolutely love that. Talking about the linguistic, that internal language that we share. Rabbi Penner, you could definitely be a doctoral advisor perhaps on a PhD in Yeshivish. What would the title of your dissertation be?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

I am very taken by the role of emotional intelligence in terms of the rabbinate. We have a very, very significant program at RIETS for that, which I think was after your time – not that we’re questioning your emotional intelligence, but it would interesting to see that, and I would love to spend serious time looking at the relationship between emotional intelligence and success in the rabbinate.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

That would be a fascinating thing to get data on, because we’ve studied it so much.

David Bashevkin:

I love both of those questions. My last question, I’m always curious, probably because of my own struggles. What time do each of you go to sleep at night, at what time do you wake up in the morning?

Gedalia Robinson:

Oh. Oh! It’s a good thing you didn’t ask this about a year or two ago. Caleb and I do the New York Times crossword when it drops at 10:00 PM on the New York Times crossword website –

David Bashevkin:

Is that true?

Gedalia Robinson:

– and then we –

David Bashevkin:

And you complete the crossword puzzle?

Gedalia Robinson:

We have completed the crossword puzzle for about two years now, we have done every single one, and then wind down and start going to sleep, hopefully.

David Bashevkin:

That’s pretty early. And what time do you wake up?

Gedalia Robinson:

We get up when the dog insists, that Booker insists that he needs to go for a walk, or usually about an hour before my first class. I have a very varied schedule.

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha.

Gedalia Robinson:

As you can imagine, the schedule of cantors, pursuing a cantor, is as eclectic and colorful as the career itself.

David Bashevkin:

I could only imagine. Rabbi Penner?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Oyoyoy. I wish you had asked me also this, I wish you had asked me this a few years ago. I used to never really sleep. It turns out that as you get a little bit older, that’s just, I found that’s impossible. I know there are many gedolim in many gedolim books about doing that. I’m reading a fascinating book now by Daniel Pink called When about the cycles. I’m reading it because I have a whole theory about Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv, and I’m investigating how that goes with normal sleep cycles, and the different, the way we are different in the morning, afternoon, and evening. But the nights are absolutely a bracha levatala for me. I used to stay up until 1:00, 2:00 in the morning. I find that if I get up, I set my alarm to 5:45, and I start learning at a much earlier hour, I am much more productive. Very little productive happens late at night.

David Bashevkin:

So now where has it drifted to? What time do you go to sleep at night?

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

11:30. It’s still not –

David Bashevkin:

Okay, but that’s reasonable.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

11:30, 12:00. Yes, I was very unreasonable for many, many years, but sleep is a critical part of what we do and the way we think, so I try to inch towards the six hours a night at this point.

Gedalia Robinson:

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. That’s a book I could recommend, Why We Sleep. That I read last summer.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Ah yes. Why We Sleep and When. When is a phenomenal book for rabbis.

Gedalia Robinson:

That’s the book that I read last summer, and it’s the first time that I started getting my sleep schedule on track was after I read that book, and then this summer I started with a regimen of melatonin and blue light filtering glasses and shifting my sleep –

David Bashevkin:

Oh, wow.

Gedalia Robinson:

Yeah. It’s the first time in my life that I really got my life together.

David Bashevkin:

I’ve had sleep issues too. I can’t thank you enough, and I have watched a documentary on crossword puzzles. I forgot its name, but it’s absolutely fantastic though. I’ve never completed one myself. I want to thank both of you, Rabbi Penner, Gedalia Robinson, your story is so moving, so powerful, and I am so grateful for both of you joining us today on the 18Forty Podcast. Thank you both so very much.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Thank you. It’s been our pleasure.

Gedalia Robinson:

Thank you so much for having us.

Rabbi Menachem Penner:

Bye Gedalia, I love you.

Gedalia Robinson:

Bye Abba, I love you too.

David Bashevkin:

One of the things that really stuck with me in this conversation was when Rabbi Penner spoke about, it’s not about keeping score, and it’s not about winning or losing. Very often, whether it’s in a family, a parent to a child, or spouses, or whoever it is, I don’t know if it’s a competitive spirit, but there is a sense of a winner and a loser. “Who changed the last diaper? Who took out the garbage last? I did it last time. You’re not pulling your weight. You’re not doing enough. I’m the one always compromising.” And I think shifting your orientation in a family from this zero-sum game where there has to be a winner and a loser, and thinking about how to carry a family together where everybody is carrying, everybody’s taking part, and everybody is allowing everybody to co-exist, is something that isn’t just important from parents to children, but I think it’s important in our spousal relationships, and I think it’s important in our friendships. I think too often we have a utilitarian mindset of, “Who’s chipping in what? Who’s giving? Let’s split the bill of this friendship, so to speak. Who ordered the Diet Coke? Who ordered the french fries? I’m not paying for that. I didn’t order the sides.”

I think that we need to reorient the way that we think about our family, the way that we think about our friendships, the way that we think about one another, that there’s this deep sense, this responsibility that we’re just looking to advocate for one another, and that’s not always so simple. I’m not oversimplifying it. There’s certainly disappointment and embarrassment and concerns that friends, spouses, children, parents can all give one another. But I think the moment that we let go – even a little bit – of the scorecard and start thinking about the totality of our relationships without winners or losers, without splitting the bill, without that zero-sum game, but really trying to advance one another, and looking at one another that their advancement, and their success, and their growth, and their happiness is a part of your happiness. Like my wife always reminds me, it’s a famous quote, but “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” I think that’s true of our friendships, and that’s as true in any family. And looking at the advancement and happiness of one another, how we can contribute to one another’s success, happiness, and meaning is something that’s not just important for families, and certainly not just important for families navigating the question with somebody who’s LGBT, but it’s important for anybody in a meaningful relationship with anybody.

And I hope that’s a takeaway in the totality of all of the conversations, all the very intimate, personal conversations that we’ve had this month, whether you’re a parent or a child or just a friend, learning how to navigate and advocate for one another’s success, happiness, and collective meaning, and learning how to do that without seeing it at your own expense, without keeping score is something that I hope we can all walk away with from these conversations.

So thank you all so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring. So if you enjoyed this episode, or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org. 18Forty.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, and recommended reading. Thank you so much for listening, especially this month, especially on this topic. It has really been a privilege to share these conversations with you. Thank you all so much, and stay curious, my friends.