Not such an Awful Secret
By Jill Cartwright
"My son came out of the closet - or rather I dragged him out of the closet, just after he finished the army 22 years ago," says Dvora Luz, a Czech-born Israeli who lives in Rishon Letzion.
She had always been aware of her younger son’s sweet nature, his reluctance to join in the "rough" games of his brothers, the fact that he was always surrounded by girls, "but never a girlfriend." She had a deep suspicion he was gay but, she admits, "hearing him actually say the words was a terrible shock."
"A huge shock," Chana Arnon says, describing her reaction when her son came out to her at the age of 23. A shock made all the harder to take, she says, by the fact that it happened 21 years ago, when public awareness about homosexuality was much more limited than today, leaving her family with "nowhere to turn."
As founding members and leading activists of the TEHILA support group for parents of gays and lesbians, Luz, who chairs the group in Rishon Letzion, and Dutch-born Arnon, who runs the Jerusalem branch, hope to offer that "somewhere to turn" for parents dealing with the shock they both faced over 20 years ago.
TEHILA groups meet once a month, providing an open forum and a sympathetic audience for parents of all religious and ethnic backgrounds who are coming to terms with their children’s homosexuality.
"Some parents scream and shout that they never want to see their children again, or that they will never allow them to bring their partners to the house," says Luz, "but after a few meetings, people do change. We help them to see that they can still have a happy life, and we help them to maybe change their set ideas."
TEHILA’s founder is not a parent of a homosexual but a gay man himself: Jonathan Danilowitz, 61, who immigrated from South Africa in 1971.
Having seen his own mother struggling with his gayness, Danilowitz sought to create a group in Israel similar to the American PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians), which he knew from visits to the United States.
No ’Ten Commandments’
"I saw how they dealt with the issue with such openness there," he says. "Nothing was forced on you and there were no ’Ten commandments,’ but an open arena where people could listen to each other and learn from one another. And with fantastic results."
And so, in 1988, the first meeting of TEHILA was held with himself and four mothers in Danilowitz’s small apartment in Tel Aviv.
TEHILA has since grown to include some 200 members with branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Rishon Letzion, Herzliya, Kiryat Shmona, Be’er Sheva and Kibbutz Gevulot.
With the exception of the Jerusalem group, where discussions are led by a psychologist and open only to parents, the groups are led by a parent (usually a mother) and are also open to the gay children.
Many gay youth attend meetings for advice on how to come out to their parents, Danilowitz says, while parents and their gay children benefit from airing issues with others in the same situation.
"It is reassuring to be among people who share something that you very often hide," Arnon explains. "Even for the most liberal of parents, it’s a hurt, and for many people homosexuality is a taboo and they are scared."
Participants are sworn to secrecy and committed to a policy of non-criticism, making the groups a "safe haven," Danilowitz says, in which families can let their hair down without having to censor themselves "and with the knowledge that their secret is safe - if that is their wish."
Such meetings are literally "lifesavers," Danilowitz says, keeping families together and even, he believes, preventing teen suicides.
"Thirty percent of youth suicides stem from the fact that the teen is gay, a percentage way beyond the percentage of gay youth in society," Danilowitz says. "Because of pressure from family, parents and society, gay youths often see no way to be accepted and no way out other than to kill themselves."
When parents find out their children are gay, Danilowitz adds, the family very often dissolves into dysfunction. "This is where we are a lifesaver," he says. "We lead families to understand that that ’awful secret’ is not so awful - we show them a new reality."
His words are echoed by Luz, who co-authored a book, "Ima Yesh Li Mashehu Lesaper Lach" ("Mom, I Have Something to Tell You") about parents with homosexual children. "We listen carefully and we never criticize and we encourage people to look at things differently, to understand that life goes on. Many times I hear ’If it wasn’t for TEHILA I don’t know what I would do.’"
02-5636513, 09-8855822, 04-8327702, 08-9915231 www.tehila.co.il