Coming Out to Dad, the Rabbi

Coming Out to Dad, the Rabbi

Rabbis Heller and Norry preach acceptance in keeping the Jewish tent open for LGBTQ+ members.

After 35 years with the Atlanta newspapers, Marcia currently serves as Retail VP for the Buckhead Business Association, where she delivers news and trends (laced with a little gossip).

Caleb Heller’s coming out was eased by his father’s LGBTQ+ advocacy in Conservative Judaism. // Credit: Caleb Heller
Caleb Heller’s coming out was eased by his father’s LGBTQ+ advocacy in Conservative Judaism. // Credit: Caleb Heller

Coming out to your family has never been easy. But it can be especially difficult when family includes a parent who is a rabbi or clergy member, as observant Jewish circles have often taken cautious if not negative views of alternative lifestyles. Rabbis and their families are finding it best to face things head-on, which may encourage solidarity with other Jews who have felt left out or slighted because of their orientation. Now, two local Conservative rabbis, Hillel Norry and Josh Heller, share their personal journeys as parents of children who have revealed their LGBTQ identifications.

In 2015, about the time that Rabbi Hillel Norry left his pulpit at Congregation Shearith Israel, his daughter Natanya came out to him. He recalled that he was “surprised but not surprised.”

Natanya Norry poses below a portrait of her grandmother, Hillel’s mother.

“I tend not to preach about my family, and I rarely use my kids as subjects,” he said. Norry referred to a book by Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg, “Wrestling with God and Men,” which is about Greenberg’s sexuality. “Not many congregations have this as their chief issue,” Norry elaborated. “Older, younger, no matter, we have to normalize the gay/trans experience. There’s a gay kid or two in the congregation, and we aren’t allowed to make them feel that they don’t exist. They need to hear about themselves from the rabbi.”

Norry says that, earlier on, when he performed mock weddings with youngsters, he would note that “Most guys marry girls, but some marry guys.” He feels that a negative Orthodox approach is too critical. “You either have to say, ‘Don’t have sex, which is not natural according to Judaism, as celibacy is wrong. It’s like saying, ‘Don’t eat.’ Or: ‘Fake it,’ which is unacceptable, to lie. This is not a new topic, think of the Yeshivot having gay boys.”

His daughter, Natanya, meanwhile, is an LGBTQ leader at Georgia Tech, where she is majoring in technological/electronic music. She recently won the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN) award for her work there. “Kids give a lot of thought to who they are,” Norry advised. “Sexuality is only one part. If they choose to come out, we have to not let it be a traumatic experience.”

He further counsels kids to protect themselves and decide how assertive to be, considering the situation. He said, “Not every person will greet this with open arms. Be thoughtful about making it a huge stance. It’s not your whole story, like I don’t walk into a room and say, “‘Hey, I’m a Jewish guy!’ In Natanya’s case, her advocacy comes through her natural self.”

Joshua Heller gave a sermon about LGBTQ acceptance at Congregation B’nai Torah, including how his college-aged son, Caleb, came out. The sermon was also posted on Facebook.

“I Am Joseph” – Rabbi Joshua Heller from Congregation B’nai Torah on Vimeo.

Heller said, “For a couple of years, we had wondered about Caleb’s orientation, but it took time for him to figure it out. It was only during the pandemic that he felt comfortable discussing it with us. He was definitely concerned how we would take the news. He knew that I’m a rabbi who leans to the more traditional. Meanwhile, the congregation had been on a journey to acceptance of LGBTQ+ Jews; but those efforts and conversations weren’t on Caleb’s radar.”

Heller is one of the editors of the new Conservative rabbi’s manual. One of the major changes from the last edition is the inclusion of marriage ceremonies for LGBTQ+ couples. Heller recalled, “In the end, the conversation with Caleb was actually somewhat anti-climactic.”

Norry is majoring in electronic music at Georgia Tech and recently won a SOJOURN award for her leadership.

Having grown up the child of a congregational rabbi, Caleb was used to living in a fishbowl, which had its own challenges. Heller said, “I always ask his permission before sharing any story about him (a few years earlier, I gave a sermon about teaching him to drive). I had thought several times about giving a version of this sermon, but it was only in December that I felt that he was secure enough in himself for me to talk about him. Caleb told me that it was very emotional for him to watch the sermon with his partner.”

The sermon provoked considerable conversation, with some congregants expressing support. Others disclosed to Heller that they had LGBTQ+ members in their family but had not shared that information widely. Some just hadn’t given consideration to the idea that a truly inclusive congregation can’t just be tolerant, they have to be actively welcoming of LGBTQ+ Jews.

Norry concluded, “I hope for Natanya to seek a Jewish partner and raise Jewish children. … We are beyond heteronormative-only values.”

read more: