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September 10, 2009

Haredi And Out Of The Closet: A Hasidic Lesbian's Unusual Journey

Chani Getter cropped She keeps Shabbat and kosher, lives in Monsey and sends her kids to Orthodox schools. And she's an open lesbian.

Haredi and Out of the Closet
Chani Getter's Unorothodox Journey

By Rukhl Schaechter • The Forward

For the first 20 years of her life, Chani Getter was no different from the other girls in the Nikolsburg Hasidic sect in Monsey, N.Y. The second of five children, she earned good grades in her schoolwork and had close friends. At age 17, she was introduced to her future husband, also 17, and after one meeting the wedding date was set.

Today, Getter leads quite a different life. A 32-year-old divorcee with three children, she is an Chani Getter active member of the Jewish Renewal movement and a professional life coach. Getter leads support groups and provides spiritual guidance in parenting, cross-cultural integration, and issues of sexuality and identity. Unlike the other women born into Hasidic families, Getter even has her own Web site, inspirationallivinginc.com.


She is also a popular speaker at retreats run by Nehirim, a spiritual community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews. At the gatherings, which take place three times a year, her compelling story of growing up lesbian in an ultra-Orthodox family inspires others to share their own personal struggles. (The retreats are usually held in a rustic setting in Falls Village, Conn., but the next one will take place from October 30 to November 1 at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.)

It is rare for Haredi Jews to come out of the closet, and when they do, they often leave their Orthodox lifestyle behind. But Getter has not done so. She continues to keep the Sabbath and kashrut, still resides in Monsey and sends her children to Orthodox, albeit not Hasidic, schools. Her 13-year-old son studies at a yeshiva, and her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, attend a Modern Orthodox day school.

Getter knew by age 14 that she was a lesbian, although she didn’t realize at the time how unacceptable this would be in her community. “Honestly, I didn’t know that we were supposed to love men; I thought we just had to have children with them,” she explained. “That’s why I was puzzled when the other girls in shul would rush to peek through the mekhitsa [the wall separating the men from the women in an Orthodox synagogue]. All I kept thinking was, why do they want to look at the men so much?”

Her marriage was fraught with tension, but she tried to make it work, particularly because her husband seemed worldlier than most Hasidim. He told her that at age 16, he used to sneak out with his friends to go to concerts by the now late rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Known as Reb Shlomo to his followers, Carlebach was a charismatic spiritual leader who combined a Hasidic-style warmth with a “New Age” sensibility. Many of his melodies continue to have wide appeal among Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

Her husband even took her to the so-called “Carlebach Shul” on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she said she was moved by “the warmth and acceptance of the people.”

After two years of marriage, Getter confessed her feelings about women to her husband, but he didn’t seem fazed by the news. “I think he thought I was joking,” she said. But Getter knew that the marriage couldn’t continue, and she asked him for a divorce. He refused, and for three years she remained an agunah — a woman whose husband refuses, or is unable, to grant her a Jewish divorce, or get.

During this transitional period, one of the questions that consumed her was how to cover her head. She knew that she no longer wanted to wear a shpitsl (a tuft of synthetic hair sticking out from a web-net covering) like the other married Hasidic women, but halachically she still wanted to cover her hair, so she started wearing a sheitel, or wig. Later, when she started attending lesbian functions, she replaced the wig with a baseball cap.

“After finally getting my divorce at 26, I left the Hasidic community and went straight to The Carlebach Shul, where I knew I would be accepted for who I was,” Getter said. “I no longer wanted to wear clothes that mask what’s inside me. I wanted to be in a place where a woman could do what a man does, lead the davening, where one group isn’t superior to another.”

She put herself through college, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in human development from Empire State and certification as a professional life coach. Today she coaches individuals and offers workshops in the areas of life balance, self-acceptance and spirituality; trains boys and girls for bar and bat mitzvah, and leads Sabbath services at Classic Residence by Hyatt, a retirement community in Yonkers, N.Y.. She infuses her work with references to Torah and Kabbalah, which she studies weekly with another woman from a Hasidic background.

In addition to her work with private clients, Getter is a featured speaker and workshop leader at the Nehirim retreats, where she serves as financial officer. “She’s really the heart center of the retreat and sets the tone,” said Jay Michaelson, founder and executive director of the organization.

Michaelson said that the retreat participants are often moved by Getter’s strong connection to her traditional roots. “When she does the Friday night kiddush, it’s so sad and plaintive, you can see people tearing up,” he said. “It reminds a lot of us of her own struggles and successful reclaiming of tradition, a real sense of Yiddishkeit. In fact, when I recently started looking around for a new person to make kiddush, just for a change of pace, the people openly protested.”

“She’s very charismatic,” said Amanda Seigel, a Yiddish singer and librarian who attended one of the retreats. “She’s so open about her personal experiences; that’s why people feel comfortable confiding in her about their own difficulties.”

And how do Getter’s children deal with their mother’s sexual orientation? “They don’t talk to their friends about it, since they live in a frum world,” Getter said. “But I do bring them along to the Nehirim retreats, where they’ve become friends with the other kids of gay parents. At this point, they’re used to people who are different from them.”

Getter said she understands how difficult it would be for her children if she were to live with a woman, so she doesn’t. “I’ll wait till they graduate,” she said.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Forverts.

Comments

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nothing in torah prohibiting lesbianism. you can even deduce that it is actually encouraged, because the torah specificaly prohibits male homosexuality as opposed to all homosexuality.
whenever i am with a black hatter, who vocally is spewing hatred against homosexuals, i tell him he should be as vocal in insisting that lesbianism is ok, in the same sentence as he calls male homosexuality unnatural.
this woman seems like a wonderful woman. thanks for the story.

Quite an accomplishment. Congratulations to her.

critical minyan, you should consider learning some basic halacha before you make a definitive statement about what the torah does or does not prohibit. See for example Rambam, Isurei Biah, 21:8.

נשים המסוללות זו בזו--אסור, וממעשה מצריים הוא שהוזהרנו עליו: שנאמר "כמעשה ארץ מצריים . . . לא תעשו" (ויקרא יח,ג); ואמרו חכמים, מה היו עושים--איש נושא איש, ואישה נושאה אישה, ואישה נישאת לשני אנשים.

The Niklosbergers brother is a homo the rabbi probably talked her in to it for political reasons

Ther eis a web page for Jewish Lesbians seriously orthodykes"

http://www.orthodykes.org/

Ben, you're disgusting. If someone called a Jew a kike or a sheeny you'd be furious. "Homo" is at least as bad.

And being an apologist for religious bigots doesn't absolve you of the responsibility to use the stiff lump of lard at the top of your spine. What woman in her right mind would take all the crap that comes with being an out lesbian, let alone one in a community as viciously hostile to gay women as the Charedi ghettos?

"for political purposes". What a contemptible slander.

If lesbianism is prohibited by the orthodox Torah, what about just watching some hot girl-on-girl action? Is that ok? Please, can I get a lenient ruling here?

WSC - get your heter from Rabbi Pinky Schmekelstein, and ignore SM's confusing Rambam with "Torah" in CM's question.

Thank you OCR! :)

Mr. Chief Rabbi, the reason I cited to that "confusing" rambam is because he cites to a specific verse in the Torah that forbid what WSC calls girl-on-girl action. Of course since you find it confusing to read a relatively simple rambam you probably didn't notice that.

WSC: I don't know if you'll get a lenient ruling, but you might get a hard one...

Though her ex-husband refused to give her a divorce for several years, I'm surprised he didn't try to take her kids away from her, too. Finding out his wife is a lesbian can't be easy for him, either. Anyway, I'm glad everything worked out for her and him, too.

AC ;)

She's an embarrassment to her kids, parents and entire Jewish community.

Good for this woman, I'm glad she's living proud, free and happy.

Ortho Jew: and the Rubashkins, molesters, defrauders, and other carebears featured on this site are, what, sources of pride to their kids, parents, and entire Jewish community? Why, because they marry with the opposite gender, or grow beards, or cover their hair, or eat geffilte fish on Shabbat?

Before anyone starts in with the uneducated statement that the Torah never says anything against "Lesbianism", please do a little research. The Torah does not use such a vocabulary, but the issue is addressed. Also, the traditional interpretations are part of the "Oral Torah". You don't have to agree with any of this, but just please report accurately what is being said in the written and oral Torah, and what has been said; and *then* voice *your own* opinion.

Schneerson himself looked very much the faygele. Why is this never discussed?

Also remember that Chabad defines gay in very narrow terms so that the usual oral stuff at the mikva and yeshiva dorms isn't halachically considered homosexual.

Why does she even need a Get?
If she will not ever marry another guy and have more children, then she doesn't HAVE to obtain a get.

This is an excellent post. Chani Getter is to be lauded for being true to herself while retaining her connection to Judaism; the latter I find especailly pleasing, as I am Jewish myself. All that she has gone through as she made the successful transition to her new lifestyle indicates she would be very interested in my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay Mormon man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance (of himself and by others, including co-religionists). More information on the book is available at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

Mark Zamen, author

BEN stop posting lies and stupidity

Good for Her. God Bless Her. A great Soul.

The children of Israel are greaT & AMAZING

Those poor kids. Living with a basket case like their mom, who sends them to frum schools and wears a sheitel (why? So the other lesbians don't get excited?). Who does she think will marry them? Does she honestly think she is keeping some big secret? Where will she find a Lesbian-accepting frum shadchen for her children?

She is as confused as Messianic Jews. Her mongrel New Age + Frum "religion" is a joke.

Her children are faced with the utter absurdity of mentally leaping from Frum to Queer Secular and back again four or five times a day and mameh is completely oblivious to the insanity.

Doubtless they will be mental basket cases by age 20.

Who says she is a basket case? she sounds to me like someone who knows exactly who she is and who she wants to be, and also how to play by the rules. I'm sure her children are very proud of who she is and who they are - and are very strong and interesting people. And I'm sure that they would not want to marry anyone any less so.
Personally, I would have no problem marrying one of my children into such a family. It's high time we had some diversity in our community.

I believe that Lesbianism is an issur rabbanan. Which means that it is mutar for a non jew.

Just a response to Gladys,about shidduchim. The children are in MO schools. hey don't have to worry about the borsht belt shidduch scene.

Lesbians are OK. Homosexual men are no good.

An interesting, personal and very poignant story on this exact subject. http://thelivesofthedead.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/forbidden/

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