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. As the second of five children, she earned good grades at school 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. As a 32-year-old divorcee with three children, she is an 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 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, 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 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 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 known as a *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 College 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, 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. Contact Rukhl Schaechter at firstname.lastname@example.org