October 21, 2019

Unconditional Love: A Mother’s Day Story

Deborah Engel Kollin (seated, right) and her three children, Yoni (seated, left), Eliana (top row) and Gavi. Photo courtesy of Deborah Engel Kollin

Six years ago, Deborah Engel Kollin learned that her then-12-year-old son, Yoni, was gay. Four years later, Yoni came out as non-binary, identifying as neither male or female.  Engel Kollin was supportive even though she didn’t understand everything about her child’s journey. 

“I don’t find it a challenge. I find it an opportunity more than anything,” Engel Kollin said. “And to me, the love that I have for my children is unconditional and it doesn’t matter who they are, how they present, as long as they are ethical, good, moral people who care about human beings and are positive, productive members of society.” 

Engel Kollin and her husband, Dani, have four children, including a 16-year-old girl they’re fostering, and belong to Temple Beth Am Synagogue.

Yoni, 18, a Hamilton High School senior who goes by the gender pronoun, “they,” is an artist with a passion for poetry. Last month, JQ International, an organization serving LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, honored Kollin. They attended the luncheon with dyed hair, eye makeup and a floral top. In their acceptance speech, Yoni said that they only felt truly seen after their mother joined the board of JQ.

For Engel Kollin, now JQ International’s leadership engagement chair, upon learning that Yoni was gay, her greatest concern was not that Yoni wouldn’t give her grandkids but that their sexual identity would make them an outsider in the Jewish community. 

“I didn’t want Yoni to have to choose between being gay and being Jewish and when he first came out, he thought that was the choice he had to make,” Engel Kollin said. “And through [JQ’s] JQSA (Jewish Queer Straight Alliance), he saw he didn’t have to make that choice.”

While Engel Kollin and Yoni have always been close, she said their shared involvement with JQ strengthened their relationship. “It gave us another way to connect,” she said, “and we are both involved with JQ and we go to a lot of things together.”

Because Engel Kollin struggled with infertility and their 21-year-old daughter is adopted, “Maybe that’s why I never had an issue with Yoni being gay because you can become a parent in any way,” Engel Kollin said. “It was not like, ‘Oh I won’t have grandkids.’ They can adopt. There are so many ways to become a parent.”

Yoni hopes to attend Cal State Long Beach next year and study graphic design. For her part, Engel Kollin isn’t concerned about Yoni’s classmates targeting them for wearing jewelry and makeup; she is concerned about anti-Semitism on campus.

“If anything, I’m not scared about his being gay, although some people say I should be,” she said. “I am more concerned with the Jewish aspect.” 

Like any Jewish mother would be.