US Jewish groups seek to increase LGBT affiliation

Jewish federations in New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Seattle and Arizona now all run programs for LGBT Jews.

Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (370) (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (370)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
American Jewry is increasingly reaching out to the gay community with programs designed to integrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews into local, regional and national organizations.
The upcoming LGBTQ Pathways to Jewish Leadership program, sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco and aimed at “nurturing LGBTQ Jewish leaders,” while part of the general effort by American Jewry to keep the younger generation involved, represents this growing focus.
“The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the fifth-largest Jewish community in the United States, and to a huge and diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer population, including an estimated 36,000 LGBTQ Jews.
And, yet, there are few out-and-proud LGBTQ Jewish leaders in the region’s organized Jewish or LGBTQ worlds,” Nora Smith, the JCF’s social media coordinator, explained in an oped.
“Participants,” she said, “will be trained to develop their own personal leadership style, to better understand how to see themselves as LGBTQ Jews and leaders, and to learn the history and current needs of our Jewish community.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Katherine Tick, the director of leadership development at the JCF, explained that “while in the Bay Area, we can meet out LGBTQ Jews in all sorts of situations, we don’t have many out LGBTQ Jews as part of organizational decision-making,” and that “we are too often tokenized.”
“Just as in the broader Jewish community, there are many opinions, styles, experiences, needs, histories and no single individual can encapsulate them all. It is the same in the LGBT community; having just one LGBT leader doesn’t well represent the breadth and depth of the LGBT community,” she said.
According to Stuart Kurlander, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington who is openly gay, there is interest in leadership positions among LGBT Jews.
While efforts to increase their involvement in professional leadership roles, he said, things have been “moving in a more positive direction,” if slowly.
“In the Jewish community as a whole,” he said, “there is a significant interest and desire in engaging LGBT Jews in the organizations and in leadership roles, and this is clearly more becoming increasingly more common as the place of LGBT people is continuing to evolve” in the wider community.
While efforts thus far consisted of “more grassroots activity on the local level,” he said, he believes that American Jewry is “on the cusp of more national involvement as organizations, from the JFNA [Jewish Federations of North America] to major federations, AIPAC [and others] are reaching out to this constituency.
“Our leadership should represent the diversity of our community,” Kurlander said.
The JFNA, a national umbrella group representing local federations, has been involved in the issue for a number of years, a spokesman told the Post.
“Jewish Federations nationally have continued to take a leadership role on LGBT inclusion.
Jewish Federation General Assemblies have hosted receptions with the LGBT inclusion group Keshet, for example. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston [precursor to JFNA] provided seed money to Keshet as well,” the spokesman said.
Richard Feczko, the interim executive director of Keshet, which advocates for LGBT Jews, told the Post that while “much work” remains to be done, he is happy “to see some Jewish Federations moving toward greater support and inclusion of LGBT Jews.”
“Since our inception over a decade ago, Keshet has had federation [financial] support,” he said.
Jewish federations in New York, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Seattle and Arizona all run programs for LGBT Jews.
“We have made some major changes in our programming and outreach in the recent past, mostly due to the increasing openness at many of our area congregations and the world in general,” Ellen Freeman, the director of the LGBT Inclusion Project at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, told the Post.
“We still offer stand-alone programs, but the majority of what we offer now are truly collaborative efforts including other departments of the federation and its agencies” and other groups, she said.
A recent report on LGBT inclusion showed that “half of the 204 Jewish nonprofits that were surveyed were involved in LGBT inclusion and 66 percent were actively reaching out to the LGBT community,” according to Susie Gelman, the North American co-chairwoman of the JFNA’s 2013 General Assembly, to be held November 10-12 in Jerusalem.
“In contrast, a similar survey of Fortune 500 companies showed only about 4% were involved in inclusion activities.”
However, while LGBT Jews have expressed appreciation for efforts made to include them in the wider community, not everyone agrees that all of the efforts are as well executed as intentioned.
“I definitely believe that much progress has been made in outreach efforts to the LGBT Jewish community,” Jayson Littmanm, the founder of he’bro, a gay event promotion company in New York, told the Post.
However, he said, “It’s also important to note while efforts to engage gay Jews has been significant, the Jewish organizational community needs to understand the different needs of those within the LGBT community.
Outreach and engagement efforts may be different for men, women and the trans community. Just as there are many affiliations within the Jewish community, the LGBT community has many individuals with different identities within the acronym of LGBTQ.”
“There is definitely a disparity between young LGBT community and the young straight community,” he continued. This is “mainly for the reason that young LGBT folks, especially the younger ones once they come out... tend to heavily assimilate into the gay community.”
“I find that most gay Jews, their primary identity is their gay identity and their Jewish identity is secondary,” he said.
“We strive to become more inclusive and to engage all segments of the Jewish community,” said Reuben Romirowsky, vice president for affinity at UJA-Federation of New York. “UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study found that at least 5% of Jewish families have an LGBT member. Providing supports and programs creates opportunities to engage the LGBT community in Jewish life.”