Tolerance is not enough

A new index for Jewish nonprofits aims to spur more inclusive LGBT policies.

lgbt 521 (photo credit: JQY/Robert J. Saferstein)
lgbt 521
(photo credit: JQY/Robert J. Saferstein)
Until recent Oberlin College graduate Aaron Kokotek was in 11th grade at the Solomon Schechter of Essex and Union (now the Golda Och Academy) in West Orange, New Jersey, he felt accepted by the Jewish community.
But as a high school junior trying to figure out where he stood with his own Judaism, he remembers a discussion on difficult texts like Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence”) that began to push him away. This text, an affront to his own sexual identity, was accepted by those around him without challenge.
“There are a lot of things in Jewish traditional texts that are cut and dried, permitted or not permitted, and there’s not much wiggle room,” Kokotek says. “But about this there could have been some wiggle room applied.”
Kokotek’s story shows how Jews can feel subtly unincluded even at well-meaning community institutions.
To that end, the recently released Jewish Organization Equality Index is a first step toward translating the generally positive attitudes in the Jewish community regarding inclusion into actions that will change the cultures of Jewish organizations.
The index – released on November 12 and spearheaded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation along with the Morningstar Foundation and philanthropist Stuart Kurlander – evaluates Jewish nonprofit organizations regarding inclusion and engagement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and creation of LGBT-friendly workplace policies.
To create this index, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBT Americans, surveyed 204 organizations (out of 2,172 invited to participate) to develop a tool similar to one they have been using for 11 years to measure LGBT inclusion efforts in corporate America.
From its experience with the corporate index, HRC has learned that creating the benchmark in itself spurs organizations to move forward. “As nonparticipating corporations or, in this case, nonparticipating Jewish nonprofits see what is happening, they will want to become part of it and become part of that discussion,” says Paul Guequierre, HRC spokesperson.
In the process of completing the survey, Moishe House, an international organization that offers Jewish experiences to young adults, began to think more about its overall policies in relation to inclusion and equality and the Jewish Federations of North America added “gender identity and expression” to an inclusive nondiscrimination policy that already included “sexual orientation.”
Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications and media relations for JFNA, writes in an email, “While the new policies were already in the works, the survey certainly brought the issue into greater focus for us and allowed us the opportunity to ensure our workplace policies, from domestic partner leave to gender identity issues, are in place.”
The index revealed a mixture of approaches to LGBT inclusion, ranging from exemplary inclusive policies to groups that have yet to create written policies. Yet, in total, 50 percent achieved the highest rating – inclusion – in contrast to only 4% of corporations that achieved this rating 11 years ago. Of the remaining 50%, 27% were characterized as adapting, 13% as still exploring and 10% as contemplating inclusion.
Yet despite this relatively strong showing by Jewish organizations that were both aware of the importance of LGBT inclusion and taking steps to address it, some say the community still has a long way to go. Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, notes that the Schusterman Foundation funds only organizations whose practices are inclusive.
“Lots of organizations seem to be talking the talk but not walking the walk,” Cardin says. “They have policies or procedures on the books, or attitudes in place, but behavior has yet to follow suit.”
IDIT KLEIN, executive director of grassroots LGBT equality and inclusion organization Keshet, agrees that the Jewish community tends to be relatively tolerant toward LGBT people but adds, “We know that tolerance is not enough and that full justice, equality and inclusion is what we need to work towards. It is in that gap between tolerance and full inclusion, full equality, and full affirmation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities that the change needs to happen.”
However, Klein is very optimistic about the future, given the changes she has seen during her 11 years as the head of Keshet. In contrast to 2001, when the first gay-straight alliance was established at Gann Academy, the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, today there are more than 10. Eleven years ago it was difficult to find a rabbi who would officiate at a same-sex wedding, whereas today this has changed dramatically. “In most any community it is increasingly easy to find rabbis who will not only officiate but for whom the commitment to LGBT inclusion is an active part of their leadership,” says Klein.
This fall, for example, Klein received emails from 14 rabbis and community leaders sharing Torah sermons they had given on marriage equality during the High Holy Days. “This is one of two times a year they have captive audiences, and this is an extraordinary indicator of change,” says Klein.
The survey’s results corroborate Klein’s optimism. In their publicity materials, 90% of the organizations surveyed included one or more inclusive terms and 60% used pictures of LGBT couples or families. One hundred percent published life-cycle announcements for samesex couples in their newsletters or say they would do so if approached.
On the other hand, 79% had not specifically targeted the LGBT community in their recruitment efforts. Most of the organizations did not have standalone LGBT-specific programs, even though 98% of membership organizations did offer family memberships to samesex couples or families or would do so if asked. Fiftynine percent had not completed diversity or inclusion training of any kind and 75% had not specifically recruited LGBT individuals to their lay leadership board.
The majority, 79%, had not specifically targeted the LGBT community in hiring efforts, although most had policies in place that support LGBT employees.
With regard to youth programming, only 33% of organizations had a written anti-bullying policy, and of those that did, only 10 included the term “sexual orientation” and five the term “gender identity.”
As organizations begin to create LGBT inclusion committees or do outreach, says Klein, they don’t usually get immediate results and people feel frustrated. But change takes a long time and is a long-term investment.
“To any people who have historically felt marginalized in a community, it takes a long time to unlearn that history, and [for] the community who has marginalized to unlearn that pattern,” she says.
But small steps – like putting a rainbow Magen David on a Hebrew teacher’s desk or a classroom door or displaying images of same-sex couples with kids on a website – can go a long way.
“It is not enough to feel or believe you are inclusive,” she says. “You have to make that visible, known, and seen in a concrete way.”