Study Kicks Off Gay Outreach Effort

By Michael Kaminer

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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Three-quarters of the rabbis who responded to an unprecedented new survey on diversity said they thought their congregations already do a “good to excellent” job of welcoming gay Jews. But for the gay Jewish advocacy group that undertook the survey, that’s precisely the problem.

“Synagogues are resting on the assumption that ‘tolerance’ equals ‘welcoming,’ but few of them are doing anything concrete about it,” said Gregg Drinkwater, executive director of Jewish Mosaic, the Denver-based organization behind the survey that drew responses from nearly 1,000 congregations.

“Unless lesbian and gay Jews are explicitly invited, they don’t feel synagogues are safe. As a result, they don’t engage with Jewish life through these institutions,” he said.

The survey is the first step in the Welcoming Synagogues Project, an ambitious cross-movement effort to help synagogues become more “proactively” welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jews. Modeled after a successful United Church of Christ initiative, the Welcoming Synagogue Project will develop practices that congregations can adapt to welcome gay Jews, from statements on a synagogue’s Web site to the hiring of lesbian or gay clergy.

Jewish Mosaic and its partners in the project, including Hebrew Union College’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, unveiled their findings at a gathering of 60 clergy and lay leaders on February 22 at Manhattan’s Upper West Side JCC. A similar “think tank” is scheduled for Los Angeles on March 1.

The findings will form the basis of a pilot program to be launched this summer in 10 synagogues, where each congregation will introduce new policies and procedures focused on gay and lesbian issues. Based on results of those experiments, Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation will develop “best practices” and guidelines to help all North American shuls welcome gay Jews.

Overall, attendees at the New York conclave seemed enthusiastic about the project’s potential. “Some congregants might find it uncomfortable, but with the proper introductions and discussions, the Jew in the pew will be happy to share a pew,” says Rabbi Paul Drazen of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism.

“The younger generation’s growing up with a different kind of worldview, and there’s no issue about that kind of welcome for gay and lesbian Jews.”

Others said the project needed to engage younger gay and lesbian Jews to make synagogues truly welcoming for a new generation. “Strategies and resources to allow young people in shuls to explore their sexual identities and safely come out should be a priority,” said Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns for the Union of Reform Judaism. “Is that kind of thing addressed non-judgmentally and with care now? No, it’s not.”

Rabbis overall seem ready for such substantive changes, according to the survey, which was conducted over the last seven months. Nearly half the respondents said their current views on gay and lesbian issues had become “more favorable” than they were 10 years ago. Conservative rabbis registered the greatest shift; 60 percent said their outlook on gay issues had become “more favorable.”

“Conservatives had significant policy changes within the denomination, so that seemed a catalyst for them,” said Caryn Aviv, Jewish Mosaic’s research director. “The Conservative movement is at a crossroads when it comes to gay and lesbian inclusion.”

Nearly half of the rabbis surveyed said the film “Trembling Before G-d”, which profiled gay Orthodox Jews, had an “important impact” on their views.

While only 60 Orthodox rabbis responded to the survey – with most agreeing their congregations are “minimally” welcoming of GLBT Jews – their response in itself is notable, says Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the openly gay Orthodox academic and author who attended the conference. “I didn’t expect there would be as much willingness to engage the question,” he said.

To execute the survey, Jewish Mosaic created a master list of every Jewish house of worship in the United States and Canada – the first time anyone had assembled such a directory. More than 3,000 requests were e-mailed, directing respondents to a survey Web site. Rabbis and lay leaders from more than 25% of congregations responded. Because the survey allowed more than one response from each shul, the 1,221 respondents represented 997 congregations.

According to Steven M. Cohen, the noted Hebrew Union College sociologist who helped analyze the results, the change in attitudes reflects a wider openness among synagogue leaders about inclusion of “non-mainstream” Jews. “There’s a larger culture of welcoming and inclusiveness that’s evolving, and the issue of gays and lesbians is ensconced in that,” he said. “America has been growing more open and tolerant and welcoming of variation. Even the election of Obama testified to that tendency.”

While some synagogues have expressed concern about alienating members, the survey data seems to counter that fear. About 41% of respondents said their congregations gained members after initiating some form of outreach to GLBT Jews; only 2% of shuls claim a loss of members.

“Shuls have told us ‘If we put something too welcoming on our Web site, we’ll be inundated with gays’,” says Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College. “We tell them, ‘You should be so lucky.’”

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