Jewish LGBT Leaders Meet, But Can’t Yet Find a Vision Shared by All

By Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A social justice activist from Oakland, Calif. A party planner from New York. The leader of a small havurah in Detroit. These were some of the 93 people who were invited to Berkeley, Calif., to help build a more cohesive movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.

This first-ever gathering, held in late June, had lofty goals. Funded primarily by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, with support from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the aim was to “forge a strategic vision to inspire and guide our actions over the next three years.”

The four national Jewish LGBT organizations that created the gathering had already done some moving on their own, merging into two. In May, the National Union of Jewish LGBTQ Students merged with Nehirim, which offers retreats and Jewish spiritual programming. In June, Jewish Mosaic, with its focus on research and education, merged with Keshet, an advocacy organization for LGBT inclusion in Jewish life.

The incentive for all the groups to arrive at a shared vision was in the room: The primary funders of this work would prefer to be solicited from fewer organizations with a common agenda. That did not happen. After days of wide-ranging discussions, organizers Gregg Drinkwater and Idit Klein hoped participants would be able to articulate common goals in one final four-hour session. Instead, the conversation broke down, as many participants expressed a need for more time to build relationships. But time had run out.

The idea that four organizations that had never before met face to face would emerge from a three-day event with a common vision and full-fledged action plan proved optimistic, and spoke to the inexperience of the organizers in building a movement (as opposed to building an organization or campaign). That doesn’t mean, however, that the convening failed. In fact, in its most important work — relationship building — it succeeded.

For those not familiar with the Jewish LGBT community, two days may have seemed plenty of time to pull together a common vision. In many Jewish communities across the United States, these Jews are invisible. And where they are not, they often are, or feel, excluded. Calling for inclusion and visibility is a baseline that all activists share.

Mordechai Levovitz, who is now co-executive director of the Orthodox group Jewish Queer Youth — which he founded 10 years ago when he was 21 — explained: “The organizations that exist today would have saved me a lot of tears [as a gay Orthodox teen]. We need more resources for [visibility] funding for Orthodox kids.”

Judy Lewis came to the convening from Detroit, where she helps run a LGBT havurah. For her, as for many of the participants from the middle of the country, just being at the convening was “empowering.”

Janelle Eagle of Los Angeles’s transdenominational LGBT organization, JQ International, agreed that the convening offered “a unique collaborative moment.” She spoke for many who had been working in this area for some time and felt that, “finally we are not fighting to say this is important. We don’t have to defend what we do. We can just dream.”

To dream in unison, however, organizations and leaders must first share a collective framework and sense of identity.

Noach Dzmura, leader of the first national organization for Jewish transpeople, Jewish Transitions, felt his own difference. “We are not an alphabet soup. Our distinctive values need to be articulated and heard. The ways a gay man, a lesbian, a transman, a transwoman or a genderqueer approach Jewish life and living are different. We can work together, but we are distinct.”

The same feeling was expressed by some of the Orthodox participants, who face a different set of challenges from those in secular and progressive Jewish communities. Miryam Kabakov, a founder of New York OrthoDykes and editor of the recently published anthology “Keep Your Wives Away From Them,” said that talking about a global Jewish LGBT movement makes no more sense than talking about a “Jewish” movement. “What we do need,” she said, “is an umbrella, a place to talk, a network.”

One point of tension at the convening was between leaders of programs and leaders of institutions. From her pulpit at the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was not sure that the convening was asking the right sorts of questions. “I think it would be a mistake to look for a single collective LGBT Jewish identity. Collaborative work, coalition-building work, is great, but I don’t think there should be a one size fits all,” she said.

The groundwork was laid for that kind of collaborative work: In the last session, participants pledged to work with at least three other leaders to share information, ideas and resources.

Those who have done this before point out that the convening was a critical first step toward a Jewish LGBT movement. Jeremy Burton, an observer from Jewish Funds for Justice, pointed out that movement building begins when different parties “see the intersections” between themselves. Likewise, Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim pointed out that the first task for any movement is “to develop a common language to understand what our common identity could be.”

The national organizations took more than a year to determine their strategic direction, including the decision to merge. For someone like Keshet’s Klein, whose lifework is to devise a strategy for the Jewish LGBT world, the vision is clear. She wants to see “a clear and understood and valued and validated place for all LGBT organizations… a day when we will have a Jewish community that will [recognize] all of us as having an equally valued place in the community.”

Other organizations and leaders have just begun down that path, however, and the voices of elders and activists who are not currently organizational leaders have yet to be heard.

Funders might want a common agenda, but that might not be what the LGBT organizations themselves need at this point. Organizational consultant Beth Zemsky was more direct. “Don’t do it,” she told the convening. “Funders want a consistent agenda, and they want to know which players are doing what. Don’t do that. Does the Jewish community in general have a unified agenda? No!”

Contact Jo Ellen Green Kaiser at feedback@forward.com






Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.