Federations Move Toward Gay Outreach

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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When the World Pride gay festival kicks off in Jerusalem in August, Philadelphia’s Jewish community will be the only one in the United States to send an official delegation.

Several gay synagogues across the country are sending groups to the festival, which was originally planned for August 2005 but was pushed back to this summer because of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. In Philadelphia, though, it is the Jewish federation — the community’s central organization — that recently began recruiting people to take part in a mission to Israel scheduled to coincide with the festival.

The 10-day mission marks the first time that Philadelphia’s federation officially has set up a program aimed at attracting gays and lesbians. It follows a small but sudden spurt of gay outreach efforts launched by federations in cities as varied as Tucson, Ariz; Chicago, and Palm Springs, Calif.

The inclusion of gays in Jewish life has been a hot topic, with most of the attention falling on the religious movements: The Conservative movement, for example, is currently engaging in a debate over whether to allow gay rabbis and same-sex marriage. But the federations, it could be argued, provide a more representative glimpse of the attitude toward gays in the wider Jewish community because they encompass a greater cross-section of the Jewish world and do not have to deal as much with thorny questions of religious law.

A new study out of Denver found that gay Jews do not think that secular Jewish institutions are open to them, even though federation officials insisted that they are. Pioneers in gay outreach say that explicit efforts to welcome gays and lesbians into the federation world have stumbled forward hesitantly, confronting a steady fear that such initiatives would alienate longtime donors. While about a dozen federations have developed some outreach, most — including those in New York and Los Angeles — do not have any such program.

“In most communities, the gay and lesbian community isn’t very attached to the formal Jewish community,” said Harold Goldman, outgoing president of the Philadelphia federation, who is gay (see below). “There’s not been much outreach to the gay and lesbian community.”

In those communities that have begun the work, the biggest surprise is often how little the Jewish community ends up resisting gay outreach. “The pushback was so minimal that people were shocked,” said Robin Boehler, who led the Seattle federation’s recent outreach effort to gay Jews.

The story in Seattle provides a good prism into the dynamics of the nascent outreach movement. A few years ago, Boehler, who is straight, began talking to gay Jewish friends about their attitude toward the federation. She was bothered by what she heard.

“These were people who were hungry for involvement, and they didn’t feel that any doors were open to them,” said Boehler, incoming chair of the federation’s board. “It broke my heart to think that we hadn’t provided them with what they were looking for.”

To be clear, the federation did not overtly discriminate against gays, but Boehler’s friends did not think that it showed any signs of being aware of gay and lesbian concerns and lifestyles. The Seattle federation has long had affinity groups for donors catering to various professions, like doctors and lawyers, and Boehler began a push to have a similar group for gays and lesbians. After the first pitch, according to Boehler, a number of federation leaders expressed concern that such explicit inclusion of gays could cause a backlash.

“People were afraid of losing donors, and afraid of loosing ugly rhetoric,” she said.

Though Boehler’s proposal initially stalled, it moved forward after she and a few other leaders consulted with an Orthodox rabbi and smoothed out a number of potential concerns. The outreach would not take on any political component, and it would be called an “initiative” instead of the more weighted term, “affinity group,” which is reserved for other categories of donors.

When the initiative, known as Bashert, which means “fated match” in Yiddish, came online two years ago, the federation only lost one or two donors, according to Boehler. Bashert now works on cultivating gay Jewish donors and holding lectures. Next month, for the first time ever, the federation will host a booth at Seattle’s gay pride festival.

In gay activist circles, the Jewish community is compared favorably with other faith groups for its involvement in gay political causes. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have campaigned against the Federal Marriage Amendment, which seeks to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

“Jewish organizations are one of our most precious and treasured allies,” said Dena Wigder, public policy associate at the Human Rights Campaign. The campaign is America’s largest gay advocacy organization.

The announcement of the World Pride event in Jerusalem has served as a sort of testing ground for Jewish sentiments. When it was first announced last spring — five years after the first World Pride was held in Rome — a number of leading Orthodox rabbis denounced the event and Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox mayor unsuccessfully pushed to stop it. At the same time, the Jerusalem campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has emerged as one of the main sponsors, providing facilities for most events beyond the parades and nightlife.

In America, the Jerusalem event had received a more surprising stamp of approval, from the national body of federations, the United Jewish Communities, which put together its first gay and lesbian mission to coincide with World Pride. That mission, which went ahead last year despite the postponement of World Pride, was organized with relatively little resistance, according to Stuart Kurlander, the Washington federation leader who put the trip together.

“There were a few communities where there was a little bit more local questioning,” said Kurlander, vice president of the Washington federation. “I didn’t see any really vehement opposition.”

The response in local communities has depended largely on the politics of the city’s Jews, and on the presence of a large Orthodox community in which resistance tends to be concentrated. San Francisco and Boston were the first to set up gay outreach initiatives, five years ago. Today, San Francisco’s federation is the only city with a full-time staff person and separate fund-raising goals for the gay affinity group ($100,000 this year).

In cities with more conservative Jewish communities, like Denver, initiatives in secular Jewish institutions have gained traction more slowly, according to Gregg Drinkwater, director of Mosaic, the Denver gay institute. A study released by Mosaic last month found that while the leaders of Denver’s secular Jewish institutions thought they had been welcoming, local Jews rarely felt the same way. An estimated 5,000 of the 75,000 Jews in Denver are gay. Drinkwater said that gay initiatives have only tended to spring up when one dedicated leader has pushed against the innate fears of losing donors and changing institutional culture.

“Federations tend to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “The breadth of voices encourages a more conservative outlook out of a fear of offending people.”

One community moving slowly to adopt a more welcoming approach is the one in Charlotte, N.C., where a committee is being formed to study possible initiatives. Charlotte is home to the only two women — lesbian partners — who went on the 45-person federation mission last summer. One of them, Denise Walker, said that while the local synagogue had opened up to her and her partner, they “always had to make the first step” when she wanted to work with the federation.

“They tolerated us because we gave a good amount of money,” said Walker, 52. “But we didn’t fit the mold of the federation people.”

Walker is now considering moving to Israel, because she found society there so much more open to gays and lesbians. But for now she is taking part in the federation’s initiative, and she is not the only one who sees it as an area for growth.

“There’s been an outcry for it,” said Bonnie Feinberg, who oversees gay outreach for the San Francisco federation. “I have a feeling it’s going to grow by leaps and bounds over the next few years.”






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