In the removal of one more perceived barrier to gays and lesbian participation in Jewish life, one of the nation’s largest Jewish federations has hired an openly gay man to serve as its top professional.
Harold Goldman, a longtime and, by many accounts, popular executive vice president of the local Jewish family and children’s service, will serve as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia starting in October.
Goldman, who will be the first openly gay chief executive of a major federation, declined to be interviewed.
Despite the view of some traditional Jews that homosexual activity is forbidden by Jewish law, Philadelphia federation officials and the editor of the federation-owned Jewish Exponent newspaper say there has been no criticism so far of Goldman’s appointment.
“From our perspective, his sexual preference is irrelevant,” Susan Bodner, the federation’s communications director, said, adding that Goldman was chosen for his “leadership qualities.”
The issue “wasn’t controversial at all at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and we don’t expect it to be here,” she said.
The appointment comes as gay and lesbian Jews are enjoying unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community.
The Reform and Reconstructionist movements both ordain openly gay rabbis and support rabbis who officiate at same-sex unions, and a growing number of Jewish institutions are welcoming the participation of gay and lesbian people.
Federations remain the central Jewish philanthropies in local communities, although their fund-raising influence has waned in recent years with competition from secular causes and more specialized Jewish organizations.
As umbrella institutions that aim to serve – and raise funds from – Jews of diverse religious beliefs, federations are often in a tricky position when it comes to including gays and lesbians or embracing any view that might be deemed controversial.
“For the position he occupies it’s no problem as far as I’m concerned,” said Rabbi Joshua Toledano, spiritual leader of Mekor Baruch, an Orthodox congregation in suburban Philadelphia.
“I can’t condone his behavior because it goes contrary to Jewish law, but it’s no different from someone not observing Shabbat,” said Toledano. “If I were to say” that only Sabbath-observant people are acceptable, “I’d be writing off 90 percent of the community.”
Some 5 percent of Philadelphia Jewish households identify as Orthodox, according to the city’s federation. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that about 7 percent in the United States as a whole are Orthodox.
Although the federations’ national umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities, offers domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees, Philadelphia’s federation and many others do not.
Gay activists have criticized federations for not offering such benefits and have complained that many Jewish newspapers, like the Exponent, do not print wedding announcements for gay couples or personal advertisements by gays and lesbians seeking partners.
The World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Jews – which recently marked its 20th anniversary – launched a survey in 1998 measuring federations’ attitudes toward gays and lesbians, but the study was never completed due to lack of funding.
Nonetheless, said Scott Gansl, president of that organization and a member of Philadelphia’s gay and lesbian synagogue, the preliminary findings were generally “very positive,” but that federations in the central and southern parts of the country tended to be less inclusive than those on the coasts.
Joel Daner, the UJC professional who helps place executives with federations throughout North America, said a candidate’s sexual preference has “never been an issue.”
“It’s not something you ask people,” said Daner, the group’s vice president for professional resource development.
Jeff Scheckner, a research consultant at the UJC and a longtime employee in the federation world who says that his being openly gay has never posed any problems for him, said he was pleased to learn of Goldman’s appointment.
Federations are “generally a good environment for people to be themselves, but it depends on the community,” said Scheckner.
Goldman is by no means the first gay executive of a mainstream Jewish organization, said Scheckner, but “some might be in the closet, and others might not want to be mentioned in a newspaper article.”
Goldman, said Gansl, is not highly visible in Philadelphia’s gay Jewish community. But he said that during his tenure at the family services agency, Goldman initiated a number of programs serving gays and lesbians and has partnered with local AIDS organizations.
For Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the Philadelphia regional director of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and herself a lesbian, the development is momentous.
Just as Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s selection as Al Gore’s running mate signaled that “now every Jewish kid in America can imagine himself becoming a vice- presidential candidate,” she said, Goldman’s appointment shows there is “yet one more place in the Jewish community that is open to all Jews.
“It’s exciting to see such an appointment in a mainstream, all-American city like Philadelphia,” Elwell said, adding that she hopes Goldman will “be able to bring people together who have been unable to come together in the past.”