NEW YORK, June 25 (JTA) — Like most single men, Bruce Lederman gets a lot of matchmaking offers from people he meets in the Jewish community.
When told, “I have a great sister,” Lederman, 38, usually responds, “That is nice to think of me. But I’m gay. Do you have a brother?”
Lederman, who is on the board of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and serves on the young leadership division of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for North American Jewish federations, says his homosexuality has not been a problem in either organization.
And he sees nothing controversial in his latest effort to combine two aspects of his identity: helping to create North America’s first federation endowment for gay and lesbian initiatives.
“I think it’s as mainstream as hamantaschen,” he said, referring to the triangular Purim cookie. “It’s about Jews helping Jews.”
Although some in the Orthodox community are less than pleased with the Chicago federation’s Jewish Lesbian and Gay Fund, it passed unanimously through the federation’s board — which has a reputation as conservative and risk-averse — and has generated little controversy.
The new fund comes as lesbians and gays in large cities are gradually gaining acceptance, and even being courted by, the mainstream Jewish community.
In the past few years:
• The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hired Harold Goldman as its executive vice president, making him the first openly gay person to hold such a high position in the federation world.
• A number of Jewish federations — including those in Los Angeles and San Francisco — have sponsored gay and lesbian missions to Israel.
• San Francisco’s federation has a task force for gay and lesbian issues and several federations — including those in Boston, Philadelphia and Albany — have sponsored programs to sensitize the agencies they fund to gay and lesbian concerns.
• The Jewish National Fund, which until 1992 refused to post a plaque for a forest dedicated by the Fourth International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews, also recently sponsored a gay and lesbian mission.
• The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis affirmed its rabbis’ rights to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. While such ceremonies are not endorsed in the Conservative movement, several rabbis officiate at them without facing disciplinary measures.
• The New York and San Francisco federations both offer benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.
Modeled on the growing phenomenon of women’s foundations in federations, Chicago’s Jewish Lesbian and Gay Fund will solicit contributions separately from the federation’s regular campaign and is an effort both to attract gay and lesbian donors and to step up services for this constituency.
Starting next year, it will allocate money for such things as educating the Jewish community about lesbian and gay concerns, providing services for lesbian and gay Jews and mobilizing Jewish support for anti-homophobia initiatives.
Since an article on the fund appeared on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times last week, federation officials say they have received a handful of complaints, but considerably more calls supporting the fund.
“There hasn’t been an uproar, ” said Steven Nasatir, president of the Chicago federation.
“Are there some who have questioned it? The answer is, Yeah, we’ve received a couple of expressions of negative approval from some, and I think that many are satisfied when they learn that this is a separate program which the federation is pleased to develop and support, but not support with dollars from the annual campaign.”
Objections have come primarily from traditional and Orthodox Jews who believe that homosexual behavior violates Jewish law and should not be encouraged.
Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, an umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis, said the Orthodox community does not support the fund.
However, “the fact is, people who have different sexual orientations are still part of the Jewish community and are still entitled to what everyone else is entitled to,” he said.
Were the fund part of the annual campaign, though, there might be more of a “question of whether we need to be fostering a specific lifestyle that really contradicts what the Torah says,” Ozarowski said.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, based in New York, was more critical.
“Earmarking funds for activities or projects that specifically are aimed at the gay community is as outrageous as it would be to earmark funds for projects in the wife-swapping community,” he said.
The fact that there has been little objection to the Chicago fund, Shafran said, simply indicates that “the Orthodox community in most cities has become so disillusioned with the federations that they probably just write it off as, ‘people running the federations don’t share our values, so what more can we expect of them?’ “
In reaching out to gays and lesbians, several observers say, federations are acting in their financial self-interest.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to do the right thing,” said Alvin Baum, one of three openly gay people on the San Francisco federation’s board. “The issue for lesbian and gay people is being sure that they are welcome, that people are aware of their existence and the occasional special need.”
In addition, said Baum, who heads the federation’s gay and lesbian task force, “there’s a significant amount of money in the gay and lesbian community.”
One high-level Chicago federation professional, who did not want to be identified, said Nasatir has “got a nose for where the money is, and there’s money in this community.
“Here’s a segment of the population, they want to identify with the community, they don’t want to be marginalized, so heck — it’s a win-win situation,” the professional said.
“The risk of really alienating the gay and lesbian community outweighs the risk of alienating people who are opposed to them.”
In addition to the financial incentive, the growing acceptance also reflects the fact that gays and lesbians enjoy greater acceptance in U.S. society in general, particularly in the affluent, highly educated, politically liberal circles that American Jews tend to frequent.
“People today acknowledge that even though they may not know a lesbian or gay person, the person sitting across from them may have a brother, sister, child or neighbor who’s gay or lesbian,” Lederman said.