Op-Ed: Embrace LGBT Jews as vital members of the community


TULSA, Okla. (JTA) — Next week, as millions of people around the world celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month, we in the Jewish community will mark the occasion with a pivotal milestone: the first-ever Jewish LGBT Movement Building Convening, to be held June 27-29 in California.

Organized by the leading Jewish LGBT organizations, Keshet, Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Nehirim, the gathering will bring together 100 leaders of LGBT synagogues, organizations, foundations and other representatives to create a unified Jewish LGBT agenda for change.

As a proud funder of the convening and longtime supporter of Jewish LGBT work, I believe now is the ideal time for the Jewish community to foster a welcoming, inclusive environment for LGBT Jews and to stand up for LGBT equality.

Religion and faith have long been isolating topics in the LGBT world. In 2007, Angelica Berrie and I hosted the Conference For Change, which was designed to put issues of equality, diversity and inclusivity on the Jewish communal agenda. As a participant in the track focused on LGBT Jews, I heard far too many stories from talented, committed Jewish professionals who still felt excluded or invisible within our community because of their sexuality. Many even feared losing their jobs if they came out publicly.

The fact is, despite some signs of progress — the Jewish Theological Seminary deciding to admit LGBT individuals and the ordination of the first transgender rabbi, to name two — the overall pace of change within our community in this area has been far too slow. The continued marginalization of LGBT Jews is especially disheartening for those of us who believe in the power of a fully inclusive Jewish community that embraces every Jew as "b’tzelem elokim," made in God’s image.

Our people represent a tapestry of interwoven identities embodying the rich diversity of what it means to be Jewish. When we neglect or deny the needs of any population within our community, we not only weaken the strands of this tapestry, we also drop the mantle of leadership we have assumed when it comes to protecting and advocating for the civil rights of minority populations.

This is why now, more than ever, we need to uphold LGBT inclusion and equality as fundamental tenets of our community.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF) has made a serious commitment to fostering a welcoming Jewish community for LGBT Jews and embracing all who look to Judaism as their path to personal meaning and fulfillment.

As an important step, we are asking all Jewish organizations to join our foundation in adopting non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. We are also challenging donors to join us in holding organizations accountable for doing so. We at CLSFF stand ready to share sample policies that can be adapted easily to fit any organization.

I am proud to state that every national Jewish organization we support enforces non-discrimination practices around sexual orientation and that more than 70 percent have written policies in place covering gender identity and expression. Moving forward, we will only consider funding organizations that have non-discrimination policies covering both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Adopting formal non-discrimination policies — and ensuring their implementation — will help us achieve two goals: 1, they will indicate to LGBT individuals that the Jewish community is committed to full LGBT inclusion; and 2, they will guarantee that our institutions are walking the talk when it comes to being welcoming and diverse.

This work is vital to the health and vibrancy of the American Jewish future. LGBT individuals make up an estimated 10 percent of the general population, and it is thought that the same holds true in the Jewish community. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that few LGBT Jews and their families choose to connect to Jewish life. I believe this is in no small part because so many Jewish organizations are ill-equipped, or unwilling, to meet their needs and those of other marginalized constituencies. 

While many of these organizations are well intentioned, most simply do not realize they are falling short. Case in point: A 2009 survey found that while most synagogues consider themselves welcoming of gay and lesbian congregants, few have any LGBT-inclusive programs or policies. These findings are applicable to institutions well beyond synagogues.

To change this paradigm, we must put a stake in the ground. Non-discrimination policies are an effective way of doing so, but they are not an end in themselves. We can and must also:

* Build knowledge. With education comes understanding. Keshet and Nehirim are excellent sources of information about the needs, contributions, interests and sensitivities of LGBT Jews.

* Become an ally. We should show support and speak out on behalf of LGBT inclusion. Last year, 300 clergy members ventured to Washington to lobby Congress about LGBT equality with the Human Rights Campaign. Last October, thousands of Jewish allies and LGBT Jews marked the ancient holiday of Simchat Torah by marching together on our nation’s capital to demand full equality.

* Implement additional policies and practices. Organizations should take a comprehensive look at their policies, procedures and practices to ensure that they reflect a culture of inclusiveness. For example, are health benefits open to domestic partners? Do all forms, documents, images and literature reflect gender-neutral language, such as Parent 1 and 2 instead of mother and father?

* Train lay and professional leaders. It is vitally important that we train and support Jewish educators, clergy, program staff, youth and lay leaders to ensure that LGBT youth, families and staff are safe and affirmed in all Jewish educational and community settings.

In an era when all Jews are Jews by choice, our community and, in turn, our nation benefits from every source of Jewish vitality and strength, including the creativity and vibrancy of LGBT Jews. Starting with the groundbreaking convening in California, let us begin to forge a culture in which inclusivity, diversity and equality are paramount, and in which LGBT Jews are embraced as full and vital members of the Jewish family at home, at work and in every aspect of communal life.

Now that would be something in which we could all take pride.

(Lynn Schusterman is the chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.) 

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