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Study: Gay and Lesbian Jews Don’t Feel Welcome in Community

March 22, 2006
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It’s hard to make good decisions without all the facts. That’s the message that a team of researchers studying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews hope to send to the organized Jewish world as it grapples with its approach to homosexuality.

Mosaic: The National Jewish Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, a Denver-based advocacy group, this month released the first of three studies it plans to undertake in the coming year on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.

The preliminary study looked at the interplay between Jewish organizations and the LGBT community in the Denver/Boulder area. Surveying 32 Jewish communal professionals who represent roughly 40 percent of the region’s Jewish organizations, the report determined that Colorado’s Jewish institutions have a long way to go in terms of LGBT inclusion.

Shawn Landres, a Mosaic board member who serves as research director of Synagogue 3000, a trans-denominational synagogue revitalization effort, applauded the studies for providing data for the public debate.

“This is an important first step in changing the conversation about what we know and how we know it,” he said.

“We don’t know how many LGBT Jews have given up on Jewish life because they feel so excluded that all the pictures are of the husband and the wife and the 2.5 kids, and how many LGBT folks are sitting there feeling simply fantastic that their synagogue has got it right,” he continued. “We’re flying blind right now.”

Whether the situation in Denver is mirrored at the national level is unclear.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that though Conservative synagogues have made strides in including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, there’s still more work to be done.

“It’s a real challenge to help people feel better and more involved and more closely connected to the synagogue, he said. “We can’t use halachah as an excuse for not reaching out in any way that you could.”

The Conservative movement is in the midst of re-evaluating its approach to homosexuality, with a decision expected in December.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the study results were “not surprising.”

“We’ve been conscious and concerned about this question for a long time,” he said. “But there are pockets in our movement that could do better.”

The Colorado study, conducted from December 2004 to December 2005, found that while many of the institutions considered themselves open and welcoming, lesbian and gay Jews disagreed.

The 21 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Jews surveyed communicated feelings of alienation from the Jewish community at large.

Gregg Drinkwater, Mosaic’s executive director, said the tension stems from an inherent misunderstanding of the meaning of inclusiveness.

“For Jewish community professionals, being welcoming is being blind to difference,” he explained. “The LGBT community wants a step beyond tolerance. They want inclusive and welcoming — affirming difference, not ignoring it.”

Drinkwater said lesbian and gay Jews can’t help but stand out in Jewish life, which emphasizes heterosexual rituals like weddings and singles events.

Affiliation rates in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community remain lower than for other Jews. For example, the “overwhelming majority” of Denver/Boulder’s LGBT Jews — which Mosaic estimates at 5,000, out of a total Jewish population it sets at 75,000 — are unaffiliated or minimally involved, according to the study.

“Why would you want to be a member of a club that doesn’t want you?” Drinkwater asked.

Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at New York City’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which serves primarily gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, also described an air of exclusivity.

“It’s a little bit like a WASPy country club,” she said. “They say, ‘Of course we’ll allow Jewish country club members, as long as they act and talk and walk just like us.’ “

Drinkwater said Mosaic plans to use the findings to spark dialogue among staff in synagogues, JCCs and local federations.

“We want to show them, ‘Here’s what you’ve been doing, here’s what’s been effective, and here’s what needs to be done to be five times more effective,’ ” he said.

Mosaic’s future projects, slated to begin this fall, should help facilitate the discussion.

One initiative would institute a national rating system for synagogues based on receptivity to LGBT Jews. This directory will be published online with a clickable map, Drinkwater said.

A second project aims to create a catalogue of best practices for inclusion. To do so, researchers will study three model synagogues where LGBT Jews are fully welcomed into Jewish communal life.

“We need a realistic understanding of the level of current participation, what’s working and what’s not,” Drinkwater said. “It’s about being informed decision-makers.”

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