Creating a Jewish Culture of Inclusivity

by Lynn Schusterman
cross-posted at HuffPost Religion

This past summer, I had the opportunity to spend time with nearly 60 Teach For America corps members taking part in our Foundation’s REALITY Israel Experience, a program that enables corps members to travel to Israel to explore the values that undergird their commitment to public service.

When I asked these passionate young people what motivated them to apply for the program, I heard a wide variety of responses, some inspiring, some empowering, some soulful – and one in particular that was heartbreaking.

“I applied,” one participant told me, “because I knew it would be the first time since I decided to live openly as a gay person that I would feel equal and accepted by the Jewish community.” She desperately wanted to find a place where she could be herself.

Her story is one I have heard far too many times from Jews everywhere – in Israel, in the U.S. and in countries around the world – who feel excluded from our community because of their sexuality. Despite some progress, the pace of change within the faith-based world in general has simply been too slow in this area.

It is time we stand up and demand that change.

Nearly two years ago, as part of our efforts to foster an open, inclusive, pluralistic Jewish community, we asked all Jewish organizations to join us in adopting non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity. We also challenged our fellow donors to hold organizations accountable for doing so.

But that was just the first step. In an effort to spark community-wide change, we joined last year with The Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor to support the Jewish Organization Equality Index. Run by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, this groundbreaking survey is designed to assess the inclusivity policies of Jewish nonprofit organizations toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees and community members.

Since launching in late November, JOEI staff has received hundreds of inquiries from organizations around the country who are eager to be a part of this initiative.

Some are using the JOEI survey as a first step in identifying how they can foster a welcoming environment within their organization, while others have worked on LGBT inclusion for years and are hoping to learn further best practices. All of them see value in the survey as a starting point for advancing an iterative process whereby all Jews, regardless of age, disability, sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, will be welcomed and protected in Jewish organizations and communal life.

If you work for or know of an organization that is struggling with the decision to take the survey or, worse yet, has declined to do so, I implore you to help the leadership understand why it is so vitally important for our LGBT family members and friends and for the health of our organizations.

Now is not the time for us to shy away from challenging ourselves to make substantive change for the better. We have the opportunity to raise the bar in the faith-based world by forging a culture in which inclusivity, diversity and equality are paramount. The more organizations that participate, the more in-depth picture we can paint of where we are as a community on issues of inclusivity and the more opportunities for improvement we will discover.

As you consider the role you might play in ensuring the success of this initiative, and in fostering inclusivity in general, think of someone in your life who has or continues to struggle for acceptance, to find a community that welcomes and supports him or her. Stand up in honor of that person. Even if he or she is not LGBT, a community that is more accepting of some will ultimately be more accepting of all.

With a little less than two months until our extended deadline of April 6, let’s encourage all of our organizations to visit hrc.org/joei and take part in the survey. A Jewish community that is diverse and openly embraces all who seek to lead actively Jewish lives will be a Jewish community that is stronger and more enduring for generations to come.