Does God Love Diversity? A Look at the Progress and Challenges of LGBT Individuals Working in the Jewish Community

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

There has been a dramatic shift over the last almost 15 years that has allowed gay and lesbian Jewish communal professionals not only to survive in the workplace, but to begin to thrive. According to Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, an organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in the Jewish community, “there has been tremendous progress.”

“In our early days, it was more common for Jewish communal professionals not to be out in the workforce,” explains Klein. “People spoke openly and frankly about being afraid that they would lose their jobs. … “Nowadays, the ratio has flipped. It’s much more common for people to be out.”

Klein explains that part of this is related to the work of organizations like Keshet and the support of Jewish philanthropists, such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation that has invested heavily in programming to educate and raise awareness in the broader Jewish community about the importance of LGBT inclusion. Helpful, too, was the rapid fire progress around marriage equality.

“Marriage equality has been a game changer for people’s ability and desire to come out,” says Klein.

Though she is not ready to board up Keshet with the message, “mission accomplished.” On the contrary, says Klein, while the Jewish communal workplace is “stronger, more vibrant and more sustainable now that more of us feel like we can bring our full selves to our workplaces and fewer LGBT Jews are expending energy on hiding a core part of ourselves,” there is still much more to do. Unique challenges to full inclusion of LGBT people and their families persist in many Jewish communal workplaces.

Further, while strides have been made towards more inclusive workplace policies and cultures for gay and lesbian individuals, there remain tremendous discomfort and lack of awareness around issues faced by bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming community members, according to several sources.

Two Sides of the Story

Rabbi Debra Kolodny is the executive director of Nehirim and she is bisexual.

“I thrive on complexity and multiplicity,” Kolodny told Tablet in a November interview. But since coming out as bisexual in her early 20s, she has experienced a remarkable degree of acceptance in the Jewish world, along with her share of struggles. She says one lesbian told her there is no such thing as bisexuality: “You’ll figure out you’re a lesbian or you’ll kill yourself,” Kolodny recalled.

In general – and certainly in the Jewish community – Kolodny says bisexual people experience discrimination from both inside and outside the LGBT community.

Today, Rabbi Kolodny says, the great majority of American Jewish communities are welcoming, and sometimes even celebrate the lives and unique Torah of LGBT Jews. But she still sees resistance to bisexuality. She suggests that this is a predictable response to the “born this way” rationale for acceptance.

“While bisexual attractions are as innate as everyone else’s, because we could be in a heterosexual relationship, many think we should be, making moral judgments about who we happen to fall in love with.”

She continues, “Bisexuality is where homophobia gets unleashed today. We live in a binary world – male/female, straight/gay, black/white, republican/democrat – people feel more comfortable when they know what the parameters are.”

Kolodny, however, is unabashed about her identity.

“I believe God loves diversity,” she says.

Changing Perspectives

Professor Joy Ladin came out as transgender in 2007, just after receiving tenure from Stern College, the women’s college of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

“I was pretty sure that I would never get tenure if I came out any earlier,” says Ladin – and it is possible she is right. Once she came out, the university put Ladin on involuntary research leave and banned her from teaching on campus. However, to Ladin’s surprise, she treated her with more courtesy than expected.

“The dean met me at a restaurant, shook my hand, said, ‘You look beautiful,’ and I want you to know you will be kept on salary,” Ladin recalls of their meeting now more than seven years ago. “I am pretty sure I am the first openly trans person she had met.”

However, while the dean responded with graciousness and humanity, she made clear that she did not believe students or parents could accept “someone like you.” At the advice of Ladin’s attorneys, she decided to give the school time to sort out what its final response would be; however, she could not stay on involuntary research leave forever.

What was most striking during her leave were the calls and letters she received from students. None of them understood what it meant to be transgender. And some of them were angry for Ladin’s not admitting who she was earlier. But many responded with support, and all were upset about the way the university was treating her.

“One student wrote, “Nothing in my culture enables me to understand what you are doing, but this does teach me a lot about how to respond to people in pain and you must have been in great pain to do this,'” Ladin recalls.

One year later – much sooner than expected – Ladin was welcomed back to teach. She experiences her return as “a miracle,” but it is clear that it is not easy for many students to accept her gender identity. Far fewer students enroll in her classes, whereas the year before she left Stern on leave she was nominated to be Teacher of the Year.

Yet she doesn’t look for something else.

“I don’t want to leave. I love teaching at Stern,” says Ladin. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Ladin says the Orthodox community has a tremendous amount of growth ahead of it, if it is to reach a point of inclusion. She lives now in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation and “there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can do about it.”

“No one at Stern feels comfortable talking about LGBT identities or issues. We don’t even say the words lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But students are slowly changing the culture,” says Ladin. “Just this week, one of my students wrote a wonderful essay in the student newspaper coming out as bisexual.”

Not Just a Job

Rabbi Becky Silverstein, director of education at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center community, came out as gender queer during rabbinical school. He says he experienced difficulty in his hiring process. Silverstein applied for about eight positions and at the end of each interview he would “try to find ways to say things to share my pronouns.” Generally, he was met with silence.

“I don’t think anywhere I applied to work would say I didn’t get the job because of my pronouns – that would be unacceptable. But I think transphobia is embedded in cultures,” says Silverstein. “There are places that would be uncomfortable with Becky and he. People on the search committees would be put off by my gender presentation and by my identity and they would not be able to articulate why they were put off, but that discomfort might have meant I did not get the job.”

Since landing his job at Pasadena Jewish Temple, Silverstein says there has been little talk about his identity.

“The process of being included is just that – a process. How will the Jewish world continue to support gender creative folks? There needs to continue to be a conversation,” he says.

Keshet’s Klein says that are some obvious first steps that can be taken to ensure inclusion, such as updating employee manuals to reflect that the organization does not discriminate based on the standard age, race and gender, but also sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Employees can also try not to assume someone is heterosexual.

“When you learn a woman is married, don’t assume she is married to a husband. If you find out a man in your workplace is single, don’t immediately say, ‘Oh, I could set you up with my granddaughter,'” Klein offers.

She recommends incorporating more images of nontraditional families on marketing materials and in hall art, and finding ways to bring the LGBT community into the content of community programming, such as at film festivals and Jewish book months.

“There has historically been a perception that LGBT inclusion is a threat to the Jewish community,” says Klein. “This is not the reality of inclusion. In more than a decade of doing this work, we have never once seen a community lose members when they take steps toward inclusion. We have seen the opposite, and the benefits of inclusion for the broader Jewish community are clear.”