Embracing Diversity as a Unifying Element of the Jewish Future

[eJP note: This piece is part of a three-part series prepared by the grant recipients of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The pieces seek to detail the factors that have contributed to the individual organizations’ plans for long-term sustainability.]

by Idit Klein

“Oh, are there many of you?”

In my first couple of years as the executive director of Keshet in the early 2000s, this was the response I heard often when I shared what I do for work. The words would be said with a strained smile and the conversation generally would come to an end when I would respond, “Yes, there are quite a lot of us.”

In this context, “you” meant lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender Jews. This exchange typified how much of the broader Jewish community related to Keshet and our work for LGBT inclusion in Jewish life. It also reflected how we initially  positioned ourselves: as outsiders, on the margins, disconnected from the center.

As a reminder, in the early 2000s, the same-sex marriage movement was in its infancy and civil unions were popularly viewed as a valid alternative to equal marriage rights. The Conservative movement would not ordain LGBT Jews as rabbis or cantors and only a couple of Jewish high schools had gay-straight alliances. Virtually every time I presented at a Jewish conference or
spoke at a shul, the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” had never before been uttered in those contexts.

It’s hard to absorb how radically different the world at large and the Jewish community were just over a decade ago. Discussion of LGBT issues was once met with blank stares. But now, and increasingly over the past few years, major stakeholders in Jewish life have begun to recognize the relevance of this work to the Jewish community. What’s more, I see interest in engaging and a sense of collective accountability.

The following factors have helped pivot and transform Keshet from a start-up to a second stage organization:

  1. The Jewish community has mirrored national trends. One by one, we have come out to friends, families, and co-workers. Increasingly, LGBT Jewish youth are coming out to clergy, youth group leaders, teachers, and camp counselors. LGBT Jewish educators, rabbis, and other communal leaders are coming out, too. When we know more people who are openly LGBT, support for full equality grows. For example, when the Tanakh teacher at a Boston Jewish day school came out, students who had been uncomfortable with the idea of gay people shared that their views had changed.
  2. Keshet became an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and our straight allies: parents, siblings, grandparents, other relatives, and friends. Allies joined Keshet as leaders, employees, donors, and activists. We identified straight allies as central to the work of inclusion because they have the power and credibility to shift the paradigm of exclusion. Parents of LGBT Jews, in particular, stepped up to advance our work. As the proud mother of a Jewish lesbian daughter said, “This is about creating a better world for my daughter and therefore for me as well.”
  3. We prioritized strategic partnerships with federations and mainstream Jewish philanthropists. In our early years we were regularly told by federations and other funders that “your own community” should fund Keshet’s work, meaning that Keshet should be funded by LGBT Jews. We stayed in dialogue, breaking down the us/them dichotomy, and showed how LGBT Jews are part of the collective Jewish community and must be supported accordingly. One funder acknowledged that he initially viewed LGBT issues as irrelevant to Jewish life. Only through conversation over the course of a few years did he come to understand, “our community is stronger when everyone feels included.”
  4. We framed LGBT inclusion as a reflection of Jewish values and a way to more fully realize the ethics that are at the core of our tradition. We changed the way we spoke about LGBT rights in the Jewish community: from a matter of concern primarily to LGBT people to a cause that should matter to any committed Jew. One of our supporters, an Orthodox father of a gay man, was able to talk about LGBT inclusion with his rabbi by using Keshet’s “Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community” poster.

As we leave the Passover season behind, questions of who is an insider and who is an outsider are especially resonant. We read the mandate to remember that we, all of us, were slaves in Egypt before our collective liberation. The memory of oppression reminds us to think in terms of “we” rather than of “you” – to expand the sense of what and who we mean by ”we.”

At times, I still feel like a broken record, gently correcting people’s assumption that Keshet’s work is “only for LGBT Jews.” I explain why our constituency is the entire Jewish community: the whole Jewish community is stronger and more vibrant when all of us can bring our full selves and live openly and honestly.

My own experience leading Keshet has taught me that expanding the circle of stakeholders starts when we locate the particularities of our identity within the larger collective. In doing so, the larger collective begins to see each of its members as part of the “we” – embracing diversity as a unifying element of the Jewish future.

Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.

Keshet is a grant recipient of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The Second Stage Fund was launched to help enable post start-ups actualize their transition into the next stage of development.