By Gil Steinlauf and Stuart Kurlander
This coming Fall, we are proud to introduce an exciting new national leadership program in the Jewish world. The Hineni Fellowship’s mission is designed to empower LGBTQ Jews to take on volunteer leadership positions in Jewish organizations and institutions throughout the Jewish community. The Fellowship includes high quality intensive retreats, webinars, study sessions and meetings with LGBTQ leaders from both within and beyond the Jewish community in ways that educate, inspire and creatively challenge our participants to bring their Queer Jewish outlooks and insights to American Jewish life. We are now accepting applications for the 2020-2021 Hineni Fellowship cohort from individuals who are Jewish, LGBTQ, and proud of both aspects of their identity. Hineni Fellows learn to see the unique resonance between their Jewish uniqueness and their LGBTQ queerness as confluent sources of creative insight, wisdom, and most importantly, leadership.
Why Do We Need The Hineni Fellowship?
When it comes to LGBTQ inclusion in American Jewish life, much of the mainstream Jewish community has progressed in meaningful ways over the past 20 years. In synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish federations, organizations and institutions, the doors are increasingly open to queer Jews in ways that we could barely imagine a generation ago.
And yet, with all the improvements in outlooks and attitudes toward queer people, we still have a long way to go:
- Gay men, queer women, queer Jews of color, and trans folks still have steep hills to climb toward full affirmation in many Jewish organizations, institutions, synagogues and other Jewish places that have yet to embrace, or engage, with the presence of queer members and stakeholders in their midst.
- Jewish organizations and institutions that value “inclusion” often don’t realize the ways in which the straight majority continues to marginalize the LGBTQ minority seeking to integrate into an organization.
- LGBTQ Jews are now presumptively welcome in many Jewish settings, but few take on active leadership roles causing both the Jewish community and LGBTQ Jews not to have the benefit of LGBTQ Jewish leaders.
- Well-meaning heteronormative Jewish organizations and institutions may proudly declare themselves to be welcoming, but often they are not as welcoming as they would be with the active engagement – including board and advisory committee involvement – of LGBTQ stakeholders
Idit Klein, President & CEO of Keshet, the nation’s leading organization for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life, reflects, “While some queer Jews no longer face formal barriers to participating in their Jewish communities, we are far from being fully embraced, especially those of us who are trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming. While we now can expect a basic level of tolerance in many facets of Jewish life, we all deserve to be more than tolerated; we deserve to feel a sense of belonging and home in our Jewish communities. Increased LGBTQ visibility and leadership, such as through the Hineni Fellowship, are essential to creating this kind of deep, long-lasting culture change.”
It’s time to move the needle from welcoming and inclusion to a new level: the Jewish community needs to be a place of true integration of LGBTQ people, and their own unique kinds of outlooks, concerns, passions and values.
The Hineni Fellowship isn’t just good for LGBTQ Jews. It’s good for the Jewish people as a whole. A powerful component of the Jewish role in the world is our particularism, our “otherness” in the midst of a non-Jewish mainstream. For centuries, we have struggled to achieve a delicate balance, with one foot in the mainstream world, and one foot in the timeless world of Jewish tradition and values. And this delicate position has enabled us to hold a unique perspective on society, to call out its moral failures, and to envision a more perfected world. We in the LGBTQ community understand, on a visceral level, not only the power of otherness, but how to celebrate our otherness, and how to leverage that otherness to move society forward to greater diversity, tolerance and justice – to courageously grapple with all the tough issues until we can put what binds us together above all other divisive factors.
Questions to Consider
At the Hineni Fellowship, we hope to generate deep conversation and self-reflection in the Jewish community. As we launch our national pilot cohort, we hope that current Jewish community leaders will consider the following questions:
- How many LGBTQ Jews currently occupy positions of volunteer leadership in your organizations/institutions?
- Have you ever sought feedback from LGBTQ stakeholders about their experience of your organization’s work?
- How “queer” is your organization – that is, how effectively does your organization courageously challenge accepted norms that might not serve your community?
- Are you actively working to bring LGBTQ people not just into your organization, but into positions of leadership and influence?
- How effectively does your organization speak the language of up and coming generations of Jews, for whom notions of gender, sexuality and identity are more fluid than those of more senior generations?
Hineni Fellowship’s Vision
At the Hineni Fellowship, we believe that greater engagement of LGBTQ Jews – more “queer energy” – is the very thing that the Jewish community needs at this moment in its history. And the only way this will happen is if we can get LGBTQ Jews to lead the Jewish community proudly – sitting on the boards, the task forces, the planning committees, and philanthropy circles of our Jewish organizations.
Hineni takes its place in the Jewish word with deep gratitude for the extraordinary work done by LGBTQ organizations like Keshet, Eshel, A Wider Bridge and JQ International, which accomplish so much to create a sense of LGBTQ pride, visibility and inclusion across the Jewish world. We see our work as deeply complementing the important ongoing work of these organizations and other Jewish organizations that have made great efforts to engage LGBTQ Jews.
The primary goal of Hineni, therefore, is to address the roadblocks to bringing more queer Jews to the table of leadership across the Jewish world. With this in mind, Hineni is here to provide not only leadership, but fellowship for our new cohort of queer Jewish leaders. In addition to our yearly cohorts, we will also provide a powerful alumni network so that together, all Hineni alumni will have each other to support one another as we strive to evolve the Jewish community for the better.
Seth Schermer, an alumnus of Hineni’s pilot cohort in Washington DC remarked, “As our LGBTQ Jewish numbers continue to grow, having this type of talent and inclusion, should be a basic benchmark for all organizations within our community. I think that this part of the fellowship is a smart, focused effort, to not only address the issues of the future but how do we get there in an inclusive way. I believe that this program will absolutely make the difference in creating that change … part of the power of the Hineni program will be developing a solid group of alumni who in the coming years have the opportunity, and now connections, to make a positive impact within our Jewish Community.”
The one year pilot national cohort of Hineni begins with a four day retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland on September 10, 2020 followed by a series of twice-a-month webinars culminating in a closing retreat in California in the late Spring. If you are LGBTQ, or you know someone whom you would like to nominate for the pilot cohort, more information and applications are available at hineni-fellowship.org.
In addition to directing Hineni, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Kol Shalom in Rockville Maryland. He formerly served as Senior Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC. Stuart S. Kurlander is a partner in the Washington, DC office of Latham & Watkins LLP, a past president of both the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Keshet, and an executive committee and board of directors member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He is a cofounder and funder of Himeini.