Change work

Greater than the sum of its parts: How two different organizations came together on LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion

In Short

We believe that cross-sector partnerships like ours can be invaluable as a means for bringing new insights and perspectives into each organization and finding new opportunities for collaboration.

It’s a challenging time to be doing change work. Each day we confront all-too-familiar tragedy: one more harmful anti-LGBTQ+ law is proposed, another celebrity spews antisemitic rhetoric and more disabled people are disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the landscape is so formidable and the stakes so high, organizations like ours — Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and Keshet —could be inclined to double down and focus on our specific missions. We, however, are charting a different path. We recognize that our communities’ identities — Jewish, LGBTQ+, disabled, and more — are intertwined.  By working across sectors, we center those most marginalized, make a bigger impact and shift the narrative that our communities are independent from one another. 

At our core, both Gateways and Keshet exist to sustain spaces of joy and belonging for historically marginalized communities: young Jews with disabilities and LGBTQ+ Jews, respectively. At Keshet, we are a staff and community made up of LGBTQ+ Jews who hold many different identities, including disability. And at Gateways, our constituency of Jews with disabilities is similarly diverse, including LGBTQ+ folks. Our identities are not mutually exclusive, nor should our approaches be. Identifying this overlap and recognizing our shared dedication to addressing barriers to inclusion formed the foundation for our collaboration. 

In the spring of 2022, both Keshet and Gateways participated in UpStart’s Collaboratory, joining nearly 300 other Jewish nonprofits. Our partnership, with UpStart’s support, grew from a key takeaway of those discussions: that when unlikely partners come together across sectors, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. As each organization contributes unique expertise and perspective, and receives the other’s in return, our creativity can be stimulated, our work strengthened and our impact multiplied.

 So, we took action, beginning with cross-training staff in best practices for language, accessibility and creating safe and affirming spaces for program participants and staff. Reflecting on these sessions, Gateways speech-language pathologist Jenny Friedberg said, During my graduate training 23 years ago, specific training to support LGBTQ+ students was not a focus. As more and more students are identifying as LGBTQ+, it has become imperative that the services we provide be respectful of their identifies and specific needs. The training by Keshet provided concrete ideas to ensure that we as therapists are a constant source of support and inclusivity to LGBTQ+ students.”

Our two organizations also collaborated on community educational programming, both to extend our resources to a broader community and to demonstrate that it’s impossible to understand LGBTQ+ or disability justice from a single-issue lens. 

While in our case our partnership emerged from recognition of overlapping populations, we believe that cross-sector partnerships like ours can be invaluable even when that is not the case, as a means for bringing new insights and perspectives into each organization and finding new opportunities for collaboration. Here are our takeaways for how to make a cross-sector partnership work for you. 

1. Seek commonalities in values and differences in expertise.

Our organizations’ commitments to elevating and including marginalized voices are sustained by a shared foundation in certain Jewish values. In our work every day, Keshet and Gateways return to and rely upon precepts like b’tzelem Elohim (Bereshit 1:26), the idea that we are all created in God’s image, and tikkun olam, the mandate to repair our world piece by piece. Our trainings even include some of the same Jewish texts, viewed through our own lenses. For example, because of the nature of our work, Gateways and Keshet share an understanding that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), that is, language has the power to be either affirming or damaging for folks who are LGBTQ+ and/or disabled. This alignment created momentum for our teams to train one another on current terms and language accepted by these marginalized communities.

2. Be intentionally inclusive: understand that historically marginalized communities are full of people who hold multiple identities.

Every person’s unique needs are informed by many intersecting aspects of their identity, including sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, religion, race, class, body size and many more. Sivan K-B, a teen volunteer in Gateways’ Jewish Education Program and an LGBTQ+ activist, who is trans and has learning disabilities, emphasizes how important it is that organizations engaged in community work seek out training to effectively serve the multiple identities of their constituents.

“I am a firm believer that everyone is able to be their best selves when they are able to be their whole selves…And in order to make this happen, understanding and inclusion across identities is crucial,” says Sivan. 

It is part of our duty to ensure that the people who come to us know that each piece of their identity is affirmed and respected.

Therefore, in Gateways and Keshet’s work together, we needed to consider the fact that individuals in our constituencies may face more than one set of barriers, and that the impact of one barrier can be multiplied by the presence of another. For example, neurodivergent individuals or those with a disability can face more obstacles to accessing gender affirming care than those who are neurotypical or do not have a disability. The nuances that come with holding multiple marginalized identities were at the forefront of our planning, and allow us to better understand the immediate needs of the people we serve.

3. Seek and respond to feedback from each other throughout the collaboration, recognizing each organization’s unique culture and perspective.

Throughout our partnership, both Keshet and Gateways have sought to learn from and with each other, and to tailor each of our offerings to meet the other’s needs. Having a shared good-faith approach and a safe environment where people are able to make and learn from mistakes was essential to allowing both our organizations to push forward into newer and less familiar territory. 

Trainers from our organizations worked closely together to plan the cross-trainings and used feedback surveys from initial offerings to inform subsequent sessions. In our external programming, we similarly sought to recognize each other’s unique needs. For example, Gateways serves schools and students across a wide spectrum of religious observances, from Reform to Orthodox, which can require us to be mindful of how we deliver aspects of inclusion messaging. In recognition of this diversity, Keshet partnered with Eshel, which works for LGBTQ+ inclusion within the Orthodox community to structure a discussion around LGBTQ+ inclusion open to all of Gateways’ partner day schools. Our shared commitment to open communication, mutual respect and receptivity to feedback has been essential to the productivity of our collaboration.   

Ultimately, the goal of this partnership is to strengthen the internal and external work of both Gateways and Keshet, and in doing so to strive for the full inclusion of all in the Jewish community. By creating more opportunities for cross-pollination, organizations can become better service providers, better community builders and better able to uplift the people they serve. Whether someone’s entry point to Jewish engagement is through Keshet or through Gateways, we will emerge from this partnership ready to meet them where they are and to embrace their full, multi-faceted self.