[Editor’s note: Dalia was interviewed and this post written prior to the beginning of the current pandemic.]
By Toby Axelrod
[Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.]
By Toby Axelrod
Dalia Fleming’s Jewish activism was born of necessity.
The journey began in earnest after teachers in a Jewish school gave a presentation on so-called “conversion therapy,” which purports to change someone’s sexual orientation or suppress their gender identity. In fact, it is known to deepen depression and isolation, and even to trigger suicide.
“No one talked about how damaging and dangerous it is,” says Fleming, 30, “and there is no reason why this school would have known.”
Fleming and fellow activists in London set out to help people know and understand.
In 2012 they founded KeshetUK, aiming to encourage empathy and advocacy among teachers and students in Jewish schools. One outcome is that, in 2018, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis published “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools.”
In it, Mirvis said he wished to help schools “prevent the harmful effects of bullying, name-calling and insensitivity” as well as to “provide appropriate pastoral support to those who seek it,” without challenging Jewish law and Jewish values.
The groundbreaking guide, produced in cooperation with KeshetUK, came after “years of engagement with rabbis, educators and professionals, having many cups of coffee with them,” says Fleming, who was appointed executive director of KeshetUK in 2017.
“Our job is not to change Jewish law but to support the community,” Fleming adds. “I felt very proud to be able to work on something that has been out for only one year and already has done so much good.”
Fleming grew up in London in a traditional Jewish home. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, had a more secular bent than her mother. Fleming attended Reform Jewish summer camp in the UK and later worked as a counselor and unit head at a Reform camp in the US state of Washington.
After earning a BA in politics at the University of Nottingham and a Master’s in gender at the London School of Economics and political science, Fleming honed her skills working in local government, all the while building KeshetUK as a go-to resource.
In the early years the KeshetUK team of volunteers focused on working with schools on themes such as history, language and role modeling. Eventually, they formalized their work as a charity in 2015.
Today, KeshetUK is based at JHub, a London-based networking and training center with shared office space for UK Jewish organizations supported by the Pears Foundation. KeshetUK’s staff and volunteers work with all Jewish denominations and all kinds of institutions – from schools, universities and synagogues to youth movements and community organisations, helping them become more inclusive of LGBT+ people.
“Our communities are diverse; no single approach works for everyone,” says Fleming, who last year took part in the Kaplan Fellows @Yesod yearlong in service programme. This has connected a select and diverse group of Jewish community professionals from across Europe to take part in a series of professional development and lifelong Jewish learning seminars, webinars and mentoring, and is part of the JDC Global Kaplan initiative. “We tailor our support to help [communities] achieve the goals they set.”
“We believe there is something that all parts of our community can do in terms to include LGBT+ people and their families. In some parts of the community [what they can do] is to reduce harm. This may not be good enough for everyone, but it might make someone feel safer, able to stay in the community they grew up with.”
Thanks to Fleming and her team, and boosted by Rabbi Mirvis’ guidebook, more communities are becoming interested in “starting a conversation about Jewish LGBT+ people,” Fleming adds. And those Jewish groups that have been involved for years “are beginning to think about parts of the community with which they haven’t engaged before.”
“This project has impacted my life; the individuals I’ve met are absolutely incredible,” Fleming adds. “I hadn’t understood the impact of connecting to the wider Jewish community, but I now do.”