Meet Neil Spears, inaugural director of the Jewish LGBTQ Donor Network

Founded in 2021, the network is a space where funders who identify as both LGBTQ and Jewish gather and support causes that focus on that dual identity.

In 2021, three longtime Jewish donors with deep ties to major Jewish organizations felt that there was something missing in the Jewish philanthropic landscape — a space where funders who identified as both LGBTQ and Jewish could get together and fund causes that focused on that dual identity. 

Since then, the Jewish LGBTQ Donor Network’s three founders — Alex Greenbaum, Stuart Kurlander and Jeff Schoenfeld — have recruited 50 total members, nearly all of whom are based in the U.S., with a handful in Israel. Greenbaum organized Pledge to Protect, a joint effort to purchase personal protective equipment for Jewish social service providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kurlander was a past chair of Jewish LGBTQ organization Keshet and past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Schoenfeld was the first openly gay president of the UJA-Federation of New York and is now chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel & Overseas Committee.

“Jeff, Alex and I have been funding in this area for a number of years at the intersection of Jewish and LGBTQ, and always felt that there was a greater opportunity to do more,” Kurlander told eJewishPhilanthropy “So we brought together a number of people who indicated interest from throughout the country, and they joined us on calls focused around education [and] developing a mission statement. And it became clear to us over time that there was this opportunity to do more, specific to the LGBTQ Jewish community.”

Now, the organization has hired its first executive director — veteran education professional and nonprofit executive Neil Spears. The organization is still in its fledgling stages: Spears will work 20 hours per week, and his first task is determining the group’s budget. Due to the pandemic, much of the group’s activity has been virtual, something Spears is tasked with changing. One initial goal, he said, was to create a round of renewable grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 between one and three years.

Spears, 38, most recently served as executive director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, and serves on the board of JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ organization. A regular participant at the Svara yeshiva’s Queer Talmud Camp, Spears earned a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University and is an alumnus of the University of California, San Diego. 

He spoke with eJP’s Esther D. Kustanowitz ahead of his Jan. 9 start date to discuss his hopes for the new network and its potential impact on Jewish philanthropists who identify as LGBTQ, as well as on the community at-large.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

eJP: Why is having a separate network specifically for Jewish LGBTQ philanthropists important to the philanthropic scene and to the LGBTQ community?

Spears: The people who have these identities, LGBTQ and Jewish, are also the ones who have the lived experience of what’s needed, and what’s possible in a queer Jewish space. We’re lucky there’s a lot of improved attention to LGBTQ Jewish life in Jewish spaces — a lot of synagogues, community centers and other organizations are doing inclusion training, you see pronouns much more often on people’s name tags. There’s a greater awareness of what it means to be LGBTQ and Jewish. And at the same time, we’re not there yet in terms of what’s possible with LGBTQ Jewish life… 

I think a big hope and intention of the network is that it’s LGBTQ Jews funding queer Jewish projects, community and initiatives ourselves, and being a resource and a brain trust to partner with other funders who want to join us in that endeavor. It’s not like we’re coming in to take the air out of the sails of the straight or secular funders who have really helped propel us to where we are. What we’re trying to do is center the voices of LGBTQ Jewish funders in the funding conversation. Any group with an identity that has historically been marginalized in a community knows the power of having our own voice centered at a table. Even though the philanthropic community as a whole has made incredible progress in including LGBTQ Jewish perspectives in funding decisions, that’s different than us setting the table ourselves. 

How are you planning to strategize, as the first paid staff member for this new and specific organization? 

We’ve never had a group of LGBTQ Jewish philanthropists all getting together to pool their resources to funnel our own community’s money back into the community. So the strategy is going to start at one place and evolve as we go. The founders have already convened a core group of LGBTQ-identifying Jews who have capacity… to give at significant levels of philanthropy, some of whom are already giving in LGBTQ Jewish spaces and many of whom who are not. Part of the education component of the network is to connect with LGBTQ Jews who are giving politically, for climate change, for democracy and all the other areas, but who don’t yet fund at the intersection of LGBTQ and Jewish: to provide opportunities for them to understand and learn what’s happening in that space, and then also provide them an opportunity to invest in that space…

These founding members are going to direct the initial strategy around aligned giving that will evolve as the network grows, to direct grants and co-funding opportunities with other foundations and philanthropists in the space, all the non-LGBTQ Jewish foundations as well, many of whom are already core partners in this endeavor. The amount we can give away will depend on how many philanthropists we can get to join. 

How does funding this space in Israel differ from funding it in the U.S.? Are you looking to grow native Israeli support of Israeli groups?

The experience of being queer and Jewish in Israel is just fundamentally different than being queer and Jewish in the United States, both because Israel is a Jewish state and also because the civil rights advances that have happened in both countries are not always fully in sync…That provides a unique opportunity for funding and also will require a different kind of funding approach, potentially, than we take domestically. The great thing about the network is we have members in Israel, including one of the founders who lives in Tel Aviv. Centering people’s voices is a really key value of what the network brings. We’re going to center the voices of LGBTQ Israelis and work with those partner organizations on the ground when we make funding decisions.

Which experiences from your professional life inform your work in this role?

I taught middle school here in [the] LA Unified [School District]; my background as an educator prepares me well to structure education opportunities for network members. My background at the JCC in Silverlake has taught me a tremendous amount about community and what it means to live in and build sustainable, nutritive, joyful community. My experience leading nonprofits for the past many years has shown me what good philanthropy can do and also has shown me [what] the cost of philanthropy done in a silo can be. I’ve lived on the grantee side of the equation, and I will bring that perspective now that I’m going to be in the position of helping guide the grantors. 

What personal experiences prompted you to apply for the role? 

I’ve never seen a job description that was written so much for me. I’m an outsider who’s now an insider in Jewish community. I grew up in San Bernardino. There were two Jews in my public high school of 3,000 kids. I grew up in an interfaith family. And I have my two minority identities, being queer and being Jewish. It was safer and more acceptable to be Jewish than queer. And so I really cleaved to that Jewish identity, I learned to emphasize that part of myself, and to minimize my queer part, even though my synagogue had an LGBTQ clergy member growing up, we didn’t talk about it…

It wasn’t until moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago, that I was first in spaces where people were really able to be fully queer and fully Jewish. There’s so much joy in that I wouldn’t wish for anything else. 

The other thing that has really been important on my journey has been understanding the role that queer people have played throughout Jewish history…We’ve been here. And not only have we been here, but as people who have experienced what it is like to be “other,” to be outside the norm, to maybe even be cast out at times, that experience informs innovation. It requires inventing new ways of doing community, of doing family, and that in moments of great change in Jewish life, we really need those experiences. I think we’re in one of those moments right now: where synagogues are having to really struggle with what their role is in Jewish life, especially outside of major cities. We are in a time of increased diversity in the Jewish population, in all of the metrics you can imagine… Queer people, because of our lived experience of being outsiders — and I’ll speak for myself as an outsider and now being an insider — bring a new perspective and new ideas. That’s good, not just for queer Jews, that’s good for the whole Jewish community.

Many large Jewish foundations and other organizations have long supported LGBTQ rights and funded related programs. How will the network work with community partners, some of whom are already funding LGBTQ projects? What do you want them to know about the network?

This network exists so that LGBTQ Jews ourselves are at the center of funding LGBTQ Jewish spaces…There’s a difference between funding out of empathy, and funding out of having lived something yourself. We just are coming off of the holidays. Many of us were able to go to spaces where we maybe grew up or with people we grew up with, and experience what it’s like to walk into spaces that might not always welcome us or might not welcome our partners. Or maybe we go to synagogue back at our home synagogue, and there are no queer people…There’s also part of it when a tragedy happens, like the recent shooting at the nightclub in Colorado Springs, and you wake up to news of that. When it’s your people who either might have been there or who know people who might have been there, that is a completely different experience. 

I’m not saying that federations should not continue to fund LGBTQ Jewish initiatives, they absolutely should. Where the network plays an important role is helping to partner with and advise those people so that their empathy is directed in the ways that most match people’s lived experience… We’re not gonna be able to do it all on our own. We’ll need allies and we’ll need partners, for sure. It’s not like, Oh, the network exists now, great, we can stop funding all those queer Jewish projects we’re working on.” But we can help people fund better, we can help people find opportunities that they just wouldn’t be aware of, because they’re not part of the community. 

What does growth look like for the network? If all goes well, what does the network look like a year from now?

We don’t want to just replicate what’s already been built philanthropically, we want to be in real conversation with people about what’s needed. The key metric is not “how many members did we add this month?” because we’re going to be really intentional about creating a strong philanthropic community. 

At the forefront of my mind as we continue to expand the network is that all the letters of LGBTQ are a part of the network. We don’t want to inadvertently recreate the same kinds of dynamics that exist in some queer communities where they are dominated by certain groups […and] not representative of the full diversity of our community. So we’re going to be very intentional about, as we grow, continuing to center the voices of those among us who have experienced the most marginalization, trans folk, queer folk. We have to do that.

I imagine a strong and growing community of LGBTQ Jewish philanthropists who are in relationship with each other, deep communication with their communities where they live and work and that the network continues to direct significant funds into LGBTQ causes, and is looked to as a leading partner for non-LGBTQ Jewish funders to partner with. I imagine an in-person gathering a year from now, that is full of queer Jewish joy: it’s not a standard network conference. This is going to be filled with people who are really committed to improving the lives of LGBTQ Jews, of working with our allies who share that dream and vision. And that the network is a known force in the community and leader in the community on what it means to give to queer Jewish philanthropy.