Nurturing LGBTQ Jewish Leaders

by Nora Smith

“There are too few gay and lesbian lay leaders and professionals in senior positions of Jewish institutional leadership.”
Stuart Kurlander, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the fifth-largest Jewish community in the United States, and to a huge and diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer population, including an estimated 36,000 LGBTQ Jews. And, yet, there are few out-and-proud LGBTQ Jewish leaders in the region’s organized Jewish or LGBTQ worlds.

This fall, the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, in partnership with Keshet and the LGBT Alliance, is organizing the first-ever federation program to recruit and develop new LGBTQ Jewish leaders – LGBTQ Pathways to Jewish Leadership.

“Our organizations, both those serving the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community, need trained and skilled volunteers. This is your chance to gain those strengths,” writes Paul Cohen, president of the board of Menorah Park in San Francisco and an active LGBTQ leader in the community. “Through the Pathways to Leadership program you will learn, develop new skills, and the quality of your life will be enhanced. The Bay Area is special and the commitment by the Jewish Community Federation to provide opportunities for us is an incredibly valuable gift.”

The Pathways program is the result of a seminal 2010 study by Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The “LGBT Alliance Study, a Needs Assessment of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Community,” was overseen by the LGBT Alliance Planning and Advisory Group of the Jewish Community Federations of San Francisco and the East Bay. The study focused on gaining a better understanding of the following: what is meaningful to LGBTQ Jews in terms of their Jewish identities; the ways in which LGBTQ Jews currently interact – or don’t interact – with the organized Jewish community; and, what LGBTQ Jews want and need from the Jewish community in terms of services, programs, and inclusion.

The study resulted in the identification of three major unmet needs of the community: regionally and demographically targeted programming, more identifiable pathways to involvement and leadership, and choices for elderly LGBTQ Jews. Three years later, we can happily report progress on these issues. Organizations like Keshet and A Wider Bridge, among others, are providing a range of LGBTQ programming, and September will mark the groundbreaking of a significant project to bring affordable LGBTQ senior housing to San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.

And, notably, the study’s exploration of insufficient leadership opportunities has culminated in the creation of the Pathways program.

The goal for the first year of the program is to have 12-15 participants who will come together for nine sessions over the course of one academic year. Each individual will be paired with a mentor and introduced to key LGBTQ leaders and allies in the Bay Area Jewish community. Participants will be trained to develop their own personal leadership style, to better understand how to see themselves as LGBTQ Jews and leaders, and to learn the history and current needs of our Jewish community.

Additionally, participants will learn nuts-and-bolts essentials like running an effective meeting, building consensus among disparate groups, addressing diverse audiences, and managing conflict. The ultimate objective of the program is to provide all participants with critical leadership skills in hopes of fomenting dynamic engagement in our Jewish community – as active committee and board members, senior staff of Jewish organizations, and visible community leaders.

“We need to ensure that we have more of a pipeline for people like me – young adults who are wandering around in the LGBTQ Jewish community looking for, or making flirting glances at, leadership roles, but who don’t have the opportunities like I had to jump in. This isn’t about tokenism or a feel-good project. The Pathways program is a way for the Jewish community to invest in LGBTQ leaders,” noted Sam Goldman, Wexner Heritage Program participant, and Wilderness Torah and Nehirim board member.

Ideal candidates for this innovative program are LGBTQ Jewish individuals with leadership potential who are in need of some skill development and are enthusiastic about learning more about our Jewish community and their engagement therein. We encourage anyone who is interested to apply, or to share the application with those who would benefit from participation in the program.

For more information, visit, or contact Katherine Tick, Director of Leadership Development at the Jewish Community Federation, at (415) 512-6265 or

Nora Smith is social media coordinator, writer, and blogger with the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.