Raising the Bar of LGBT Inclusion Within the Jewish World

by Chad Griffin and Lynn Schusterman

Jewish tradition teaches that we have a duty to treat all people with dignity and respect (kavod habriyot), as though they were created in God’s image (b’tzelem elohim). Many other faith traditions share deeply felt values that also affirm the basic humanity and embrace the rich diversity of all people.

And yet, too often we turn a blind eye on faith communities that are neglecting these values. The dissonance is acutely felt among our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) friends, family members and colleagues, who are overwhelmingly less engaged in their faith communities than their heterosexual counterparts because they are unsure of where they are welcome.

It is in our power and our interest to work together to change this norm. LGBT equality is the major civil rights issue of our time. Even with the recent historic electoral victories for LGBT equality, the unjust truth is that in 2012, there is no federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, and legally married same-sex couples are barred from more than 1,000 federal rights, benefits and responsibilities.

Faith communities have a proud tradition of leading the way – first with abolition and later with the civil rights movement – where our laws lag behind. Today, they have a similar obligation to stand on the side of fairness and equality and to commit themselves to the challenging but vital work of raising the bar of inclusion in the faith-based world.

It was in this spirit that our organizations – Human Rights Campaign and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, along with the Morningstar Foundation and philanthropist Stuart Kurlander – partnered on the Jewish Organization Equality Index. Modeled on HRC’s groundbreaking indices in the corporate and healthcare sectors, it is the first-ever index of inclusive policies and practices in a faith-based community and the nonprofit sector.

The JOE Index builds on the 2010 challenge issued by the Schusterman Family Foundation for all Jewish nonprofit organizations to adopt non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In recent years, some of the largest Jewish organizations have adopted these policies, including BBYO, Taglit-Birthright Israel, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish Federations of North America and Moishe House, among others.

After extensive work with leaders in Jewish and other faith communities, HRC distributed a survey to 2,000 Jewish organizations in North America. The questions cast a wide net, measuring how organizations address these issues in terms of organizational inclusion efforts, community and client engagement and workplace policies.

We received 204 completed surveys representing a broad spectrum of organization types – from umbrella and advocacy groups to local nonprofits and synagogues. Of these organizations, 50 percent received the top score of “inclusion,” meaning they are taking significant steps to welcome LGBT individuals and families.

This compares to just 4 percent of the organizations that participated in HRC’s first Corporate Equality Index of Fortune 1000 companies in 2002. As times have changed over the past ten years, the magnitude of the difference in these findings suggest that many Jewish organizations have been proactive in their efforts to be inclusive – even when resources and information are limited.

But the findings also highlight significant need for improvement, especially in employee recruitment, actively enlisting LGBT individuals to serve on lay leadership boards (often cited as the most significant contributor to increased awareness about inclusive policies); and completing diversity and inclusion training. Even with bully-related violence on the rise, a majority of the participating organizations with youth programs still lack written anti-bullying policies.

LGBT equality is not a political agenda or denominational issue. It is a human issue that plays out in individual lives and families, in classrooms and boardrooms, in camp cabins and offices. We should all feel an obligation to initiate conversation and action on issues of equality and inclusion, even when the topic may seem emotionally charged.

Perhaps the JOE Index’s most encouraging finding is that our community leaders want to be more inclusive – they just need guidance in understanding how to do it. To this end, the Index offers a checklist of 14 steps organizations can take to be more welcoming of LGBT families, couples and individuals, and an assessment of organizations’ cultural competency in delivering services to the LGBT community.

While there is much more work to be done to get a full understanding of how the broader Jewish communal sector approaches the issue of LGBT inclusion, we offer the JOE Index as a starting point for that dialogue – one that will hopefully lead to change in Jewish and other faith communities.

We are committed to this work because faith communities can and should help pave the way to a country truly rooted in liberty and justice for all.

Chad Griffin is president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization. Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global network of philanthropic initiatives focused on igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create change.

This piece first appeared in The Washington Post.