Shaping Intentionally Inviting Communities: LGBTQ Inclusion in Conservative Synagogues

inclusionBy Rabbi Joshua Rabin and Catherine Bell

In 2002, an essay appeared in David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book Queer Jews entitled “In the Aron Kodesh,” an anonymous piece by a gay rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The essay described his silent struggle with wanting to serve as a rabbi in a movement that, at the time, would not accept his sexual identity. He wrestled with why he remained both closeted and committed to a movement which wanted to turn him away. His answer? “I want to change the movement from within. I want to make sure that future gay and lesbian rabbinical students do not need to lead double lives, but will be able to serve as role models for their communities as complete human beings” (Queer Jews, page 107).

Over ten years later, much has changed in the Conservative Movement in the area of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) inclusion, and positive steps continue to be taken every day. Openly gay, lesbian, and transgender rabbis and cantors now serve in Conservative synagogues, Schechter day schools run Gay/Straight Alliances (GSA’s), and an increasing number of leaders in the Conservative Movement are willing to speak out on issues such as marriage equality and LGBTQ rights. And yet while the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies opened their doors to openly gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students slightly under ten years ago, in 2015, there remains both causes for celebration and the reality that important inclusion work still needs to be done.

In the fall of 2014, in consultation with Keshet, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) published a survey measuring the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in our synagogues. Based on the responses from 291 synagogues, it became clear that many Conservative synagogues are taking important steps to form inclusive communities. The survey showed that 60% of these congregations reported members who openly identify as LGBTQ, 80% have membership policies that allow same sex couples to have a family/household membership, 77% offer counseling for LGBTQ individuals and families, and 66% of institutions had professionals who stated a willingness to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

At the same time, the survey revealed that only 14% of those congregations offer staff training on LGBTQ inclusion, 15% actively promote their congregation in the LGBTQ media, and 25% include LGBTQ issues in their educational programming or curricula. As a result, while we can see progress in a number of important aspects of synagogue life, an analysis of the data shows that many Conservative synagogues remain “unintentionally disinviting” to LGBTQ Jews in critical areas.

Change in synagogues is difficult, particularly when it pertains to the attitudes and assumptions we make about what constitutes “the norm” in the community. However, it is easy to simply criticize communities for what they aren’t doing to promote inclusion; the more effective strategy is to bring people together to engage in deep learning so that they might engage in intentional action to make inclusion more than a buzzword in their synagogues.

In many cases, synagogues may not even aware how simple decisions, such as listing “Father” and “Mother” on a religious school application, or not including any references to LGBTQ Jews on a synagogue website, send implicit messages about a synagogue’s perceived or actual level of inclusivity. On a deeper level, many well-intentioned heterosexual Jews may be unaware of how their privilege leads institutions to make religious and policy decisions that are hurtful to LGBTQ people who want to deeply engage in Jewish life, yet feel that the doors to Conservative synagogues are padlocked to them. As a result, unless communities can become more aware of how their actions (or inaction) affect who feels welcome, then an uninviting culture is likely to remain.

This November, USCJ and Keshet will launch a joint partnership to work with a cohort of 15 congregations that want to engage in transformative learning and action in the area of LGBTQ inclusion. At the USCJ Convention, teams of congregational leaders will learn with Keshet staff and master educators from Conservative synagogues about the critical issues of LGBTQ inclusion, and develop an action plan to make their communities more intentionally inviting and genuinely inclusive for LGBTQ Jews. Following the training, Keshet and USCJ will provide coaching for these congregations for the following year to ensure that the transformative learning at the convention will be translated into transformative action. This is the first time that these two institutions have worked together at this level, and we hope that it will the beginning of a longer series of important steps to help institutions in the Conservative Movement develop the capacity to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ Jews.

In a famous midrash on the daughters of Zelophehad, the courageous women who argued before Moses that the Israelite legal system on inheritance was unjust towards women, we are told that “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings… God’s compassion extends to everyone” (Sifre Pinhas 133). For more LGBTQ Jews to consider Conservative synagogues to be inviting places that honor the mosaic of people in the Jewish Community, it is imperative that we provide tools to synagogues who are ready to begin the journey to help their communities mirror God’s love for all of humanity. We believe that this project will help kehillot (sacred communities) in the Conservative Movement take that important step, and look forward to working with them.

Catherine Bell is National Program Director at Keshet. Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the program director for the USCJ Convention.

To apply to the USCJ/Keshet LGBTQ Inclusion Action Community, click here (Applications are due on June 8, 2015 at 5:00 pm EST). To register for the USCJ Convention, click here. To read the full report on LGBTQ inclusion published by USCJ, click here.