Making a Rainbow Connection for Gay Jews Across America

Idit Klein, the founder and director of Keshet, doesn't want gay and lesbian Jews to be merely accepted. She won't stop until they're fully embraced.

JERUSALEM – Idit Klein came out as a lesbian during her senior year at Yale and never blinked.

“When I came out, I was the editor of the Jewish journal on campus, involved in Israel programs and on the Hillel executive committee,” says Klein, 40, who went on to become the first openly gay Hillel leader at Yale.

“I was asked, that year, by the LGBT organization on campus to speak about contradictions between faith and sexuality. I felt I was a huge disappointment at that talk, because I simply did not feel the contradiction. I am just someone who, never, even for a millisecond, felt like because I was queer, I did not have a place in the Jewish world.”

Klein was in Jerusalem recently as part of a gathering called “Hazon International,” where leaders of Jewish organizations that receive funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, of which Klein's organization, Keshet, is one, are encouraged to share their know-how with a group of young global Jewish leaders, the so-called “ROI” community that gathers annually for a week in Israel.

Born in Tel Aviv, Klein’s family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts when she was just two, but she grew up speaking Hebrew, returned to Israel often to see family and friends, and became more interested in religion on her way through an Orthodox Jewish day school. Her sense of who she was, she says, was always closely wrapped up with her Jewish, Israeli identity.

And that, she adds, didn’t change at all when she became more public about her sexual identity.

Klein knew her experience was particular – and that for many other young American Jews who come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, the balance can be more complicated.

“I had met a lot of LGBT Jews who did not feel welcome. And I had also met many who remained closeted for fear of not being welcome,” she says.

Keshet, which means "rainbow" in Hebrew, is the trailblazing organization Klein founded in 2001 on a shoestring budget – it was born to serve the crowd that did not feel embraced by their Jewish communities. The organization, she explains, is about creating change in Jewish communities for the sake “of a stronger, more vibrant Jewish people.” Serving those who have felt marginalized is a core piece, she stresses, but it is a piece of a larger vision of creating “policy, cultural, and programmatic change in Jewish communities.”

Today, Keshet is a well-respected national organization, with 16 staffers and a budget of $2 million. It works with hundreds of Jewish day schools, youth movements, family services, federations, political organizations, and parents support groups around the country– raising awareness of LGBT issues and working for the full inclusion of all LGBT Jews in American Jewish life.

Keshet also serves as something of a model for LGBT Jewish communities in other countries hoping to similarly mobilize.

Whether sitting at her “office hours,” at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, where the ROI summit took place, or running focus group sessions -- Klein was on hand to offer what advice and encouragement she could.

“Embrace,” for example, is a key word for Klein.

“Basic acceptance is not really our aim,” she stresses, as Eli Nassau, a Mexican ROI-er from Mexico who co-founded a first of its kind LGBT Jewish initiative in Mexico, stands by to talk with her.

“We do not aspire to achieve tolerant communities. We strive to achieve embracing ones,” says Klein. Sure, there remain marginal homophobic voices within the Jewish community, and the issue remains between tricky and very complicated when it comes to Orthodox and more traditional circles, Klein says– but overall she believes most Jewish communities in the United States today are “squarely in a place of tolerance,” when it comes to LGBT Jews in their midst.

But this is just a start. These Jewish communities, she argues, need to broadcast loud and clear that they are inclusive, and take on the LGBT cause as a Jewish one, not merely a sectarian interest. To help further this goal, Keshet puts great emphasis on working directly with queer teens, in particular supporting anyone who wants to establish gay-straight alliances in their high schools.

In 2005 Keshet made a documentary film, “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” about a ninth grader struggling to establish such a gay-straight group at her Boston area Jewish high school. The film became a touchstone for many and today, at least 11 Jewish schools in the United States have such alliances.

More recently, Keshet also held a LGBT Jewish children’s book writing contest, out of which was born “The Purim Superhero,” a colorful children’s book about a cute kid named Nate, who wants to dress up as an alien for Purim (unlike all the other boys in the class, who want to be superheroes). And, oh yeah, Nate happens to have two dads, too.

Book parties were held across the country for this first-of-its-kind book in the Jewish world. But the one which Klein found most exciting, she says, was organized by three straight Modern Orthodox couples in a traditional community in Riverdale.

“When I talk to my colleagues working for change in other religious and ethnic communities in the U.S., I often feel blessed,” says Klein.

There have been lessons learnt for the LGBT Jewish struggle from some of the more liberal Christian denominations like the Unitarian Universalists or the United Church of Christ, but, says Klien, “…all in all, I feel there is something special in our Jewish community. We have a strong history of commitment to social justice that has both helped to engender open attitudes and has been a tool we, in the LGBT community, use. It does not make any sense for American Jews to be on the forefront on civil rights movement, or the labor movement – and not on the forefront of this one.”

“It is helpful to talk to someone with so much experience… and so much optimism,” says Nassau, the Mexican ROI-er, whose organization, Guimel, gives support to LGBT Mexican Jews, their families and friends. It’s not always an easy task, Nassau is the first to admit, given the conservative values of the Mexican Jewish community.

“What I hope is that ‘out’ LGBT Jews in Mexico won’t have to sacrifice their Jewish identities to live a fulfilling life,” he tells Klein.

“And they should not,” she replies.