New York’s UJA-Federation Reaches Out to LGBT Community

Reacting to a survey which revealed 5% of Jewish households had LGBT individual in them, organization convenes its first community meeting.

Brian Schaefer

In 2011, the decennial Jewish Community Study of New York asked the following question for the first time: “Do you consider yourself (or does anyone in the household consider themselves) to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender?”

On Friday, at the UJA-Federation headquarters in New York, the data collected from that question inspired a daylong conversation among approximately 150 participants, representing more than 70 local and national LGBT groups, including synagogues, community centers and nonprofit organizations large and small, to explore the needs, concerns and unique experiences of the LGBT Jewish community.

“We wanted to help bring visibility to understand what role UJA can and should play in supporting the needs of the community,” Jeff Schoenfeld, a volunteer leader and chairman of the event, told Haaretz.

In an era when LGBT individuals and same-sex couples in the United States are witnessing what often feels like fast-forward progress, general acceptance in most mainstream Jewish institutions should be a foregone conclusion. Yet several issues emerged on Friday that revealed areas lacking in Jewish communal inclusion, as well as internal schisms within the Jewish LGBT community.

While many Jewish institutions have embraced gay and lesbian members and families in the past decade or two with more inclusive policies, life-cycle rituals and hiring practices, the Jewish community generally remains uncomfortable and unaware of how to respectfully integrate transgender members.

“I’m sad by the lack of conversation about gender identity in the Jewish community,” said one participant, in a public statement to the opening panel.

Examples of awareness of gender issues, expressed throughout the day, include more inclusive language, gender-neutral restrooms and less stringent gendered divisions in Jewish cultural life – from synagogue Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods to the tradition of who lights candles on Friday night.

Reconciling LGBT and Orthodox

The data on LGBT individuals in the 2011 survey took up just two pages in the original report. For Friday’s gathering, that information was parsed and presented in a new Special Study on Jewish Households with LGBT Individuals, a 12-page document.

Among the insights mined from the numbers: Approximately 5 percent of Jewish households reported an LGBT individual, a potentially underreported statistic given the stigma of being LGBT in some homes.

Those households are more than twice as likely to be “nonwhite, Hispanic, or multiracial” and intermarriage was more common, which raises issues of accommodating racial diversity and interfaith couples in the Jewish community. Additionally, half of the gay men responding reported being single, which may have significant implications for Jewish senior services as this population ages.

One point of contention came in the admission that Orthodox households were not included in many of the statistics, because, as Dr. Pearl Beck explained in her presentation, their deep level of Jewish engagement would distort the numbers in an unhelpful way.

Yet that decision opened a can of worms, expressed by several Orthodox speakers, and exposed a broader tension between so-called mainstream Jewish LGBT organizations and LGBT Orthodox groups over issues of keeping kosher, Sabbath observance and the role of women in leadership and prayer.

A significant majority of Jews in New York identify as Orthodox; by extension a comparable percentage of young LGBT Jews will come from that community as well. Integrating the needs and unique experiences of LGBT Orthodox Jews with the broader, fiercely egalitarian LGBT Jewish community will be a challenge for both groups to reconcile.

‘Historic’ day, but what now?

Several speakers referred to the event as an “historic” day and, for the UJA-Federation, it marked a significant step forward. Though that organization has been providing grants and funding to support LGBT organizations and engagement for years, the Community Conversation was a more substantial gesture, indicating a new willingness to take a leading role on LGBT-related issues in the Jewish community. For many attendees, the event was long overdue.

“I’ve turned gray waiting for the UJA to hold such a conference,” Shelly Weiss, a longtime activist, said in public remarks. She pointed out that so much grassroots work has preceded this gathering.

That sentiment was echoed in many private conversations as well. It was precisely the cold shoulder of mainstream Jewish institutions, participants said, that inspired the creation of many of the organizations in the room.

Still, the efforts of the UJA-Federation in bringing together so many diverse organizations to discuss LGBT issues was appreciated by those present. The question is: Now what?

“The next steps are to say, ‘What did we hear? What did we learn? How does that inform how we bring LGBTQ into existing organizational structures?’” said Schoenfeld. After years of lip service and a slow progression from mere tolerance to full inclusion, the LGBT stakeholders in attendance expressed their eagerness to see action.

Brian Schaefer