A new consortium advocating for LGBTQ Jews aims to make incremental changes at local institutions in hopes of leading to a more inclusive environment throughout the Jewish community.
When Gloria Becker started as education director for Congregation Or Ami in 1999, the Lafayette Hill synagogue’s membership forms only had lines for “husband” and “wife.”
“I said, ‘I’m not sure how to fill this out; there is no husband and wife,’ ” said Becker, a lesbian who has since married her partner in Maryland.
The Reform synagogue immediately changed its form to say “Adult 1” and “Adult 2.”
“It’s not that there had never been LGBTQ members of the congregation, but I guess they had just conformed to that,” Becker said.
Now, 15 years later, Becker is pushing for other Jewish organizations to make these kinds of changes as a representative of Jewish Learning Venture in a new consortium advocating for the Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Philadelphia.
While much national attention is directed at efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, those involved with the consortium seem more focused on smaller steps, like changing Jewish institutions’ marketing materials, forms and greetings to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. The hope, they say, is that these more minor, incremental changes will eventually lead to a more inclusive environment in the Jewish community.
“A changing culture doesn’t happen overnight,” said Phoenix Schneider, the part-time program manager for a new LGBTQ initiative at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. “This is a process that will happen gradually over time. Certainly, one of our goals is to change hearts and minds.”
JFCS received a $40,000 grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation last year to start the LGBTQ program, which the agency used to hire Schneider and form the consortium.
The group currently includes eight organizations: JFCS; Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Jewish Learning Venture; Jewish Employment and Vocational Services; Spectrum Philly; University of Pennsylvania Hillel; InterfaithFamily; and Abramson Center for Jewish Life, which serves seniors. There are also plans to invite other organizations to expand its reach.
The consortium, which held its fifth meeting last week at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City, will not be breaking entirely new ground. Organizations like Keshet already advocate for LGBTQ Jews at the national level and offer services locally, such as mentors for family members of someone who has come out. And in 2011, JFCS established a task force aimed at making LGBT youth feel safe and accepted in the Jewish community.
But even with these established efforts and significant progress for the LGBTQ community in society at large, Schneider said, there are still needs that aren’t being met.
“For the most part, agencies and synagogues are welcoming of the LGBTQ community, but there is a difference between saying, ‘I’m welcoming — join,’ and then not having that reflected and represented in your organization,” Schneider said.
Part of the consortium’s work will involve sensitivity training with leaders of Jewish organizations to help them create a more inclusive space, Schneider said.
For example, if an organization’s brochures and pictures only show a man and a woman celebrating a holiday with their children, that material does not represent all types of families. Or at a Jewish cultural event, if the emcee opens by saying “Welcome, ladies and gentleman,” transgender people might not feel welcome at all.
“We’re hoping that people will be open to the changes,” said Schneider.
Since there are already organizations with similar goals of reaching out to schools, synagogues and agencies on behalf of LGBTQ Jews, the consortium will not need to “reinvent the wheel,” said Lee Rosenfield, who is involved with the consortium and also serves on Keshet’s national board. Rather, the various groups involved can “leverage each other’s resources” — their connections to clergy, educators and other leaders — to effect change, he said.
Along with outreach and sensitivity training, the consortium plans to hold events and serve as a resource for those who have questions, organizers said. JFCS will participate in the Philly Pride parade in June — and is inviting other consortium members to participate — and plans to launch an LGBT speaker’s bureau in the fall, said Schneider.
Before joining JFCS earlier this year, Schneider, who is Jewish, transgender and queer, worked for the Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention program for LGBTQ young people.
“You have people who say, ‘It’s 2014. It’s a more progressive society,’ ” said Schneider. “Yes, that’s true. However, people are still taking their lives, and it’s not because they’re LGBTQ but because of the way they’re treated.”
In addition to participating in the consortium, the Federation recently launched Jewish Pride, an LGBT affinity group that held its inaugural event in March.
Federation has increased efforts to “embrace and engage” the LGBTQ community, said Federation board member Ellyn Golder Saft, because in the past there have been “slights and unfortunate hurt feelings.” For example, Saft, who has been involved in Federation leadership since 1983 and now serves on its board of directors and represents the affinity group in the consortium, noted that there was resentment that the Jewish Exponent, which is published by Federation, did not print same-sex wedding or birth announcements until changing its policy in 2009.
“We have done everything and continue to bend over backwards to make sure that every Jew in Philadelphia feels welcome, no matter” their gender identity or sexual orientation, Saft said.
Becker, the Jewish Learning Venture official, currently attends Congregation Rodeph Shalom, which she describes as “an incredibly wonderful experience.” But she said she still doesn’t feel welcome at every synagogue, a goal she wants to achieve in her role with the consortium.
“I want to be able to walk into a synagogue and not feel like someone is looking at me thinking, ‘Why is she here?’ I still have that experience from time to time when I go to some congregations.”