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Gathering Offers Brainstorming on Ways to Include LGBT Youth

June 29, 2011 By:
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Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg

Imagine a synagogue with no ladies' or men's rooms, just bathrooms; or a class of 6th graders preparing for "chag" mitzvah ceremonies instead of Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

These were just a few of the ideas that 39 education directors, rabbis and other Jewish leaders brainstormed during a recent seminar aimed at building a more inclusive Jewish community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Nationally, the Jewish community has made significant progress in supporting queer members, said Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, who organized the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia workshop held June 23 at the Mandell Education Campus in Elkins Park. Social groups targeting LGBT Jews have cropped up in the past 15 years and many congregations have welcomed gay rabbis, which is "like being in a different planet from when I went to college," Goldberg said.

Still, she said, there's a big difference "between saying we no longer discriminate against gay people and having a positive place for gay people." And that's clearly still a need given disproportionately high suicide rates among LGBT teens, Goldberg said.

Attacking that problem spurred Keshet, a Boston-based support network for gay Jews, to begin offering resources and training to other institutions a few years ago, said education director Andrea Jacobs. Today, Jacobs travels around the country to help communities become better equipped to welcome LGBT members-of-the-tribe.

During the three-hour event, Jacobs challenged participants to devise ways to apply the tenants of Judaism to those who don't fit traditional molds.

For example, she described how the principle of "Shalom Bayit," or peace in the home, in a summer camp setting could mean training counselors to talk about rules against intimacy that would apply to all kids rather than simply outlawing girls from going into boys' cabins and vice versa.

Synagogues can make inroads by changing bylaws, but creating a more welcoming atmosphere often happens naturally with leaders mindful of differences, said Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg, one of four panel members at the event. Rosenberg began advocating for gay rights after her daughter came out. She now volunteers for the YES! Coalition, which supports the spiritual expression of the LGBT community and produces an online directory of welcoming religious groups.

Little nuances, such as asking for parents' names on registration forms instead of having a slot for "mother" and "father," can make big statements about including gay or lesbian families, Rosenberg said.

Having a rabbi or education director "who is tuned in enough to say to a kid, 'Do you need to talk?' " or reprimand those who use the phrase "that's so gay" to put something down, or use the word "partners" instead of "spouses" when calling mourners to recite Kaddish, makes an even bigger difference, Rosenberg said.

Nehama Benmosche, a Reconstructionist rabbi based in Bethlehem, said that hearing older role models, like her childhood swim coach, talk about how they had questioned their sexual identities made it easier for her to embrace the fact that she was a lesbian. Adults who think of "sexual orientation as PG-13 or R," risk oppressing the gender-variant youth who need someone to help them get to where they need to be, said Benmosche.

The group came up with a list of changes they'd like to see, from forming a region-wide Jewish gay-straight alliance to offering sensitivity training for foster parents and staff at agencies that work with youth.

One rabbi said he'd like to have gay parents as congregants. Another said he hoped LGBT youth who become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs would one day feel comfortable using the milestone as a time to come out. Others called for advocates to lobby for inclusion within their respective suburbs and streams, particularly within Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

Sara Wenger, assistant director of Education and Outreach Services at JFCS, said she wanted to hear more clergy speaking out about the importance of inclusion. "It lets people know that they're not forgotten," Wenger said.

As for how to realize such changes, the attendees agreed they would need more time and some kind of dedicated agency. Ideally, they said, that organization would reach out to existing Jewish institutions with resources, lobby for equal rights and organize programs in conjunction with national events such as the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November.

As a start, Goldberg solicited volunteers to join her in a task force meeting in the coming months.

Emily Cashell, 23, said she was encouraged to see that her generation might make something happen for LGBT youth. She's been active in other city events such as the Philly Dyke March but nothing that had a Jewish slant, she said.

"The fact that we're even here talking about it really matters," said Cashell, who came with her mother, Lynn, as representatives of their Reconstructionist synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel of Media. "It would never happen in a lot of communities."

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