Gay Jewish leaders released new research results on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion in the Jewish world at a strategy session in New York City on February 22 and 23, co-sponsored by the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Jewish Mosaic, a managed project of Jewish Funds for Justice. The research showed deep support for the inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish communities.
Clergy, experts on Jewish communities and synagogue transformation, along with Christian leaders experienced in welcoming congregations programs, converged at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. They discussed the results of the research and strategies to help synagogues become more welcoming to LGBT people – as well as people with disabilities, those who have converted to Judaism, people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and religiously interfaith families.
Prominent speakers at the strategy session included Prof. Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-JIR, Dr. Caryn Aviv, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture with the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, and Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, PhD, noted author and professor of religion and women's studies at Temple University.
The research was based on a survey sent to over 3,000 congregations across North America with 1,221 respondents, representing nearly 1,000 unique congregations – more than 25% of all the Jewish congregations in North America. Respondents reflected all of the major Jewish movements. Response rates were particularly strong – reaching over 50% – from those synagogues affiliated with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements and with Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The most support for LGBT inclusion was with the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, while the Conservative movement trailed and Orthodox members were much less supportive. Regardless of their tradition, most of the 760 rabbis who responded (73%) already think their congregations do a good or excellent job welcoming gays and lesbians but very few use language in their mission statements or web sites to explicitly signal a welcome for LGBT Jews, and only 33% offer LGBT-related programs for congregants. Reflecting contemporary social and political concerns, events or activities connected to marriage equality were the most often-cited program with specific LGBT content.
"A sincere welcome for LGBT Jews must be demonstrated through visible action," said Gregg Drinkwater, executive director of Jewish Mosaic. "Although most rabbis who took our survey believe their congregations are inclusive and are likely sincere in their desire to reach out, we know from earlier research that without an explicit effort to welcome LGBT Jews, many LGBT people assume that such statements as "we welcome everyone" come with an invisible asterisk, with the hidden message that "we welcome everyone, except you," Drinkwater added. Rabbis in the study recognized the need for more learning and discussion about diversity. "Among the rabbis, 72% thought rabbinical seminaries should teach more about transgender Jews, 78% on gays and lesbians, 86% on racially and ethnically diverse Jews and 91% favor more on disabilities," Drinkwater said.
Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion are teaming up to launch a welcoming congregations program that will give rabbis and congregations useful tools and resources so that LGBT people will not have to guess whether or not they are welcome. "Several Jewish denominations have guidelines that support welcoming but there has never been a comprehensive national structure and program to help individual congregations actually live up to the resolutions their denominations have passed. We are going to change that," said Dr. Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion.
"While the full report will be published in the coming months, the initial findings paint a picture of synagogue leadership that is open to full inclusion. And as it turns out, inclusion is good for congregations. One of the findings is that 41% of rabbis whose congregations pro-actively reached out to gay and lesbian Jews reported gaining members as a result and only 2% reported losing members," said Drinkwater.
A second conference will be held in Los Angeles on March 1-2. Speakers will include more leaders from Judaism's main seminaries, experts in congregational change, leaders in LGBT inclusion from both Jewish and Christian settings and rabbis from each of the Jewish movements to discuss "best practices" and strategies for change.
The Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation (IJSO) at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in 2000 to help train HUC-JIR students who will be the future spiritual, educational, and communal leaders in the Reform Jewish world to understand LGBT issues and develop the leadership and technical skills to move institutions and communities closer to welcoming LGBT Jews. Looking outward, the IJSO's mission is to support the larger Jewish world and the LGBT community through consultation and education on inclusion and welcoming. The IJSO maintains the largest collection of online resources on the intersection of Judaism, sexual orientation and gender identity at the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center.
Jewish Mosaic, a managed project of Jewish Funds for Justice, is based in Denver, Colorado, with a regional office in San Francisco. It is a national trans-denominational organization dedicated to helping the Jewish world become more open, accessible, and welcoming to LGBT Jews and their families. Founded in 2003, Jewish Mosaic conducts strategic policy research on issues related to LGBT Jews and the Jewish world; engages with questions of sexuality, gender and inclusion in Jewish sacred texts; collaborates with allies, supporters, rabbis, scholars and activists across all movements; keeps LGBT issues on the agendas of national and international Jewish institutions; provides LGBT-focused resources, education, and consulting to Jewish organizations; and connects locally-based LGBT Jewish advocacy groups with one another.