New URJ/Keshet Partnership Will Lead to More Inclusive Youth Spaces

January 1, 2018

By Toby Singer and Rachael Brill

Jeducation World: An Initiative of the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education

“When we don’t have the full participation of our community, we are diminished,” says Lisa David, director of URJ Camp Harlam.

Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, is partnering with the Union for Reform Judaism, bringing together its URJ Youth and Audacious Hospitality departments for a project to improve inclusivity in our Reform youth programs. It is the largest implementation yet of Keshet’s work.

This year-long initiative, the URJ-Keshet Youth Leadership Project, follows the successful rubric of previous Keshet efforts with other organizations. The initiative is made possible by generous support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

In April of this year, professional staff and lay leaders from URJ summer camps, Mitzvah Corps, and NFTY programs gathered at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City for a day-long leadership summit, learning the ins and outs of LGBTQ inclusion from Daniel Bahner, Keshet’s national director of education and training; Joanna Ware, an independent consultant and Keshet Leadership Project coach; and April Baskin, vice president of Audacious Hospitality at the URJ.

Longtime URJ leader Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs, opened the gathering by positioning the work firmly within the Reform Movement’s longstanding tradition of challenging and expanding the definition of inclusion – from making Reform programs available to kids from non-Reform synagogues, to welcoming interfaith families, to embracing gay and lesbian staff members, and most recently, welcoming openly transgender campers at URJ camps.

April Baskin, a longtime collaborator with Keshet and one of the forces behind making this partnership a reality, said of the endeavor: “On the surface, it may seem as simple as saying, ‘You’re welcome here,’ but as practitioners and leaders in the movement, it takes deeper forethought and planning if we are to make a lasting impact. One of the many important elements of Audacious Hospitality is that we – everyone, not just a select few – get to be in conversation.”

Participants reviewed their URJ programs’ existing inclusivity efforts and subsequently designed ambitious yet manageable year-long action plans to achieve greater LGBTQ inclusion tailored to the specific needs of their communities.

Bahner told the group:

“We are working for a world in which a young person can be their full selves in their Jewish community. If we build a community that is inclusive of young people’s full selves, that means those young people can fully explore their sexuality [and gender] along with their Jewish identity, making our community much more dynamic, vibrant, and powerful.”

In the second phase of the project, which is ongoing and will continue through spring 2018, participants receive bi-monthly coaching sessions and consistent, structured guidance from trained Keshet experts, helping toensure support for institutional progress. Together, our hope is that the URJ’s already-laudable efforts to support and be inclusive of LGBTQ youth in its youth programs will be exponentially augmented by the efforts of trained individuals on the ground and through the Keshet support structure around them.

And there’s another upshot of this exciting initiative, too.

In the past, when the URJ – as the largest and most diverse denomination in North American Jewish life – has put its full weight behind advancing important conversations, transformational change has rippled throughout the Jewish world. That was the case in 2015, for example, when the URJ unanimously passed a resolution calling for the full inclusion of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in our communities.

As we continue to support youth in our communities in this way, we broadcast that this is the way forward.