UJA Holds Its First LGBTQ Conference

June 26, 2014

By Hanna Dreyfus

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“I’ve turned gray waiting for UJA to make this conference,” said Shelly Weiss, a longtime LGBTQ activist. She was referring to UJA-Federation of New York’s first-ever conference focused on the Jewish gay, lesbian, transgender and queer community, which took place last month at the charity’s headquarters on East 59th Street.

“And I’ve lived to see the day,” said Weiss, who appeared to be in her 70s. “What’s next?”

What’s next may well be 19-year-old Amram Altzman, co-president of Columbia University’s student group for LGBTQ Jewish students, JQ (stands for Jewish Queer) who came out to his peers in 10th grade at his Modern Orthodox day school. Altzman formed the first gay-straight alliance at Ramaz, and as he sat alongside 20 other panelists at the conference’s kickoff session, he reflected on his journey. “In a community where homosexuality is taboo, I was scared [to come out as gay] — but that was a long time ago,” he said.

In a way, UJA-Federation is trying to bridge the gap between Shelly Weiss and Amram Altzman in taking its first big step in consciousness raising about the needs of the New York’s LGBT community, and making the charity more responsive to those needs. “Awareness about LGBTQ needs is the first step towards shifting priorities,” said UJA- Federation’s Jeff Schoenfeld, who chaired the event.

Titled “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” the daylong conference, held on June 20, drew over 180 participants, including representatives from 71 different organizations. The numbers, Schoenfeld said, “far exceeded expectations.”

The purpose of the conference was to “raise awareness about the LGBTQ issues facing our community and to provide networking and collaboration opportunities,” Schoenfeld said.

The conference was not intended to create an “LGBTQ task force,” or other immediately tangible results, he said during his opening remarks. “If anyone came today expecting to leave with an RFP for a grant,” he quipped, “then you’ve checked in for the wrong conference.”

However, Schoenfeld did note that the event will “integrate awareness of LGBTQ needs into different commissions.” UJA-Federation, which allocates funds through three mission-based commissions, had previously dealt with LGBTQ needs only in the Commission on the Jewish People. Recently, the federation has given grants to Nehirim, a new initiative to start programming for LGBTQ families in the New York area, the Aleph Project (TAP), a program run through Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) to provide activities for LGBTQ young adults and to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue.

In recent years, UJA-Federation has made a priority of disabilities inclusion work, led primarily by the Caring Commission. Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, director of social programming at CBST, said “inclusive queer communities” are the next frontier.

“Today we don’t only want to be included — we want respect. We demand the Jewish world to recognize the validity of our Judaism and the authenticity of our Zionism,” he said.

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York revealed an increasingly diverse Jewish community that included more than 55,000 LGBTQ Jews and their families. About 5 percent of all Jewish households in the eight-county New York area reported that either they or a member of their household identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Pearl Beck, director of the study, commented on some of its most significant findings:

“We learned that respondents in Jewish households that include LGBTQ individuals are much less likely to identify as Jewish by religion and are also less likely to have Jewishly dense social networks. Intermarriage rates were also higher in LGBTQ households.”

These findings, Beck said, “particularly underscore the need to develop additional Jewish programming for LGBTQ individuals.”

Interestingly, the study found that Jewish households with LGBTQ members are more likely than other, non-Orthodox Jews to engage in Jewish cultural activities, and equally as likely to belong to a synagogue or JCC. The numbers of LGBTQ households that participate in Jewish holidays, specifically Passover and Hanukkah, were also on par with the non-Orthodox community. “Clearly, LGBTQ Jews are engaging at a high level,” she said. “Opening more doors to LGBTQ Jews is the next step.”

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national grassroots organization working towards full equality for all LGBTQ Jews, said the conference “reminded her about how much work has yet to be done.”

“A lot of times, conferences like these tend to be self-congratulatory,” she said. “Leaders tend to focus on how much they’ve done, rather than how much more there is to do.”

For Klein, hearing the numbers from the study was “sobering. We’ve taken major strides in ensuring equal rights for LGBTQ Jews, but the work is not over. The outer trappings of inclusion are now in place, but inclusion has not yet been integrated into the fabric of our community.”

Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender employee at Yeshiva University, spoke personally about making the “official policy” of inclusion into more of a reality. “The synagogue I attend is ‘officially’ OK with me — but since my transition, they keep treating me like I’m not there,” said Ladin.

Ladin recalled how much pain it caused her to be left out of the preparation for her daughter’s bat mitzvah. “There have been times in my life when I had no hope — but coming together with all of you gives me new hope,” she said.

Gabriel Blau, executive director of the Family Equality Council, a national organization that represents 3 million LGBTQ adults and their 6 million children, believes the change Klein and Ladin talked about must start from within. “UJA-Federation is going to be a different place after today,” said Blau, who is himself a “proud gay father.” He referred to the change as “queering the building.”

“The honesty with which people have been sharing and asking questions will have an impact,” he said.

Several of the questions from the audience came from members of the Orthodox LGBTQ community.

One member of the Orthodox LGBTQ community provoked the Q&A session at the keynote panel by asking about the choice many Orthodox Jews have to make between being a “queer Jew” and maintaining an “Orthodox, observant identity. He noted that many events and retreats run by LGBTQ organizations do not provide kosher food and are not Sabbath observant.

Karen Taylor, program director of the Educational Alliance, answered “mainstream LGBTQ” — a term she never thought would exist, she humorously noted — “doesn’t even know what kashrut means.” However, she agreed that making Orthodox LGBTQ members feel comfortable should be a priority.

Mordechai Levovitz, co-executive director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), works exclusively with LGBTQ youth from Orthodox, Sephardic and chasidic communities. “If you think it’s difficult to approach the OU about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, imagine going to Kiryas Joel [a Satmar chasidic community in Upstate New York],” he said. “But if we’re not reaching out, who’s reaching out for the people who are most vulnerable.”