A frat house might not be the first place you’d think of as welcoming to LGBTQ people, but the persistence of two brothers in their 20s made it happen. At UJA-Federation of New York’s conference, “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” held on June 20th, those brothers’ story was one of many that offered inspiration to Jewish communal leaders looking to make their organizations more inclusive.

Joy Ladin and Ellen Lippman
From left to right: Rabbi Ellen Lippman of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives, and Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University.

The conference featured panels of community leaders, activists, and volunteers talking about how the landscape in New York has changed for the LGBTQ Jewish community, and the changes that are still needed.

It featured personal stories from people like Diane Werner. Werner knew her son Adam was gay as early as grade school, but he didn’t come out until he started college. “That’s seven years that Adam felt he had to actively hide who he was at his Jewish day school, at his camp, at our synagogue,” said Werner. “Watching this was heart-wrenching for my husband and me, but we didn’t encourage him to come out any sooner given the realities of our Jewish community.” Later, Adam and his younger brother, Evan, helped teach Evan’s frat brothers a lesson in acceptance that inspired their mother to found Mosaic of Westchester, an initiative to integrate LGBTQ Jews into Westchester Jewish life.

A few speakers touched on the importance of building connections between the more than 70 organizations that were represented at the conference. “Today is a really important first step for all of us to join together and begin what we hope will be a continued community conversation around engagement, need … opportunities, and challenges,” said Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld, the chair of the conference and a member of UJA-Federation’s Executive Committee.

While some organizations serving the LGBTQ community in New York have been around for decades, many Jewish institutions have been around for more than a century, and Gabriel Blau, the executive director of the Family Equality Council, said he sees a model in these older organizations. “I often talk about this building,” he said, referring to UJA-Federation’s headquarters in Manhattan. “The Jewish community started creating institutions well over 100 years ago to answer the urgent needs of its population of immigrants like my grandparents. … Over the years these institutions have not just morphed to serve [the Jewish] community better and better, they have brought values to the American public and served a vastly larger community.”

Gabriel Blau, the executive director of the Family Equality Council, who spoke on the opening panel.

Many of the attendees at the conference were not there representing LGBTQ organizations, but were looking for ways to make their synagogues, Jewish community centers, or Hillels more welcoming and inclusive and advance LGBTQ integration. While creating programs to accommodate and serve the needs of LGBTQ Jews is important, sometimes the first step is as simple as having open conversations in our communities.

The Birth of the Future

For “a generation of children, we are telling them that these issues don’t matter to us. If we can’t even say ‘gay’ out loud from the bimah, that child who is struggling to stay close to her God will believe that we’re leaving her out of our prayers and she will leave [the community], and we know that’s happening,” said Karen Taylor, the former director of Jewish outreach at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, and current director of the Educational Alliance’s Weinberg Senior Center.

A sense of optimism that these attitudes can change is part of what brought some people to the conference. “I’m here to participate in the birth of the future,” said Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University who is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Ladin has spoken to many Jewish groups about her experience growing up and coming out as transgender in the Jewish community, but at one synagogue where she was speaking, a young girl “asked a question no adult has ever asked me: ‘Why were you afraid your community would reject you if you told them you were transgender?’ Her voice is the voice of the Jewish future, which is slowly being born.”

Conference attendees chose from a number of workshops such as: LGBTQ engagement and inclusiveness and how to meet some of the challenges facing LGBTQ Jews. Joanna Ware, the acting national program director of Keshet, gave advice on how to create change within an organization, either as an employee or a member.

“Often when approached with a shaming, wagging finger, people get really defensive,” Ware explained. But when you approach them with an appeal to your shared values, “people are really open to change.”

At the conclusion of the conference, Deborah Joselow, the managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, addressed the audience, saying that the conference reinforced the reasons why she’d started working at UJA-Federation. “I came to work here because I was afraid there were fewer and fewer big tents left in Jewish life, and I really want to thank you for raising the roof today,” Joselow said. “I look forward to the work ahead of us. It isn’t easy, it isn’t simple, but I’m quite confident that on the shoulders of this group we will get there.”