Guest Blog

Scaling Up LGBTQ Equality and Inclusion in Jewish Life

– by Eugene Patron

July 1st, 2020

With the Foundation’s grant supporting Keshet’s expansion of its Leadership Project and teen programs now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections from Eugene Patron, Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications, as we together look forward at the work ahead. The Foundation continues to support Keshet through other grants to the organization.

Until very recently, most institutions in society have failed to meet the needs of LGBTQ people and their families. This also holds true for many Jewish institutions.

Too many LGBTQ people and their families must hide their authentic selves in their own Jewish communities in the face of discrimination that ranges from implicit disapproval to explicit rejection. Keshet believes that for Jewish life to reach its full potential there must be full inclusion and equality for LGBTQ Jews. This is especially critical for Jewish teens in need of support and affirmation to feel proud of both their LGBTQ and Jewish identities.

Thankfully, an increasing number of Jewish institutions – from national organizations and their local chapters to local Jewish schools and camps – genuinely want to become more inclusive. Yet many do not know how to begin, or how to translate well-meaning organizational aspirations of inclusion into tangible action.

Responding to this need, in 2012 Keshet launched our Leadership Project to help equip Jewish organizations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ-affirming communities. Jewish organizations that participated in the first few years Leadership Project trainings and consultation showed substantive impact on their programs, policies, and organizational cultures. In 2015, Keshet approached the Jim Joseph Foundation about supporting the strategic expansion of this work. Along with the Leadership Project, Keshet also sought to expand the impact of our teen programs, in particular our Shabbatonim, which give LGBTQ and ally Jewish teens a safe space to meet, learn, and find their voice as emerging Jewish leaders.

The overarching goal Keshet set for itself was to train, support, share tools, and develop the leadership — of adults and teens alike — necessary to make Jewish youth-serving institutions and communities fully inclusive and embracing of LGBTQ youth and families. To accomplish this, Keshet aimed to scale our work to reach exponentially more Jewish institutions and Jewish young people. The fact that the general climate for advancing LGBTQ inclusion in society has only grown more regressive since the 2016 election makes the importance of Keshet’s work all the more pressing.

Between 2016 and 2019, Keshet launched 36 Leadership Project cohorts, engaging 356 Jewish institutions who together reach 2,184,099 individuals. A 2019 Outcome Survey showed important findings as result of these institutions’ association with Keshet:

  • 90% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they recognize opportunities for introducing LGBTQ inclusive perspectives more.
  • 68% agreed or strongly agreed that they see LGBTQ inclusion as a Jewish value more than before.
  • 90% agreed or strongly agreed that they better understand the needs of LGBTQ members/staff/stakeholders.

These new sentiments already are being reflected creating new LGBTQ inclusive policies and programs; hosting LGBTQ inclusive events, outreaching to the LGBTQ community, and more.

During this period, Keshet also held 16 Shabbatonim, engaging 626 LGBTQ and ally teens. The Outcome Survey showed that because of their participation in Keshet programs:

  • 68% of youth connect with other Jewish LGBTQ youth more than before through social media.
  • 32% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before in Jewish youth group settings.
  • 30% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before at synagogue.

Participation by teens in Keshet programs also prompts many of them to engage in more Jewish learning experiences, to become more politically active, and to speak out against anti-Semitism.

The support of the Foundation enabled Keshet to explore, test, and refine strategies and processes important for systematically scaling the expansion of the Leadership Project and the Shabbatonim.

Some of the key learnings that Keshet has incorporated into the planning and implementation of current and future Leadership Project cohorts and Shabbatonim programs include:

  • Designing programs that respond to the needs of specific groups, such as trans youth, young women, and college-age youth, as well as reflecting regional culture and history.
  • Working with core anchor partners in new geographies and leveraging their knowledge and reach to expand local program participation.
  • Utilizing the efficiency of outreach possible through collaboration with national organizations that have robust member networks.
  • Cultivating leadership development for young people by developing mentorship opportunities for program alumni to welcome in and guide new Shabbatonim participants.
  • Encouraging long-term organizational accountability by providing Leadership Program cohort members with regular coaching to help sustain progress toward institutional change.
  • Developing and replicating best practices for program infrastructure, systems, and policies.

A senior staff member of a JCC in the Midwest who participated in one of Keshet’s Leadership Project cohorts said of the experience:

It was one of the first times I have experienced so many different people coming to the table…Keshet provides accountability, support, affirmation, and help to recognize where your resources are. In our year with Keshet, we started looking at making our forms, data, and membership systems more inclusive, as well as many other things we do.

The substantive takeaway from the evolution of Keshet’s institutional change work is that the leaders of Jewish organizations are enacting tangible shifts in policies, programming, and culture, as well as undertaking transformative conversations about LGBTQ equality in their communities. Moreover, a growing number of LGBTQ Jewish youth are taking on leadership roles within Jewish community organizations. Amid these positive developments, Keshet continues to advance the systemic changes necessary for the entirety of our diverse Jewish community to participate openly and authentically in Jewish Life.

Euegene Patron is Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications. Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project and teen Shabbatonim