Top row from left to right: Rabbi Steve Greenberg. Rabbi Rahel Bat-Or, Shep Rosenman, WHP Alum (Los Angeles 1), Noey Jacobson; Bottom row from left to right: Miryam Kabakov, Rena Selya Cohen, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, WHP Alum (Los Angeles 1), Rachel Fried
How do you change a communal conversation? How do you create an environment where sensitivity can flourish, where language is minded, where the implications of throwaway comments are carefully considered?
These questions lie at the heart of an effort by Los Angeles lay leaders who are determined to make the Orthodox community more welcoming and embracing of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
While the perspective in America around LGBT issues has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years, the Orthodox community has been slow to catch up. Shabbat table conversations, schoolyard repartee and shuls are still places where homophobia — sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant — often goes unchallenged. A group of lay leaders (including several Wexner alumni) decided to mobilize for change.
In September 2016, in collaboration with Eshel, a national organization that works to build community and acceptance for LGBT people in Orthodox communities, we held an Allies Workshop. Forty-five members of the Orthodox community gathered on a Sunday morning to discuss, role-play and strategize around the question of how to respond to insensitive or ill-informed comments and to begin thinking about how to proactively push our social groups, camps, schools and shuls toward a culture of acceptance, or even embrace.
A second round of programming will take place later this month, as Eshel co-directors Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Miryam Kabakov return to LA to teach classes, host a panel of people sharing their personal narratives and work directly with institutions ready for change — whether that means initiating important conversations, or establishing new policies.
Eshel was awarded a three-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles in 2014 to work with JQ International to advocate for and assist Orthodox LGBT people and their families in Los Angeles. Eshel’s leadership was excited to expand their work to include a broader base of allies. They work in many cities —directly with families, training teachers and camp counselors — and Los Angeles was, for the most part, pioneering this type of grassroots effort to change the conversation.
This expansion has its roots in the Wexner network. Harry Nelson, WHP Alum (Los Angeles 05) met Mara Benjamin, WGF Alum (Class 10) at the Wexner 30th anniversary celebration in Columbus back in April 2015. Mara introduced Harry to her partner, Eshel co-director Miryam Kabakov, and in June 2015 Miryam and Steve Greenberg held an initial meeting with 30 or so people in Harry’s living room.
A steering committed coalesced — including myself, Shep Rosenman, WHP Alum (Los Angeles 1), Miriam Heller Stern, WGF Alum (Class 13) — and a town-hall type meeting of about 40 people followed in December. It was clear that there were potential allies in the community, and we moved forward with the September Allies Workshop.
Over the past few months, we have seen some remarkable advances in Los Angeles. An Orthodox rabbi, not known for being progressive, included LGBT tolerance in his Yom Kippur derasha (sermon). Shalhevet High School, under the leadership of Rabbi Ari Segal, is spearheading a national effort to make yeshiva high schools a safe place for gay students. Congregation B’nai David-Judea is working on new policies of inclusion.
We don’t take credit for these and other quieter changes — many have been in the works for a long time. But we do believe that we have tapped into a wave of energy that is bringing this conversation into the open and pushing our leaders to consider how to embrace all of our families, all of our members and all of our differences.
Julie Gruenbaum Fax, WHP Alum (Los Angeles 1) works privately with individuals, families and foundations to write memoirs and personal histories. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Los Angeles Jewish community for 20 years. Julie is a member of the board at B’nai David-Judea Congregation and lives in Los Angeles with her husband Alex and their three children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.