We are living in a watershed moment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. Just this past spring, the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on gay marriage. This ruling echoed the Massachusetts decision four years ago as our state became the first to affirm equal marriage as a constitutional right for its citizens. Yet so quickly, the pendulum has swung back again with a decisive majority of California voters electing to rescind these newly won rights with the passage of Proposition 8: a constitutional declaration that only a marriage between a man and a woman shall be recognized by the state. Two other states, Florida and Arizona, also passed similar measures this November bringing the total number of states with bans to 30. In Arkansas, a devastating ban on adoption by unmarried couples – clearly targeting same-sex couples – also passed by significant margins.
Our research demonstrates that homophobia and heterosexism are very real problems in the Jewish community. Ninety-one percent of the youth who participated in the 2007 pilot of Keshet’s Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide reported hearing or using the phrase “that’s so gay” or other homophobic slurs in their school or youth program. At the same time, 71% of the youth from the pilot program reported that they have a close friend or relative who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Thus, while many youth have either used or heard derogatory language, a large number of them also know someone for whom these phrases would be hurtful.
At the same time that Jewish youth are reporting homophobic teasing and bullying, educators across liberal movements of Judaism are turning to Keshet for resources to help them teach about Jewish tradition in a manner that recognizes and even celebrates the diversity that exists within their communities – a diversity that includes gay and lesbian families, GLBT clergy, educators, and community leaders, and out GLBT Jewish youth. Increasingly, rabbis and educators from conservative and other more traditional Jewish communities are also turning to Keshet for training and support in addressing GLBT issues and creating safe, inclusive learning communities.
In response to the needs of Jewish communities nationwide, the Hineini Education Project provides training, support, and educational resources that address GLBT issues from a Jewish values perspective. In order to create long-term, sustainable change we utilize a dual strategy: 1) Training rabbis and educators around the country to be Jewish Safe Schools facilitators in their own communities; and 2) Developing and disseminating resources and materials, including Keshet’s documentary film Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School and a companion Curriculum Resource Guide, needed for the work of creating Jewish Safe Schools & Supportive Communities.
Keshet’s resources are playing a central role in sparking community engagement with GLBT issues around the country. In the past two years, Keshet has offered over 200 community screenings of our documentary film, Hineini, and over 50 Jewish Safe Schools & Supportive Communities trainings for educators. We maintain a running list of hundreds of Jewish educators who have contacted us with requests to use the Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide in their classrooms and bring Jewish Safe Schools teacher trainings to their schools.
The high demand for Keshet’s resources and expertise can also be seen in the response to our inaugural Hineini Education Project Training Institutes, during which participants received in-depth training on creating safe environments for workshops and discussions about issues of gender and sexual orientation as they play out in Jewish educational contexts. Within weeks of announcing our first Training Institute, applications streamed in from educators across the country who were eager to receive hands-on training to address GLBT issues.
We are also seeing a shift among grassroots GLBT Jewish groups around the country from filling a primarily social/support role to taking on a more activist, change-oriented dimension. As Keshet’s national visibility has grown, individual GLBT Jewish leaders and emerging organizations have turned to Keshet as a model for sustainable GLBT Jewish community-building, leadership development, and creating change. In spring 2008, Keshet began providing capacity building support to GLBT Jewish organizations in two cities outside of Boston – JPride in San Diego and the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan in Detroit. In 2009, we will establish a third affiliated partnership with another emerging organization. Our goal here is not to replicate Keshet in other cities but rather to use our expertise to strengthen already existing leadership in other communities.
Both youth and adult participants in our workshops and trainings express positive feedback about our resources and consultation. Educators who participated in the Curriculum Resource Guide’s pilot program indicated that the lessons immediately raised the levels of respect in discussions of sexuality and gender and youth interactions in general. The Director of Jewish Studies at the San Diego Jewish Academy, Jill Weinberg, told us, “Students gained a certain maturity through doing this unit. They began to understand too that these halakhic questions and perspectives on gender and sexual orientation had real implications for gay, lesbian, and transgender Jews. It was real.”
We have also received glowing testimonials about our Training Institutes. Mara Berde, a graduate student at the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Director of Jewish Camp Education at Camp Wise in Ohio, took the skills she learned back to camp and began to lead GLBT inclusion trainings. As a result, two girls and one boy came out to her. “None of that would have happened if I had not attended the Keshet Training Institute,” Mara asserts. She is so inspired that she is also focusing her master’s thesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary/Davidson School of Education on GLBT training and programs at Jewish camps.
Aaron Weininger, another Institute participant, is also the first openly gay JTS rabbinical student. As part of his efforts to facilitate changes in the culture of the Seminary, in particular the Rabbinical School, Aaron arranged a meeting between Keshet and senior administrators. That meeting resulted in Keshet and the Rabbinical School partnering to offer a training for rabbis who serve as mentors for rabbinic students. Keshet is currently in conversation with JTS about further workshops for students and others in the larger JTS community.
In Boston, our community-building work and social events are visioned and planned by our Community Events Committee, a group of committed Keshet members passionate about working with Keshet staff to provide opportunities for GLBT Jews to come together in affirming environments and connect with the larger Jewish community. Keshet’s Transgender Working Group (TWiG) is also comprised of volunteers who gather to hold bi-monthly education and organizing meetings for transgender Jews as well as coordinate educational events on trans issues for the broader Jewish community.
We are also committed to developing the leadership of our current members and encouraging them to be catalysts for change within and outside of Keshet. In addition to our year-round committees and groups, we hold an annual Keshet Learning and Leadership (KLAL) retreat for Keshet members. Our goal for KLAL is to deepen relationships between these key members, encourage them to take on specific leadership roles within the organization, and provide them with concrete training in community organizing.
The Hineini Education Project engages Jewish educators and lay leaders to work as mediums for change in their home institutions. Local Jewish Safe Schools and Supportive Communities facilitators volunteer to run trainings in Boston-area Jewish schools and synagogues and our Training Institute participants return home to lead workshops for their own communities.
Youth, as well as adults, are involved with Keshet and our community initiatives. We have found that Jewish youth are more politically aware than members of the preceding generation when they were of the same age, and often that awareness leads to action. Many of Keshet’s volunteers are young GLBT Jews who are interested in working for social justice in the Jewish community as well as bringing heightened awareness of Jewish issues and culture to the secular GLBT world. We have also found that the number of young GLBT allies is growing. In states like Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage rights have been hotly debated, youth are increasingly aware of GLBT issues. And in states without such debates many youth find GLBT topics ever more relevant as their friends, family members, and they themselves, come out.
More high schools than ever before, and even some progressive middle schools, have active Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) where youth are participating in the dialogue around GLBT rights and becoming change agents in and beyond their classrooms. Often, they use those leadership experiences as a springboard to become involved in GLBT rights organizations like Keshet.
Keshet, in particular, highlights the difference youth can make in our documentary Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School. The film tells the story of a girl’s campaign to start a gay-straight alliance at her pluralistic Jewish high school and the transformative impact of her efforts on the whole community. We have also found that featuring the stories and images of youth who are working for change, and for whom Keshet has made a difference, in our materials and on our website is an effective way to show youth how they, too, can be involved.
© 2013 Jewish Causes of Choice, Inc. All rights reserved. Jewish Causes of
Choice, Inc. is a non-profit organization exempt under the 501(c) section of the
internal revenue code.
Connect with us: