A recent transdenominational study shows significant support among North American congregations for embracing diverse populations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That's the good news.
Less positive — but not surprising — was the finding that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis responding to the survey felt that their congregations were doing a good or excellent job welcoming LGBTQ folks to their communities, even though very few were doing anything to explicitly signal such a welcome.
For the most part, no welcoming language is used in synagogue mission statements or on Web sites and no LGBTQ-related programs are available in most synagogues. Yet, what is known from previous research is that to members of the LGBTQ community, general statements of welcome "come with an invisible asterisk, with the hidden message — we welcome everyone, except you," says Gregg Drinkwater, executive director of Jewish Mosaic, a trans-denominational organization dedicated to helping the Jewish community become more welcoming to its LGBTQ members.
Helping erase the "invisible asterisk" has become a profound and important challenge. It has also become a personal one for me, for I am the parent of a daughter who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who grew up strongly connected to the Reconstructionist synagogue we helped found.
When Jessica casually came out over lunch during her sophomore year in college, telling me that she'd like to introduce me and her dad to the woman she was dating, there was no drama. She knew that she was, and always would be, unconditionally loved and accepted. She now volunteers with gay teens who haven't all had the same experience with their families. Jessica, now 23, is my teacher whenever I struggle to understand an experience I personally have not lived.
Jessica found and directed me to the YES! Coalition (www.yescoalitionphilly. org), a local, volunteer-run, nonprofit whose raison d'etre is welcoming people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities — as well as their families — to religious communities.
The coalition's central project is publishing online the "Guide to Welcoming Congregations."
Jessica was surprised that our congregation, Reconstructionist Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington, wasn't listed. So was our rabbi. So I decided to find out. I learned that the coalition is one of the best-kept secrets in the five-county region. The 120 listed congregations, only 12 of which are synagogues, have all come by word of mouth. I was immediately invited to join the organization's central council as its representative to the Jewish community.
I am now contacting every synagogue in the region, across the streams, to invite them to erase the "invisible asterisk." As a Jew who has spent most of her adult life working and volunteering in the Jewish community, I want my daughter, and every other LGBTQ person, to feel welcomed, supported and comfortable in any synagogue she or he might choose to attend.
I want rabbis and synagogue boards to recognize the need for more learning and discussion about diversity. And I want action. That means action on a national level, like that promised by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-JIR. The two groups sponsored the study mentioned above and are teaming up to launch a program to give rabbis and congregations useful tools and resources to welcome LGBTQ people. Locally, I want to see congregations listing themselves with the YES! Coalition so that LGBTQ people will no longer have to guess whether or not they are, really, welcome.
Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg, the author of three books and many newspaper and magazine articles, is a retired educator and freelance writer.