By Saundra Sterling Epstein
Eshel was founded in 2010 by Co-directors Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg more than a decade ago as a support, education and advocacy organization, working to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. We provide resources and sensitively and respectfully help open the doors of Orthodox congregations, schools, summer camps and youth groups, and are dedicated to supporting and validating LGBTQ-observant Jews and providing them a place in the communities they love.
With a generous grant from the Carpenter Foundation, Eshel has been continuing and growing its Welcoming Shuls Project to assess levels of inclusion that already exist in the Orthodox community and to expand and facilitate greater expressions of welcome. In employing a non-judgmental process, interviewing religious leaders about their experiences and helping to clarify for them the needs of LGBTQ Jews, we have learned about the challenges posed by an apathy that may destabilize norms. Many of the conversations have generated a powerful mutual trust and shown incredible growth during the five years of this project. We have also expanded to include reaching out to camps, schools, youth groups and year programs in Israel and have been able to identify welcoming communities that have all of these resources. The Greater Philadelphia area is at the top of this list.
Our growing confidential database is available to help observant LGBTQ Jews to choose more welcoming communities. Our Greater Philadelphia Area includes 18 shuls/community spaces, schools, camps, medical and social support systems and everything one would need to live a meaningful and observant Jewish life. The database is not public, as discretion is often preferred both by those seeking communities and our interviewed rabbis. Specific information is shared on an as-needed basis so that the data on a particular city, community, synagogue or rabbi can be available to help people navigate life choices. Increasingly, we have found allies who would also like to become active participants in these welcoming communities. To date, we have conducted 208 interviews and identified communities in 31 states in the United States and four provinces in Canada, as well as others throughout Israel.
The rabbis who have responded to our survey represent a wide range of rabbinic training institutes, from modern to centrist to more right-leaning Orthodox institutions. Of our communities, including those that are highly welcoming and others that are welcoming with some caveats:
100% said LGBTQ people deserve to be valued and treated with respect;
97% are aware of at least one member of their congregation or children of members who are LGBTQ;
90% said that they had at some point been personally involved with families who had LGBTQ members;
93% said they would advocate for children and teens who came out so they would be able to continue in their schools, camps or youth groups;
90% said that the life cycle events of children with LGBTQ parents could be celebrated in their shuls; and
95% said that gay men receive aliyot and participate as leaders in the service, while many indicated that there are LGBTQ members active in their community leadership.
Just over 50% of the rabbis described their shul community as somewhat more relaxed, less judgmental than most other Orthodox communities. These are “big tent” Orthodox communities with a diverse membership body, whose focus on outreach and being welcoming is geared to attract those on a spiritual journey but who may not be ready to adopt full halachic comportment. In these environments, it can be easier for an Orthodox community to be more accommodating of differences in a general sense, including differences as related to LGBTQ matters.
While many of these shuls and communities do have same sex/gender couples, transgender and non-binary members and are able to negotiate how their space works for them, these are the two main challenges to our cause in the greater Orthodox community.
Even so, it is clear that so much has changed in our five-plus years of this work and that more and more Orthodox shuls, schools, camps and communities are addressing the challenges that occur at the intersection of halachah and sexuality/gender identity. As this is a matter of ensuring the wellbeing of our community members and that an increasing number of individuals have people in their lives who are LGBTQ, we know that these conversations are now occurring with regularity in the Orthodox world.
And that alone is a positive development.
Saundra Sterling Epstein is director of Eshel’s Welcoming Shuls Project. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on Eshel, the Welcoming Shuls Project and how to have your rabbi and shul interviewed or contact a community.