The Hineni Fellowship, which started as a pilot program in 2018, announced on March 4 that it is launching nationally, expanding the leadership development program for LGBTQ Jews.
Hineni founder Rabbi Gil Steinlauf said he was inspired to create the program after he came out to his Conservative congregation, Adas Israel Congregation, in 2014 and received an outpouring of love and support. As he became more involved with the LGBTQ world, he noticed that many progressive Jewish organizations wanted more diversity but struggled with LGBTQ engagement, particularly representation in leadership.
“Jewish organizations value inclusion very deeply and have opened their doors to the queer community,” he said. “However, they won’t be truly inclusive until they have LGBTQ Jews in positions of leadership in the community.”
Hineni co-founder Stuart Kurlander, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a partner at Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C., also noticed a lack of LGBTQ representation in Jewish leadership.
“As I looked around at various boards, I knew there was a diversity of identities in our community, but I just wasn’t seeing many of them engaged in Federation or community organizations,” said Kurlander, who is also a co-owner of Mid-Atlantic Media, which provides editorial services to the Jewish Exponent. “People felt they had this Jewish experience when they were younger but after they came out or got involved in a profession, they didn’t know how to continue to engage. This is also a challenge faced by converts and Jews of color.”
Kurlander and Steinlauf launched the pilot fellowship program in Washington, D.C., with the goal of giving young LGBTQ Jewish professionals the tools to take on leadership roles in their communities.
“We introduce participants to a deep exploration of Jewish identity and LGBTQ identity,” Steinlauf said. “We want to bolster a sense of Jewish passion and draw from the vision of moral leadership Judaism promotes. Queer leadership has the potential to call out the conventional mainstream to confront close-mindedness, and those values are very important to us.”
According to the Hineni website, the pilot fellowship was originally designed for 12 participants but expanded to 26 after receiving nearly 60 applications. The fellows spent the 2018-2019 program involved in group discussions about Jewish text, spirituality, identity and history guided by Hineni faculty.
The fellowship culminated in a project designed to give the fellows the chance to use their skills in a community setting.
“We had participants implement LGBTQ programming in synagogues, Israel-related programs, museum projects of Jewish and LGBTQ history, alternative marriage and wedding options for couples, and work with the elderly,” Steinlauf said.
Hineni fellow Laurie Paul said she loved the discussion groups about Torah and grassroots organizing.
“Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, queer identities were very stigmatized in media and real life,” Paul said. “What was nice about the program was meeting Jewish people in the LGBTQ community and realizing that we had something valuable and unique to offer the Jewish community.”
Paul is a psychologist who used her research background to conduct a focus group among queer women and femme-identified people in the D.C. area for her project. The participants were concerned that LGBTQ programming in their community was disproportionately geared toward gay men, so they started brainstorming ideas for new social opportunities like a wine and cheese Havdalah for LGBTQ women. They also came up with an online buddy system to make attending the D.C. Minyan less intimidating.
Steinlauf said engagement programs like Hineni are crucial as the Jewish community moves into the 21st century and becomes more diverse.
“There’s been a decrease in Jewish affiliation and synagogue membership,” he said. “The synagogue world is geared to married people with children. People who don’t fit these conventional standards — people who are young, single, of color, LGBTQ, disabled — are going to have a hard time engaging. We need people who understand the concerns of new generations at the table so the community can evolve over time.”
The national program will host an opening retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland in September. From there, fellows will attend bimonthly webinars and study sessions with guest speakers who are leaders in the LGBTQ community. There will be opportunities for small group discussions and a closing retreat in California in late spring of 2021.
Hineni is now accepting applications for the 2020-2021 fellowship year. For more information, go to hineni-fellowship.org.
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