Salzburg became the site for something wonderful: an historical global conference for 60 LGBTQ Jewish leaders who are working to create meaningful change in the Jewish world.
Mention Salzburg, Austria and you might conjure up images of Mozart, delicious mouth-watering pastries, or even Julie Andrews twirling around the gorgeous Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music. But last week, Salzburg became the site for something even more wonderful: an historical global conference for 60 LGBTQ Jewish leaders who are working to create meaningful change in the Jewish world and beyond in the 21st century.
Cheekily titled “Eighteen:22” in a nod toward the biblical verse in Leviticus that prohibits same-sex relations between men, the conference, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, brought together political activists, educators, foundation workers, rabbis and lay volunteers who are all determining what it means to be LGBTQ and Jewish in a rapidly changing world. While the successes of marriage equality may sometimes feel like the order of the day, we can sometimes forget that there are still places — including Pennsylvania) — where one’s gender or sexual identity can still cause you to lose your job or your housing.
Representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s new Jewish Pride affinity group and as the author of The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture, I was one of four Philadelphians present at the conference. (Alongside Phoenix Schneider, director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service’s J.Proud consortium; Steven Share, manager of Tribe 12’s Spectrum; and Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.)
Americans were well represented at Eighteen:22, but in many ways, the real thrill from the conference came from meeting individuals from around the world and hearing of both the successes and challenges they are grappling with. There were two Russian delegates who discussed the harsh conditions under which LGBTQ individuals still live, as well as delegates from South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico who provided insights into what it means to be LGBTQ and Jewish in their respective countries.
Perhaps most poignant was a memorial service for Shira Banki, the young girl killed at this year’s Jerusalem Pride Parade just a few weeks ago when an Orthodox man began wildly stabbing parade participants, wounding five others in addition to Banki. Hearing from our brothers and sisters about what LGBTQ life is like in Israel, and learning about the challenges they face in a society where Orthodox Judaism continues to exert moral pressures on non-Orthodox individuals, was quite moving.
I was particularly inspired by the projects of many Israeli delegates, including Sarah Weil, an American who made aliyah and now runs The Women’s Gathering, an organization that produces events for lesbian Jews. Weil has also been developing new ways to engage the Orthodox community in conversations so that respect and understanding on both sides of the LGBTQ divide can occur.
Over the course of our time in Salzburg, we heard reports from delegates from around the world, learned best practices in social media and how to engage the next generation of activists. One of my favorite aspects of the conference: the Breakout Sessions in which participants could pitch their own topics for discussion. From issues of LGBTQ inclusion in Orthodox day schools to Trans 101 to How to Fundraise for Your New Venture, the discussions were lively, open and engaging.
What was perhaps most eye-opening for me — and was a particularly contentious aspect of the conference that also paved the way for some honest conversation — were issues that revolved around transgender identity. LGB individuals don’t always fully grasp the needs of the trans community. From the need for gender-inclusive bathrooms to respecting the gender pronouns that a transgender individual has chosen for themselves, it quickly became apparent that for the LGBTQ community to truly be a cohesive, unified, and supportive place, all of us need to learn about each other and recognize not only what makes us similar, but also what makes us different.
Despite our busy schedules, the conference was a place to celebrate our community as well. From an elegant kosher dinner on our second night accompanied by a masquerade ball and dance party to a sing-a-long screening of The Sound of Music (is there anything gayer than that?) to an impromptu escape to a nearby pool, it was great getting to make friends and colleagues with interesting individuals from around the world. Working in the LGBTQ Jewish world can often feel like working in isolation. We are a minority within a minority, and connecting with others who understand what that is like isoften just the sort of inspiration that many of us need to keep doing what we’re doing.
In many ways, LGBTQ Jews have it good in Philadelphia. There are multiple inclusive and welcoming synagogues, a new consortium (J.Proud) that’s bringing organizations doing LGBTQ Jewish inclusion work together, and a Jewish Federation affinity group. This past year, our community hosted an LGBTQ Seder during Passover and a Pride Shabbat dinner over Philadelphia’s Pride weekend, not to mention a host of other smaller events.
But this is just the beginning — there’s a lot more work to be done in Philadelphia, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world, to support, welcome, and engage LGBTQ individuals who want an equal place at the table with everyone else. Because of Eighteen:22, we can take those next important steps.
Warren Hoffman is the associate director of community programming for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.