Israel Engagement and LGBT Jews

Earlier this week A Wider Bridge organized, in partnership and with the support of the The Jewish Agency for Israel, a conference on “Engaging LGBTJews with Israel.”  Among the participants were Rabbi and author Steve Greenberg, New York’s CBST Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and Steven Goldstein, Board Chair of A Wider Bridge & founder of Garden State Equality, along with many others.

More than 25 activists, scholars and rabbis from the Jewish LGBT community, as well as gay and straight Jewish professionals from mainstream Jewish organizations, gathered in New York City for a day-long conversation on the challenges facing LGBT supporters of Israel regarding the disconnect between progressive Jews and mainstream Jewish institutional life.

See photos from the conference on our Facebook page

In his opening remarks, Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, said that LGBT Jews often face a deep sense of dissonance when it comes to Israel. “On one hand, they know that mainstream Israeli society is welcoming to its vibrant LGBT community. But for some LGBT Jews there is a natural desire to identify with vulnerable communities and they perceive the Palestinians as a people in a shared struggle,” he said.

“We are blessed to be born into a world in which Israel exists,” Slepian added. “This is an historic conversation. We’ve all been on a journey with Israel that includes love and criticism. Our goal is to find the right balance and to use this as a springboard for more conversations together.”

“The Jewish Agency in North America has created a platform to collaborate with the innovation sector in Jewish communal life to help them strengthen Israel engagement among the target populations these new organizations are able to reach.” said Reuven Greenvald, The Jewish Agency’s director of strategic outreach in North America. “Our collaboration with organizations like A Wider Bridge not only expands the reach of Israel engagement, it also helps these new organizations become more sustainable”, according to Greenvald. Other successful collaborations have been developed with Moishe House and Hazon.

The day included sessions that deal with connecting to Israel in the context of organized Jewish life, congregational life, and on college campuses.   Among the groups represented were The Israel Action Project, The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, The New Israel Fund, J Street, Nehirim, and the Jewish Federations of New York City and Seattle.  Four Israelis also participated in the conversation.

Connecting members of the Jewish LGBT community in the U.S. to Israel by partnering with Israeli LGBT groups


Irit Zviely-Efrat, CEO of Hoshen, an Israeli LGBT outreach and educational organization:
We are quite a small village, so I’d like to see the American and Israeli LGBT communities engage in more knowledge sharing, such as how to effectively use volunteers as human capital and how to raise money more successfully.

Zach Carstensen, Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations, The Jewish Federation of Seattle:
I came to federation because I had a sense that the Jewish community in Seattle matched my values. On my first day, my predecessor said, “Don’t touch Israel.”  And for a number of years, I didn’t have anything to do with Israel professionally. But Israel started to bubble up. The LGBT commission in Seattle boycotted Irit’s visit. So I started to wonder why we are having a difficult time connecting LGBT Jews to organized, institutional Jewish life.  Once we can unlock that, it will become easier to make an Israel connection. That boycott forced me to think about how we can link the fates of Israeli and American LGBT communities because we are all partners in a broader struggle for civil rights.

Navigating Tension between LGBT Unity, Progressivism and Zionism


Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah:
I don’t think we are similar to the broader Jewish community, but I think we are marking some important points along the road in understanding who we are by looking at the contemporary Jewish experience. For example, in America cisgender gay men are often in one tent and the LBT are in another. It’s the same in Israel; cisgender Tel Aviv men are in one group. If we ignore these differences we’re being stupid; we’re not using our Yiddishe kup. The gay community is learning that it’s not enough to have an agenda based on homophobia. We are learning the same thing as the broader Jewish community learned [when the uniting force was anti-Semitism]. In the 50’s and 60’s the focus was on the Holocaust and Israel; in the late 60’s and 70’s Soviet Jewry movement was added. Likewise today, if the anti-gay violence is removed, what unites LGBT Jews? That has huge implications for the Israel conversation.

Using Dialogue to Break through Distortions of Israel and Misperceptions of Zionism in the Gay Community


Steven Goldstein, Board Chair of A Wider Bridge & Founder of Garden State Equality:
I think goodwill begets goodwill. I’m a progressive, but not on Israel. In fact, I don’t believe there is an occupation. Other than that, I’m like any Jew who walks into Zabar’s on the Upper West Side. A few years ago, J-Street invited me to speak. I told them that I wasn’t going to “say what you’d like me to say.” But I was embraced. And the goodwill that J-Street showed at least enabled me to open my eyes.  It goes both ways, I want [the Jewish LGBT community] to accept people like me.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL & Founder and Co-Director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT support and education organization:
In 1917, there was a paper in England that cast doubt on the idea of Zionism. It said the dream of Israel was impossible because a State would corrupt the religion and religion would corrupt democracy. We have a similar paradox with our relationship to the body. There is a problem with celebrating it, but rejecting it is also a problem. The same is true with Zionism; it’s often seen as either only good or an evil to be fought. In the middle there are thoughtful people and these paradoxes represent an expansive reality to play out the Jewish idea. Let’s do it. To me the key is not demonizing the fear and attacks we get, but to speak to it in a compassionate way.


At the close of the day, participants were grateful that this important and necessary conversation took place.  A Wider Bridge will develop a strategy to move forward with some of the ideas that emerged from this open, honest conversation.

A Wider Bridge Conference 10.15.13 - photo by Andrew Werner, 193

A Wider Bridge Conference 10.15.13 – from left: Irit Zviely-Efrat- CEO of Hoshen, Arthur Slepian- Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. (Photo by Andrew Werner)