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Door Is Wide Open For Gay Jews To Be Leaders
Mon, 04/22/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Stuart Kurlander
Stuart Kurlander

For years I have been an active volunteer for many local and national Jewish organizations. Locally, I have worked hard to climb the ladder of involvement and become our federation’s president. It is only now I can truly find the words to describe a frustrating problem that, from years of experience, I now have the clarity and vision to express.

I am the first gay president our federation has ever had in a volunteer capacity. Arguably, I am one of the first gay men across the country to be president of a major Jewish organization. I say this with humility but also because I have learned many lessons from this vantage point about advocacy.

There are too few gay and lesbian lay leaders and professionals in senior positions of Jewish institutional leadership. Many believe that this is because the world isn’t ready or willing to accept us in such roles. My experience has shown me that this is simply not the situation today. It is often a perpetuated myth, one of several, that I want to question today because it is one of many assumptions that we cannot afford to nurture if the voice of serious gay and lesbian potential leaders is to be heard. We can be our own biggest stumbling block, and my diagnosis of the problem lies with three central myths.

Myth No. 1: We are about grassroots advocacy and do not want to align ourselves with the establishment. This may have been true in the infancy of our movement. We were an oppressed minority whose voice had been quelled for decades. But this is no longer true, even though we are still fighting. Being a gay, Jewish American is normative today. When a gay poet composes an original work and recites it at a presidential inauguration, we know that we have arrived. Many activists perceive that the only meaningful work they will ever do is at the periphery, instigating those who find no home at the center. I challenge you to lead from the center and push the mainstream to become more inclusive. In my leadership experience — both as an attorney and as a volunteer — I have been at the center and pushed from there. And you don’t always have to push hard. I believe we’ve become too comfortable on the sidelines criticizing the establishment. Now it’s time to be part of it and change it from within. The door is wide open.

Myth No. 2: The interests of the broad Jewish community are not the same as the interests of the LGBT community. On some level, this is true. When different parts of our identities combine, we discover that no one organization or layer of identity can capture all of our complexity. But that is not the whole story. Most of the organizations I’m involved with from a Jewish perspective care about formal and informal education, senior care and social justice, Israel and the global Jewish community, engagement and identity. These are not straight issues or gay issues. They are our issues because we are part of a universal family and members of a particular family — the Jewish family, which needs our love and concern. Being gay is not the sum total of my identity. It is a piece of a rich identity that begs for wholeness, and one can find it in a community that is subtle and textured. The door is wide open.

Myth No. 3: Others don’t want us at the table. We have spent so much time complaining about not being included that we have, ironically, often excluded ourselves from the table. We have internalized an attitude that says that others will not see value in having us as part of the conversation of Jewish life. We will only take part in the gay or the gay Jewish conversation. We have become, from a Jewish communal perspective, self-limiting. These limitations prevent us from leading from a position of strength. We have not checked the assumptions we make about the Jewish community with the current reality of that community. The door is wide open.

These myths all came from somewhere. There was a time not so long ago when they were descriptive of the way the established Jewish community related to the gay and lesbian community, and vice-versa. But times have changed and in many ways gay and lesbian Jews have not changed with them. I am not just saying that. I am living it. I grew up in a home where the established Jewish community was not an opponent but a very close friend, and it has remained that ever since. I want to introduce that close friend to other close friends, but many myths are standing in the way. I want other gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews at the leadership table next to me and at leadership tables throughout the Jewish leadership establishment locally and nationally to urge us to step forward and take a more active role in the leadership of the collective Jewish community. We are truly all in it together. Our future and our destiny is a shared one. The door is wide open.

Stuart S. Kurlander is president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

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I'm a leader in my field for Seeking Alpha, and as a homosexual I have not found any trouble being a leader in my organization.

While I honor the accomplishment of Mr. Kurlander in being able to climb the ladder that he has, I whole-heartedly disagree that the door is wide open for ALL.

It seems clear to me that Mr. Kurlander is unaware of his own priveleges. From the looks of it, he is a white, cis-gender, AFFLUENT Jew in a democratic state. The idea that the entire queer Jewish community has his same opportunities available to him is simply not true.

Just today, I was part of a conversation with LGBT Jewish professional and lay leaders in San Diego discussing this very issue. Somewhere between helping our organized Jewish community become even more welcoming and our need to get involved is what is required. The onus is on our LGBT community to move the needle by getting involved. I am confident, we will find seats around the table.

Well said. There are of course places where the doors are not open, but those are more and more the exception. The one issue I'd take with you is that some older LGBT Jews carry wounds from the past that are not easily healed. Thank you for an op-ed that reaches out and offers reassurance; I hope it reaches the people who most need to read it.

too bad being Jewish has lost all semblance of connection to G-d. We love all Jews, including those who struggle with the prohibition from G-d in the Torah against gay relations. What is left if you strip being Jewish from the Torah? Israel advocacy? Then we are no different than any other race in the world and have deprived ourselves of our one true inheritance: a relationship to G-d based on His Torah.

Thanks, Stuart, for opening this important conversation. Your leadership as an out gay man has been instrumental in making our community more inclusive.

I, too, lament the lack of out LGBT Jews in positions of leadership in Jewish organizations, and I have observed many of the same self-created barriers that you point out. I think the LGBT Jewish community needs to hear your message to "lead from the center and push the mainstream to become more inclusive." Over the years, I have witnessed this slow change from mainstream Jewish organizations. Within a month of inviting clergy and Jewish organizations to list themselves in Keshet’s online Equality Guide, we had more than 700 listings, which suggests that Jewish organizations have evolved dramatically on the issue of LGBT inclusion.

We have made incredible progress, and it is certainly easier to be an LGBT leader in the Jewish community today than it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. But there is still tremendous work to do -- and this work doesn't only rest on the shoulders of LGBT Jews themselves. I wonder if we are getting ahead of ourselves when we say "being a gay, Jewish American is normative today." Many of the teens I met at the Keshet-Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center recent Shabbatons for LGBTQ teens shared that they had never before felt "normal" as LGBT Jews in a mainstream Jewish context. And I have spoken with many employees of Jewish agencies – JCCs, summer camps, synagogues, and federations – who have experienced discrimination because they were out as LGBT. My transgender Jewish friends and colleagues have certainly not experienced the kind of acceptance and "open door" policies that you describe, though I hope that someday they will.

I agree that LGBT Jews must be unafraid to take risks to access leadership. But the Jewish community, as a whole, still has much more work to do. Change does not rest on the shoulders of LGBT Jews alone but must be accomplished by LGBT Jews and our straight allies working together.

Jews have always been the leaders of the gay rights movement.

There is a huge misunderstanding here.

Orthodox Judaism does not accept homosexuality as a valid form of lifestyle or behavior for any person whether they are Jewish or non Jewish.

The fact is, secular culture has brainwashed people to accept all manner of objectionable activities as permitted when they are not.

They believe perhaps that accepting homosexuality is simply a case of “not bullying” or “not exercising vigilante justice” and give this as a reason for accepting “gayism”.

No, this is not the case , because in general, Orthodox Judaism strongly forbids bullying and vigilante justice. Justice is done inside the beis din.

Homosexuality is a great form of spiritual decline and contamination along with bestiality, incest,murder, adultery and idolatry. All these, including homosexuality may not be done. There is no change in the Torah that prohibits these and also all the other prohibitions enumerated in the Torah.

There is nothing else one needs to do as urgently as to serve The Creator. Therefore one’s own urges are able to be suppressed to be able to serve the creator and not to relapse into forbidden activities.

The Torah states that if a person persists just 3 (three) times to break his or her desire to a sin then he or she will be assisted by Heaven. This means a genuine will to be assisted must be present when the person resists the urge.

@ Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/24/2013 - 01:16:

"The fact is, secular culture has brainwashed people to accept all manner of objectionable activities as permitted when they are not."

I don't think you know what the word "fact" means. It does not mean, "something my rebbe told me" or "something I want to be true".

The “fact” I meant was that it is an obvious fact that loads of people are so gullible to think that ”gayism” is permitted when it is not and further it is the Torah that prohibits ”gayism” (also a fact). So both are facts.

The facts I read in the Torah (I am literate) no one had to “tell” me.

Why has there been an apparent astronomical increase in reported homosexuality? is it because it has become PC, or because it is more common. The Torah, does not "care" about women, they are non-entities , and as such, do not provoke the abomination that mishkav zachor does,
these are just questions, i do not have answers, BUT BUT, liberal "jews" or others, must accept this as fundamental fact of life, empirically, Homosexuality seems to be on the increase, as has autism, aspergers, you name it.
I am pro allowing , accepting secular gay marriages, and the concomittant legal ramifications.
However, allowing mishkav zachor, if one is Torah bound, is forbidden. so what the heck is wrong with a secular marriage as long as the Reform or Conservative synagogue accepts the couple fully. Gay marriage is not marriage,. it is an alliance, i do not denigrate that. Strange that the Torah does not care one iota what women do, because women were basically chattel, and had no standing, in the community, which is why if a women was raped., the father got the Pitsuim, and why, in the Torah, where there are extensive lists of forbidden unions, "gilui arayot" in acharei mot and in kiddushim, the father daughter union is not mentioned, she was chattel. the mother and granddaughter are mentioned.
The mishnah likes to think, that "by inference" or by "implication" obviously the daughter was forbidden. when does the bible make such assumptions? the talmud, or whatever mishna gemorrah, i am am haaretz, examines intimately, every instance when something is repeated twice, slightly differently . the rabbis, gee, i am an ignoramus, whether Chazal, Rishonim, Tosafot, it's all greek to me, spends an incredible amount of energy in explaining why something is said twice, only twice, dafka,
However, however, most Rabbis never noticed that the father daughter gilui arayot is strangely absent, just not there, in no lists, and what to make of that? she was chattel. daughter was chattel, if raped, the father got the pitsuim (monetary damages). And why was Yaakov scared to death when his two sons avenged Dinah's rape? he didnt give a flying. why were three of our esteemed forefathers, first and best example Abraham , to save their own skin, willing to declare their wives "sisters" to save their lives, and basically basically turn their wives into whores. This is historical fact. Abraham, Mordechai, someone help me here a third of our Gedolim passing off their wives as sisters, into forced harlotry to save their own expletive deleted necks. Abram, .with Sarai, twice, Yitzchak with Rachel . Bunch of upstanding citizens, nachon???? and this is what our Bible is based on? no wonder no one seems to get upset about repeated and continual sexual abuse in the orthodox community , from mod. orth liberal YU to the lowest denominator, oy, well, clearly opinion, Satmar, particularly since Nehemiah Weberman's conviction and sentence to 103 years, shortened in half, sweet. Maybe the two internecine rebbes (sic) will time share his cell with him, particularly the kiryat yoel one who called the victim a slut and zonah, until the last moments, and 500k bribe turned down to drop the case , some say more, much more was offered to the family to drop the case,
Kol Hakavod to the victim to endure 13 grueling hours of cross examination on the witness stand, while 4 scum satmars were illegally photographing her IN THE COURTROOM, the more to intimidate,
We have a long long history of Jewish Tsadikim (sic) honoring their wives, and the women in the community in general, every (expletive) issue can be resolved, through pilpul, electronic garage lights, etc etc but they can't expletive find a way to release agunot, enough to make one want to, sheesh, there is no alternative save "ah-pee-chorus", aizeh chaval

You are joking by comparing “gayism” to autism!

As far as women and the Torah go, Hashem is just. Our forefathers ASKED their wives to say they were their sisters so that THEY BOTH could EAT and LIVE, otherwise they would have BOTH STARVED (read the Torah sections -how easy is that!). They were not sexually molested because Hashem protected them.

From Leviticus 18:10, the prohibition of a man having an incestuous relationship with his daughter is inferred ( a man’s son’s daughter or a man’s daughter’s daughter are prohibited to a man). It is also prohibited to have relations with a woman and her daughter (Leviticus 18:17). That could be any man’s wife and his OWN daughter, apart from meaning a woman and her daughter from another marriage.
The Seven Noachide Laws for all humanity forbids homosexuality, bestiality, incest and adultery among other things. THAT is what is wrong with the secular laws , because secular law is bound with the Noachide Laws.

Nehemiah Weberman was convicted on a guess. If you don’t quite “get it”, just close your eyes, look out of the window and tell us exactly what is happening.

You are full of illogical thinking - I suggest therapy with a frum therapist. Zei gesund.

Oh , and Jewish women including our IMAHOT could have recourse in law if they wanted it. All Jewish laws are for the benefit of all Israel.

Maybe he should say he is the first openly and out gay man to be a president of a major organization.