August 17, 2010
World of GLBT Jews Convenes at UCLA
The 20th World Conference of GLBT Jews, Aug. 13-15, was planned without the much-publicized Proposition 8 overturn in mind, but the fact that it took place alongside the turning of tides in California’s gay marriage law reflected increasing acceptance of the GLBT community.
“The timing is just wonderful, because we’re doing it on an up,” said Howard Solomon, president of the World Congress of GLBT Jews — though the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals continued the stay on the ruling and temporarily upheld Prop. 8 two days after Solomon spoke on Aug. 16, changing the picture for now.
Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, shared Solomon’s enthusiasm. “There are people here from all over,” Eger said, which “speaks to the diversity of the GLBT Jewish world.”
Held at the Hillel at UCLA, the three-day conference featured programs, Shabbat services and entertainment for GLBT Jews of all denominations — “from cultural and secular Jews to religious Jews — Jews of every variety under the LGBTQ rubric,” said Robin Podolsky, a rabbinical student who attended.
Approximately 30 seminars on Saturday and Sunday focused on a range of topics, from “Best Practices for LGBT Inclusion in Jewish Institutions” to “Queer Jewish Improv.”
Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, delivered the keynote speech for the event, which drew approximately 150 people, from local GLBT-friendly synagogues Beth Chayim Chadashim and Congregation Kol Ami, and from as far as Europe, South Africa and Australia, Solomon said.
Reflecting on the important role that social justice plays in creating interconnectedness between communities—especially during the month of Elul, with the High Holidays approaching—Barrett said: “When we stand together for those deemed ‘others,’ we stand on the side of tolerance, progress and justice.”
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, spiritual leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, who sat in on several seminars, observed that the conference celebrated the “people who took risks in the early years for LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community.”
The conference’s programming focused less on state, national or international GLBT advocacy and more on providing a venue for candid conversations about everyday challenges the GLBT community faces, including GLBT Jewish identity and what role the world congress will play in the future.
During a seminar on “How Do I Advocate for My Kids in a Mainstream World?” Robin Berkovitz from Beth Chayim Chadashim said her daughter, whom she adopted from Guatemala, is proud of her three-pronged identity — being Jewish, Guatemalan and the child of a gay-parented family — and that she says to her friends, “I have two moms!” proclaiming it, rather than hiding it. One woman, an LGBT mother who requested that she be identified as “Tammy,” said that she is more concerned with who her son’s teacher will be in the coming school year than with gay issues. She wondered aloud if she was losing her gay identity.
During a seminar on “The World Congress Through 35 Years: Challenges Then and Now,” those who actively shaped the world congress in the ’80s and early ’90s shared hopes for the congress’s future. Sandy Warshaw hoped for increased outreach to women. “I don’t see a lot of women around here,” Warshaw said to a room that had nearly twice as many men as women.
Congress board member Lo Woudstra, attending from Amsterdam, said the congress — a world congress — should do more outreach internationally, particularly in European GLBT communities.
During a seminar called “Beyond Pink,” Janelle Eagle, the director of development at JQ International, a Jewish GLBT community-building movement, and Elissa Barratt, a graduate student in public policy at UCLA, presented data from a survey they recently conducted examining how GLBT Jewish women maintain Jewish identity and how their religion affects their relationship with the LGBT community.
One of Eagle and Barratt’s findings show that LGBT women who are “most Jewishly engaged” — who go to synagogue and observe holidays and Shabbat — “are the most likely to be activists in the LGBTQ community.” Additionally, more than 50 percent of those surveyed have attended synagogue five or more times in the past 12 months, Eagle and Barratt’s data showed.
In Saturday seminars and in the lunch line, conversations veered toward virulently anti-Semitic, anti-gay picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church that had taken place on Friday night outside UCLA’s Hillel building. Warshaw said the picketing reveals an unsettling reality: That even if the prospect of gay marriage in California looks promising, there still exists discrimination against the GLBT community that can’t be ignored. Finding solutions must be a part of the world congress’s mission, she said.
Edwards said she believes the future of the congress lies in looking outward. Whether the issues of concern are gay marriage, establishing relations with the next generation of GLBT Jews or Israeli politics, Edwards said, the world congress must “continue being a world voice.”