Just How LGBT-Friendly Are We?

David Silverman / Getty Images

Jewish organizations got top marks on a groundbreaking LGBT inclusion survey released this week at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Baltimore, and initiated by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Fully 50 percent of participating groups received the highest rating possible, indicating that they are serious about welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews into their community. These findings are heartening, and definitely deserving of good press, but they may not be quite as encouraging as we’d like to think.

Participating in the Jewish Organization Equality Index, the Human Rights Campaign’s first-ever survey of LGBT inclusion within a faith-based community, were 204 organizations from across the U.S. and Canada: a wide range of national umbrella groups and local synagogues, youth programs and eldercare facilities. But, it should be noted, each of these organizations chose to be surveyed—a fact that may help to explain their impressively high scores.

“It’s a self-selecting group,” conceded Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of LGBT Jews. “And when we look at it that way, the picture is a little less rosy.” She added, though, that quite a few organizations did push themselves to participate in the survey, knowing that they had not yet achieved full inclusion. But there was one sector of the organized Jewish world that did not participate at all.

That no survey submissions were received from Orthodox institutions was “not surprising,” according to Klein, who noted that “change is definitely happening in the Orthodox world, but it’s happening at a slower pace than in the rest of the Jewish world.” She said the change is happening in one-on-one conversations in families, with rabbis, and within yeshivas in small groups—not publicly. “But I believe that not too long from now—within our lifetimes—we will see the first straight Orthodox rabbi officiate at same-sex marriages.”

Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and the author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, said in a phone call Friday that there shouldn’t be disappointment around the lack of Orthodox participation in the survey.

The Orthodox community may not wish to be surveyed, he explained, “because participating identifies one as being principally in favor of something that's at the very least a huge question mark, and in the eyes of some, potentially quite negative.”

Orthodox institutions may also be concerned about how the survey would portray them, if they were to participate. After all, an index like this has the potential both to ratify and to shame, to laud an organization or to suggest that it isn’t making big enough strides. “It's like an audit,” Rabbi Greenberg said, “that’s what this is."

Like Klein, he expressed confidence that change will happen in the Orthodox world, just not in the same way. "In the Orthodox community, welcome will travel a different path,” he said. "I know many rabbis who will say very compassionate things one-on-one, but are nervous about saying them in public. They're not ready to make a broad and clear statement on gay identity. And the best response to that anxiety is to avoid being counted."