By Sophie Panzer
A Washington-area pilot program to develop leaders among LGBTQ Jews is being launched nationally. The goal of the two-year-old Hineni Fellowship is to give young LGBTQ Jews the tools to take on leadership roles in their communities.
Hineni founder Rabbi Gil Steinlauf said he decided to create the program after he came out as gay to his Adas Israel Congregation, in 2014. He said he noticed that many progressive Jewish organizations wanted more diversity but struggled with LGBTQ engagement, particularly representation in leadership.
“Jewish organizations value inclusion very deeply and have opened their doors to the queer community,” said Steinlauf, now rabbi of Kol Shalom in Rockville. “However, they won’t be truly inclusive until they have LGBTQ Jews in positions of leadership.”
Hineni co-founder Stuart Kurlander also noticed a lack of LGBTQ representation in Jewish leadership.
“As I looked around at various boards, I knew there was a diversity of identities in our community, but I just wasn’t seeing many of them engaged in Federation or community organizations,” said Kurlander, an attorney who is active in building programs for LGBTQ Jews in Washington. “People felt they had this Jewish experience when they were younger but after they came out or got involved in a profession, they didn’t know how to continue to engage. This is also a challenge faced by converts and Jews of color.”
(Kurlander is a member of the owners group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.
Hineni fellows spent the 2018-2019 program in discussions about Jewish texts, spirituality, identity and history. They were guided by Hineni faculty.
“We introduce participants to a deep exploration of Jewish identity and LGBTQ identity,” Steinlauf said. “We want to bolster a sense of Jewish passion and draw from the vision of moral leadership Judaism promotes. Queer leadership has the potential to call out conventional mainstream to confront close-mindedness, and those values are very important to us.”
The fellowship culminated in a project designed to give the fellows the chance to use their skills in a community setting.
“We had participants implement LGBTQ programming in synagogues, Israel-related programs, museum projects of Jewish and LGBTQ history, alternative marriage and wedding options for couples, and work with the elderly,” Steinlauf said.
Hineni fellow Laurie Paul said she loved the discussion groups about Torah and grassroots organizing.
“Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, queer identities were very stigmatized in media and real life,” Paul said. “What was nice about the program was meeting Jewish people in the LGBTQ community and realizing that we had something valuable and unique to offer the Jewish community.”
Paul is a psychologist who used her research background to conduct a focus group among queer women and femme-identified people in the Washington area for her project. The participants were concerned that LGBTQ programming in their community was disproportionately geared toward gay men, so they started brainstorming ideas for new social opportunities like a wine and cheese Havdalah for LGBTQ women. They also came up with an online buddy system to make attending the D.C. Minyan less intimidating.
Steinlauf said engagement programs like Hineni are crucial as the Jewish community moves into the 21st century and becomes more diverse.
“There’s been a decrease in Jewish affiliation and synagogue membership,” he said. “The synagogue world is geared to married people with children. People who don’t fit these conventional standards — people who are young, single, of color, LGBTQ, disabled — are going to have a hard time engaging. We need people who understand the concerns of new generations at the table so the community can evolve over time.”
The national program will host an opening retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland in September. From there, fellows will attend bimonthly webinars and study sessions with guest speakers who are leaders in the LGBTQ community. There will be opportunities for small group discussions and a closing retreat in California in late spring of 2021.
Hineni is now accepting applications for the 2020-2021 fellowship year. For information, go to hineni-fellowship.org.