JFSA LGBT group moving beyond inclusion

Ten years ago, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona became one of the first federations in North America to reach out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jewish community by creating an LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project. On June 26, 2015, when a Supreme Court decision extended marriage rights to gay people across the United States, the Federation celebrated in an email that announced the project was changing its name to JFSA Pride.

“When the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project originally began in 2005, it was a different world and the goal was to increase the awareness and acceptance and to create a welcoming community for LGBT Jews,” says Ed Leven, who was the group’s first coordinator 10 years ago and returned to the role in the summer of 2014.

“The primary focus was working with the synagogues and Jewish communal organizations to help them create a more welcoming environment for LGBT people. That goal has largely been accomplished,” says Leven.

JFSA Pride will be a task force within the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council and will work on planning large, collaborative events like last year’s talks by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, explains Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO. Holiday-oriented events, such as Passover seders and Yom Kippur break fasts, will be led by volunteers.

JFSA’s 2002 Jewish population survey made Federation leaders “aware that so much of our population was not connected,” says Mellan. In 2004, an informal LGBT Jewish network called the Gertrude Stein Salon organized a forum to connect local synagogues with the gay and lesbian community, which “led us to think that as part of our outreach efforts into the community, and as part of our efforts to celebrate diversity and be welcoming, that there was a place for what we created, which was the JFSA LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project.”

“Right now it’s clearer than ever that the Federation is stronger” because of the involvement of the LGBT community, says Mellan. “We have leaders around the table today whose entry point was the project.”

That sentiment resonates with Thomas Sayler-Brown, chair of the new JFSA Pride steering committee, who has served on the inclusion project’s board for the last two years.

Sayler-Brown moved to Tucson from Orange County, Calif., in 1991. In California, he had created his own gay-lesbian chavurah because he didn’t feel welcomed by local synagogues. In Tucson, busy with his career as an architect, he didn’t try to form a chavurah, but was happy when the Federation started its inclusion project. “It was a great place to have social interaction and spiritual and religious interaction with other gay Jews,” he says.

He didn’t get involved in a leadership role until Ellen Freeman, the project’s coordinator from late 2012 until early 2014, began to expand the group’s focus with events that reached out to the broader community.

One of these was a three-day visit by Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox institution, Yeshiva University in New York. Ladin wrote about her transition in a 2012 memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.” Temple Emanu-El and the University of Arizona’s Institute of LGBT Studies, Poetry Center and Hillel Foundation cosponsored her talks.

The Masha Gessen events also had multiple sponsors, says Steve Zupcic, past chair and current program chair of JFSA Pride, allowing the project “to reach out beyond the LGBT community and beyond the Jewish community. Throwing the net so broadly, we’re able to capture LGBT Jews who otherwise weren’t particularly affiliated with the Jewish community.”

When Zupcic moved to Tucson five years ago, he had more than 40 years of experience working in community relations for the University of Pittsburgh’s chancellor’s office. He was out as a gay man in Pittsburgh, but “the social atmosphere was one of don’t ask, don’t tell,” he says. By contrast, he finds Tucson “an interesting blue island” in the midst of “ultra-red, conservative” Arizona.

For Freeman, discovering the Federation’s LGBT group was a revelation. She grew up in a Conservative Jewish family near Boston, got married in the temple where she’d attended Sunday school and had a daughter who became a bat mitzvah there.

Some years later, with her daughter an independent young adult in New York, Freeman moved to Tucson with her wife, Roe.

“My past experiences with the Jewish community had been limited to traditional families, and we were at this point, anything but traditional,” she says. “As a lesbian, mixed faith couple, and based on past experience from the East Coast, I made the assumption that there was not a place for us at any local synagogue.  I also knew nothing about the Federation, here in Tucson or anywhere, and so I observed the High Holy Days alone at home, fasting on Yom Kippur and breaking the fast eating my bagel and cream cheese alone with my wife.

“Was I wrong!  After living in Tucson for a few years, I heard about an upcoming annual meeting of the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project at JFSA.” She and Roe attended “and were introduced to individuals, couples and non-traditional families just like us.”

When Freeman learned that the coordinator’s position was vacant, she applied for the job. “I still thank Stu Mellan for taking a chance on me,” she says, explaining that she had ample business experience but no connections in Tucson’s Jewish community. She spent the next few months meeting with local rabbis and attending services.

“Much to my surprise, the assumption I had made about not ‘fitting in’ as part of a synagogue was so totally incorrect.  I realize now that I had not even given the community a chance, and at the same time, that the community had not done a good job reaching out to me” — something she strove to rectify with events such as Ladin’s visit, which “was tremendously successful and set the stage for all our future programming.”

As JFSA Pride moves forward, “we don’t want to be assimilated … gay and lesbian people enjoy socializing with each other; we like being part of a family together,” explains Sayler-Brown, who has hosted the LGBT Yom Kippur break fasts for the past three years. “We want to be inclusive of everybody, instead of this separate group of people who are being included in. We’re being a little more proactive at being a part of the overall community.”

People may need to examine their language, he says, and not speak of “men, women — and the gay group over there. We’re men and women, and transgender, and all those other terms. We’re part of the community.”

Sayler-Brown plans to carry JFSA Pride’s banner in the Pride parade in downtown Tucson on Oct. 10. Long-term, he, Zupcic and Freeman, who is vice chair of the JFSA Pride task force, have a number of ideas in the works. In February 2016, working with partners including the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, they’ll present “Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel,” with Michael Kagan, former director of a refugee rights clinic at the University of Tel Aviv law school. “What was done in the past by the inclusion project,” notes Zupcic, “was very appropriate” for that time and place. “And now things are evolving forward. Who what have ever thought, just three years ago, that marriage equality would have happened so rapidly?”

For her part, Freeman says her involvement with Federation, where she is currently a board member, also sparked changes on her personal Jewish journey. She joined Congregation M’kor Hayim, learned Hebrew and became a bat mitzvah. She and Roe traveled to Israel for the first time on the Federation’s leadership mission in July. Freeman was invited to serve on the board of Keshet, a national organization working for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life. “And, last but not least, I don’t have to eat my bagel alone anymore.  I found my Jewish family in Tucson.”