Interview with Keshet UK

Why does KeshetUK exist?

 

KeshetUK exists because we believe in a world where no one has to choose between their LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) and Jewish identity. We believe that Jewish communities should be nurturing, warm and welcoming places and they haven't always been for LGBT+ Jewish people.

 

There is often a lack of understanding about the problems LGBT+ can face. For example, nearly half (45 per cent) of LGBT+ pupils - including 64 per cent of trans pupils - are bullied for being LGBT+ in Britain's schools*. Those working in Jewish schools must be prepared with the tools and skills to ensure that LGBT+ Jewish young people are kept safe and feel valued as members of their community.

 

There are so many people in our communities who are dedicated to ensuring LGBT+ inclusion. However, in my experience the two biggest things that prevent people working on LGBT+ inclusion are fear (either of doing the wrong thing or others judging them for wanting to support LGBT+ Jewish community) or complacency (believing they already do enough or don’t have any issues). KeshetUK exists to help all people overcome their fear, and if necessary to challenge complacency, so people can make real change in their communities.

 

When was KeshetUK founded?

 

Since 2013, KeshetUK has been working within UK Jewish communities, supporting them to be more inclusive of LGBT+ people and their families. KeshetUK was established by a group of LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Jewish people who felt that there was a lack of explicit recognition of the existence and needs of LGBT+ people within the Jewish community In 2015 we became a registered charity, and our activities have grown substantially since then as UK Jewish communities have come to value LGBT+ inclusion and our role in supporting them to achieve it.

 

We currently have 3 paid staff -  me (Executive Director), Neil Levitan (our Director of Programmes who works part time) and our newest member of staff Kelly Waldorf (our Programme and Volunteer officer who started in January 2019), 5 wonderful trustees and a dozen very hard-working volunteers.

What do you do for the community?

 

Jewish communities in the UK already have great institutions to meet their people’s needs. KeshetUK doesn’t want to create a parallel system of institutions for LGBT+ people and their families. Instead we work with our schools, youth and young adult organisations, synagogues and wider Jewish community organisations to create Jewish communities that are inclusive of LGBT+ people and their families. We do this by running training, workshops, presentations, talks - we are a small team doing a huge amount!

 

We prefer to work across a whole organisation. For example - at a school we will work with senior leadership, carry out teacher training (including how to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying), co-produce curriculum and deliver programming directly to students. For a synagogue this would include religious and lay leadership, educators and youth leaders, as well as others who work at the synagogues such as security or reception staff. 

 

In our inclusion training we discuss the ever-evolving language and terminology about gender and sexuality, discuss scenarios that help people think through what they would do in particular situations and help people plan what they will do next about LGBT+ inclusion in their organisation.

 

We recognise and respect the religious diversity of our community, and this affects people’s approach to LGBT+ lives.  We believe that organisation and individuals need to set their own pace and set their own goals around LGBT+ inclusion. KeshetUK’s role is to support them in achieving this.  

 

Why is LGBT history month so important

 

For me personally, LGBT History Month is so important because without reflecting and appreciating our past, those that made change happen and how they made it happen it is harder to believe in and create change in the future.

 

It was little over 50 years ago that a Jewish Welsh MP (Leo Abse) helped pass the Sexual Offences Act (1967) which decriminalised being gay in this country. A lot has changed in a short period of time. Since then, LGBT+ people have gained many rights and protections that others took for granted. For example, it's illegal to be fired from a job in this country for being LGBT+ which is a protection many fought hard to gain.

 

With so much change in such a short period of time, we must ensure that changes goes beyond the law and into our hearts and minds. And changing culture takes a lot longer and can often be a lot harder than passing a bill in Parliament.

 

How can organisations help KeshetUK in achieving their aims?

 

Caring about LGBT+ Jewish people is a good start. Listening to Jewish LGBT+ people. Produce your services with the full range of diversity in your community whether that be LGBT+ people, or women, or Jews of colour. Finding out where there are problems and fixing them. And sometimes, there is power in recognising the harm that was done in the to LGBT+ Jewish people.

 

Where there is silence we must ensure that LGBT+ voices are heard. There are, and always have been, LGBT+ Jewish people in all organisations, in all communities. If they are invisible, if there is silence about LGBT+ lives, we must ask ourselves why that is and decide to act and create more inclusive communities.

 

Any words of wisdom for supporting LGBT+ people within our community?

 

Be proactive. We must not assume that because we are from a particular denomination that our community is any more or less inclusive than any other. We must not assume that it’s easy for LGBT+ Jewish people to walk into our communities and feel safe and welcome and included. Everyone has work to do when it comes to thinking about how we can make our communities more inclusive.

 

Having volunteered with KeshetUK for many years and now as Executive Director, I have been in awe of the compassionate people I have met within our community who aspire to do more for LGBT+ inclusion.

 

People are doing so much from so many traditions - Liberal, Masorti, Orthodox and Reform, and those who work in pluralistic and non-denominational spaces. The commitment and action across our community has inspired me greatly. 

 

It is incredible to see how far our community has come in LGBT+ inclusion over the last few years.  The demand for our work at KeshetUK currently far outweighs our capacity - which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because we do not currently have the capacity to help all those who need us and to do everything we’d like to be able to do. But a blessing because our community is working so hard to live by our shared values: kavod (respect), kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (that we are all responsible for one another) and b'tzelem elohim (being created in God's image). With the support of the community we know KeshetUK can grow so we can work together, bringing closer a world where no one will have to choose between their LGBT+ and Jewish identity.

 

*(REFERENCE Stonewall The Schools Report (2017 and The RaRe Research Report 2015 <http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/lgbt-facts-and-figures)


What are some of the big achievements that you KeshetUK have achieved over the past year?

 

This year we’ve been incredibly busy. We have done more than ever and it’s hard to put into words how grateful I am to all our volunteers, trustees and staff at KeshetUK. You can find out more about our year in our Annual Review, but we have run numerous training workshops with Jewish Organisations including PaJeS and the JLC.

We have worked for past year with the Chief Rabbi, Jewish LGBT+ people and Jewish Schools to produce 'The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools'. In the Guide, Chief Rabbi Mirvis describes the religious imperative for Orthodox Jews to safeguard the wellbeing of LGBT+ people, categorising it as an ‘absolute obligation’. To our knowledge, this is the first document of its kind anywhere in the world and is particularly remarkable for having been produced by the Chief Rabbi together with LGBT+ Jews.