Survey to Jewish groups: How gay friendly are you?

by Adam Kredo, WASHINGTON JEWISH WEEK

Brynna Fish couldn’t have imagined that her wedding announcement would land her in the hot seat at work. 

But that’s exactly what happened after Fish placed her same-sex engagement in the Cleveland Jewish News.

A day after the announcement ran, Fish, 53, then an employee at the Jewish Family Services Association in Beachwood, Ohio, was chastised by her former boss for stirring up trouble.

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“I’m called into my supervisor’s office and scolded,” Fish recalled, explaining that some in the Orthodox Jewish community had phoned JFSA to complain about “how horrible it is that the agency would allow a lesbian to be employed and be blatant about it.”

Gays and lesbians have long been forced to tread lightly in the workplace, afraid that their sexual orientation could cost them their livelihood — a reality that many Jewish organizations are loath to admit, advocates maintain. For that reason, the Human Rights Campaign is launching a study on the workplace practices of approximately 300 Jewish nonprofits.

“The Jewish community has not stepped up in any major way” to end discriminatory practices and foster a gay-friendly work environment, said Adam Simon, associate national director for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which is helping to fund HRC’s study. Supporting grants come from Stuart Kurlander of Washington, D.C., Morningstar Foundation (Michael and Susie Gelman of Chevy Chase are managing directors) and an anonymous donor.

“The military has said it’s OK” to be openly gay, “but Jewish communities haven’t,” Simon said, adding that while the secular corporate world has made great strides toward inclusivity, there’s been little formal research on workplace attitudes and practices in Jewish nonprofits.

The suspicion, however, among many experts is that the Jewish community lags woefully behind the secular world in terms of implementing gay-friendly policies.

“The Jewish communal sector does lag behind other sectors,” said Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a Boston-based group that advocates on behalf of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Jews. “In general, not just on LGBT issues but others of inclusion, we’re in the very early stages of self-inquiry.”

To help speed the process along, the HRC will conduct a year-and-a-half-long survey of Jewish nonprofits nationwide. The initial report on the findings is slated to be released in 2012, and will closely mirror HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks the workplace atmosphere of the nation’s largest companies.

Jewish organizations, for example, will be rated based on whether they have nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation, offer health benefits to same-sex partners and provide employees diversity and sensitivity training, among others things.

Nonprofits also will judged based on their ability to deliver services fairly to the LGBT community, as well as on their materials such as forms, documents and PR campaigns are gender neutral.

Once the results have been tallied, Keshet and HRC will offer to help the less inclusive nonprofits boost their score by reforming their unfriendly policies and programs. Following the revamp, organizations will be given a second opportunity to complete the survey.

“There are some easy, basic and subtle signals that can show people this is a welcoming workplace, but these things aren’t always apparent to people,” noted Daryl Herrschaft, director of HRC’s Workplace Project.

It’s also a matter of altering entrenched workplace attitudes.

“I think there’s a particular resistance, discomfort or fear of LGBT issues in certain quarters of the Jewish community,” said Keshet’s Klein, explaining that it can take time to change some of the more “deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs” toward homosexuality.

Many organizations, Klein speculated, wish to improve, but lack the organizational know-how to do so.

“We’ll see that a lot of organizations don’t have these policies not because there’s actually opposition, but because the issue has never been brought up before,” said Klein.

Fish — who has long waged her own battle to change attitudes and policies in the Jewish workplace — believes the lack of progress on LGBT issues has much to do with fear.

“Nobody wants to ruffle feathers about anything,” Fish said, adding that in her experience, most Jews are passively accepting of gays and lesbians. “They don’t get it that translating that belief system into policy is necessary.”

But the HRC investigation, officials say, isn’t about embarrassing or demonizing nonprofits. It’s about helping them improve.

“Our goal is to help everyone treat their LGBT employees and clients fairly,” said HRC’s Herrschaft. Still, he said, “there will probably be discussions with folks who need convincing about why this [survey] is important.”

All of those involved believe the study has the potential to reshape the nation’s Jewish nonprofits for the better.

“In small Jewish town USA” and elsewhere, said Fish, “it’s going to inspire some parent with a lay leadership position or a Jewish gay person to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ “