Conference of Gay And Lesbian Jews: Are Woman Issues on the Bottom of The Agenda?

Make no mistake, Jewish lesbians and gays have come a long way in a homophobic world. It’s just that the road to a world without hatred and discrimination stretches on and on.

That seemed to be the consensus at the 14th International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews, held in New York City last July. The conference was hosted by Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue.

Approximately 600 participants from all over the US and 13 other countries came to network officially, shmooze informally, and attend the three days jam packed with activities. The keynote address, given by knesset member Yael Dayan, was about the legislative gains made by lesbians and gays in Israel. The conference also included a film series, an art exhibition, and over 100 workshops. conveniently divided into “tracks” by subject or area of interest. From this list, participants could choose anything from “Queer Jews On-line,” to “Fighting Homophobia in the Jewish Community,” to “When a Rabbi Comes Out.”

Feminist workshops to choose from included “Jewish Lesbian Feminist Groups: Is There Anyone Else Out There?,” “Today’s Woman Taking Her Place in Synagogue Life,” and “A Feminist Re-Vision of the Shofar and Rosh HaShana.” Some of the female participants, however, felt that the woman/feminist track offered slim pickings compared to other tracks that focused on culture, identity, or theology.

One workshop, “Jewish Lesbian Feminism(s): Multiple and Shifting Identities,” erupted into something of a gripe session once participants discovered that the leader of the workshop was heterosexual. “Where are the lesbians to lead this group?” asked one woman, chastising lesbians for not playing a larger role in determining the content of the conference. “We could have had so much more for lesbian feminists,” she added.

Lisa (who did not want to use her last name) observed that many gay and lesbian gatherings tend to be male centered. “It’s like we come together first to fight oppression because of our sexual orientation and then we can worry about ‘women’s issues’ afterwards,” she says. “Just as in other types of political movements, women’s struggle always gets pushed down to the bottom of the agenda.”

Not everyone felt this way. Justyn Lezin, of Hopewell, New Jersey, said in response to these complaints, “Women today are taking on more and greater leadership roles, and we are feeling more confident about being included in previously male dominated areas. As this happens, our focus is shifting away from the need to carve out woman-centered spaces. I don’t mean to say everything’s perfect, but we’ve got room to move around now.”

To others, the important aspect of the conference was the number and the unity of the people who came from around the world to participate. “Just being around so many Jewish lesbians and gays is amazing,” said Dina Cohen, who came with five other women from a Jewish lesbian feminist group in Adelaide, Australia. “We don’t know any gay Jewish men in Adelaide or of any other groups….To realize there are so many of us is heartening and exciting.”

Helen Berenger, who came with a group from London, felt the conference would inspire her to become more involved in Jewish lesbian and gay activities back at home. “Over the years, I just stopped doing things, and I want to make myself do things again.” Hoping that attending this conference will put her back on track, she adds with a good natured grin, “After all, this is a lot of money and I had to come all the way to New York.”

Ultimately, lesbians and gays alike gathered not to complain about what their community lacks, but to celebrate how far they’ve come. Yael Dayan said in her keynote speech, “I hope you will no longer have a conflict in having to choose who to be. You were born Jewish and born gay and lesbian. It’s not an ‘either/or’ situation.”

To find out about the 15th International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews—Dallas, ’97—contact Congregation Beth El Binah, 3615 N. Hall Street, Dallas, TX, 75219.