The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco has established a gay and lesbian division, the first of its kind in the nation.
Sharing the same tier as JCF affinity groups such as the women's and young adult divisions, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance will provide outreach, programming and leadership training to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews living in the Bay Area.
Psychotherapist Danny Givertz will run the division — a federation fund-raising campaign category — as its sole paid staff member, working almost full time with the help of volunteers.
The alliance is an outgrowth of the JCF's gay and lesbian task force, which was formed by the board in 1997, catapulting queer issues onto the local federation's agenda.
Many feel the founding of such a division in the Bay Area reflects the legitimacy of a visibly growing population not always recognized within the organized Jewish establishment nationwide.
"Just like Russian or Israeli emigres, the Jewish gay and lesbian community needs to be reached — and they need a provider to reach them," said Alvin Baum, an openly gay JCF board member and chair of the former task force. "The JCF board all agreed it was a good idea, as they did when we started the task force. I certainly hope…other federations will follow our lead."
Task force co-chair Maxine Epstein, also director of the JCF's Marin regional office, noted that she has already spoken with federation officials in New York, Boston and other cities and "they're thrilled with the idea — they want to follow suit."
The alliance was formed after Baum and Epstein appealed to the Jewish Community Endowment Fund last spring for a grant. After it was given and the JCF's board approved the division, preliminary work began in the fall, with Givertz coming aboard in December.
The 36-year-old director has been an active part of both the Jewish and gay communities of San Francisco since 1988. With the alliance's support, Givertz said, he envisions a vibrant and active LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Jewish community that merges its queer and Jewish identities, rather than letting one or the other go by the wayside.
"It's a huge universe we're going to be serving, from a 21-year-old college Berkeley lesbian, to a 45-year-old gay male couple raising kids, to an elder living alone who has lost an enormous amount of his community to AIDS," said Givertz. "The alliance will be a way to connect this very diverse community."
Like the other federation campaign divisions, Givertz said it will be solely up to individuals throughout the entire Bay Area to become involved with the alliance. "We will just give them the opportunity."
But while outreach will extend to areas beyond the JCF's reach, particularly college campuses like U.C. Berkeley, fund-raising, he said will not — so as not to infringe on other federations' territories.
Pioneering the establishment of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance was "a natural next step" for the federation, according to JCF President John Goldman.
"What we are seeing is a culmination of a process going on over some years in which our federation has taken a leadership role in engaging gay and lesbian Jews in our activities," he said.
In addition to the task force, the JCF once made a loan to Sha'ar Zahav, the Reform congregation known for welcoming LGBT Jews, to construct their Dolores Street synagogue.
"We've had several board members heavily involved in greater participation in the gay and lesbian community, including support for education programs," Goldman added. "Now we are memorializing the groundwork that has been done in the past."
Givertz, a New England native, agreed that this move was not wholly out of the blue, especially in San Francisco.
"The board of directors is full of big machers in the Jewish community, mostly straight," Givertz explained. "But when I was introduced, there was a genuine feeling of 'We are so ready for this.'"
According to Givertz, 35,000 of the estimated 275,000 Jews in the Bay Area, or close to 13 percent, are queer-identified. Although gathering data on the gay population is difficult, as many people are still unwilling to disclose their sexual identity, Givertz' approximation is significant since gays are widely believed to compose only 10 percent of the overall population.
Still, Sha'ar Zahav's membership is roughly 550 Jews, with a fair number of heterosexuals included in that number. While there are LGBT Jews in the Bay Area affiliated elsewhere — Givertz, for instance, belongs to the Jewish Renewal Chavurah or "Queer Minyan" — there are nonetheless thousands, he said, who are uninvolved.
Baum and Epstein agreed that the disproportionately low numbers of affiliated queer Jews was too monumental an issue for the task force to have handled alone. While it was a step in the right direction towards engaging Jewish gays, they said, a few volunteers without a real budget were not enough to handle snowballing enthusiasm.
"The task force was a specific group with a specific mission, but it was beginning to pale over time because we could not give it our full attention," noted Baum. Added Epstein: "It needed much more than we could give it [as volunteers]."
In other words, they wanted a budget and programming, to be run by a committed director.
Givertz, born and raised in a Conservative Jewish household in Portland, Maine, comes from a 500-year lineage of rabbis, ending with his grandfather.
An avid hiker with a background in modern dance, he came out for the first time to his parents — both raised Orthodox — while he was working towards his bachelor's degree in religious studies at Brown University.
Coming out "was probably one of the hardest experiences of my life," recalled Givertz, who also has a master's degree in social work from Smith College.
"I was up most the night with my parents and they were deeply disturbed. They were incredibly worried about me getting HIV."
He moved to San Francisco 12 years ago, "to have my second 'coming out' — a pilgrimage as a young gay man."
Givertz later established a successful private psychotherapy practice that he continues to run today. He also became involved "with a wonderful Jewish boyfriend," and hopes to eventually become a father.
His parents, meanwhile, "have grown more and more comfortable" with his sexuality.
With this first-hand knowledge of a difficult family experience, he intends for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance to conduct outreach to the loved ones of lesbian and gay Jews as well as lesbians and gay Jews themselves.
Primarily, the alliance will offer specifically tailored programming, including ongoing mixers for singles and a lecture series of internationally renowned gay and Jewish scholars. Plans are currently under way to hold a screening of "Trembling Before G-d," a film about homosexuality and Orthodoxy, including a discussion with Sandi DuBowski, the film's director.
Givertz also wants to help foster the relationship between local queer Jews and the burgeoning community of San Francisco's sister city in Israel, Kiryat Shmona. The relationship was forged during the last queer-themed JCF mission, the 2001 Journey of Pride, chaired by Baum. Prior to that trip, many Israeli gays and lesbians of the northern development town were isolated from one another; since meeting with their San Francisco counterparts, Baum said, the Israelis have begun to build community by establishing support groups and social gatherings.
Leadership development within the local community as well as the encouragement of philanthropic endeavors are other items high on Givertz' agenda.
If the LGBT community plays an active roll in fund-raising, "expanding the federation's campaign," he believes the federation will "in turn, give back to us."
He also believes that cultivation of these areas will help lesbian and gay Jews to become more visible in mainstream political, religious and social arena, thereby fostering a more inclusive and welcoming environment.
"Soon it won't be so odd to see a lesbian president of a Jewish federation," said Givertz. "My sense is there are probably gay and lesbian Jews out there right now who have the capacity to do it; we just haven't gotten there yet historically as a community."