The Forward 50
Keshet’s Executive Director, Idit Klein, has been named to the Forward 50, The Jewish Daily Forward‘s annual list of American Jewish leaders who have made an impact on Jewish life. Idit is not the only LGBTQ Jew on the list this year. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but the lead honoree this year was none other than Edith Windsor, the 84-year-old whose Supreme Court case struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act!
In less than two decades, Keshet has evolved from a small grassroots group in Boston advocating the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jewish life to a nationwide organization that, today, operates on a $1.7 million budget and has educators in over 200 Jewish communities across the country.
Much of this success can be attributed to Idit Klein, 40, who became Keshet’s first executive director in 2001. Shocked by a wave of LGBT teen suicides in the 1990s, Klein envisaged eliminating the roots of discrimination by raising the awareness of teachers and parents as well as by boosting the confidence of LGBT youth.
Under her leadership, the organization developed a training curriculum for inclusion, which teaches community leaders about Jewish perspectives on sexual orientation and how to respond to homophobic bullying, among other topics. Keshet also offers support and networking opportunities for Jewish LGBT youth, LGBT parents and, since 2012, parents of LGBT youth.
In 2010, Keshet merged with Jewish Mosaic, a Denver-based Jewish LGBT inclusion organization. In June 2011, Keshet opened its third office in San Francisco.
Klein was the executive producer of the 2005 documentary “Hineini: Coming Out In A Jewish High School,” which screened in more than 14 countries. It depicts the struggle of a lesbian ninth grader, and, according to Keshet, inspired several LGBT youths and their parents to address the issues they faced in their communities.
This spring, a writing contest organized by Keshet lead to the publication of “The Purim Superhero,” the first English LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book. The first printing sold out within months.
Yesterday we introduced you to the great new series on transgender Jewish identity published by the Forward. It’s the first comprehensive exploration of this topic we’ve seen by a mainstream paper in the Jewish community.
I spoke with Naomi Zeveloff, editor of the series, while it was in its early stage of conception. I caught up with her again, curious to learn more about the impetus for this groundbreaking series and what she learned while working on it.
What inspired you to put together this series on transgender Jewish identity?
At the Forward and elsewhere, I have done a lot of reporting on sexuality, gender identity and religion. A few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender issues are the “new frontier” for the Jewish community. I was also seeing a lot of stories about transgender people and issues in the secular press at the time. This got me thinking about the experience of transgender Jews — did they feel welcome in liberal Jewish settings and elsewhere? Were they creating community of their own? Did Jewish practice facilitate gender transition? These were massive questions to start out with. Luckily, I had an assistant to help me: Michael Berson, the 16-year-old son of a Forward board member, did extensive research on the topic for me. From there, I developed the ideas that became the five stories that we ran in our Transgender and Jewish series.
Did anything surprise you in your work on this? What stories most impacted you?
I was surprised by how forthcoming my sources were. I expected to have a very difficult time with access, given the sensitivity of the issue, but I found that most of the trans Jews I interviewed were willing and even eager to speak with me. It’s a very small, connected community, and, I think, once one person felt comfortable speaking with me then other people opened up as well.
Learning more about gender transition was a moving experience. It’s a very serious undertaking, and demands deep introspection. I have tremendous respect for people who transition genders, who take it upon themselves to know and understand themselves at such a profound level.
Some of my favorite stories came from Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first out transgender rabbi, who told me about doing pastoral work with elderly cisgender and transgender Jews. He told me, “I say as a joke that to a lot of elders I am not more surprising than an iPhone. It’s like, this is what a phone looks like now, and I guess this is what a rabbi looks like now.” Kukla said that people underestimate the capacity for empathy in others. But he shows up with empathy and expects and is very often given empathy in return. I found that attitude very impacting, and very hopeful.
What has the response been to the series?
Our series got some national attention, from GLAAD and from the folks at Sirius XM, where I was a guest on the Mike Signorile show about LGBT issues. I haven’t heard much from transgender readers of the Forward. I’m very curious to know what they liked and didn’t like about the series, and what they feel we could have done differently or do in addition. I see this series as a jumping off point for the Forward to report more comprehensively on gender and sexuality.
Want to see more reporting on transgender Jewish identity at the Forward?
Have a comment/compliment/complaint about any of the articles? Leave a note in the comments or shoot Naomi an email.