Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
Keshet Board Chair, Seth M. Marnin, had the opportunity to talk with one of this year’s OUTstanding! NYC honorees, Chai Feldblum, about her journey as a Jew, a lesbian, and a leading advocate for civil rights.
Seth: Tell us about your Jewish journey.
Chai: I think some people develop a stronger sense of their Jewish identity over time. For me, I was born into an incredibly cohesive, comprehensive, all-encompassing Jewish space and identity. And then what I’ve done in my life is add on other pieces to that.
My father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and held a Ph.D in Talmudic Studies. He grew up in a small town in Lithuania, but at age fifteen, while World War II was going on, he escaped a massacre that killed everyone in his town, including his parents, his sister and an aunt and uncle. He survived the war, living in the forests of Poland with another aunt and uncle and their two children. After the war, many Jews could not come to the United States because of the quotas, and so my father’s aunt, uncle and cousins were not able to come to the U.S. My father was able to come because he was accepted to a yeshiva in Cleveland. He then went to Yeshiva University in NYC and got his smicha (rabbinical ordination) and ultimately his Ph.D.
My mother was the daughter of Rabbi Ephraim Yolles, the Samborer Rebbe of Philadelphia. It was a big deal that my mother married outside the Hasidic world, even though she was marrying an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. But my mother cared a great deal about being an intellectual, and after she got married, she went to college and got her master’s and then ultimately her Ph.D in History, with a focus on Jewish history.
So all that is a long way of saying that I grew up in a very Orthodox and very intellectual family. We did not grow up with a lot of money, but everyone in the family understood that learning was the most important thing, and everyone was expected to get at least some sort of advanced degree. Learning and a commitment to tikkun olam, making the world a better place, were the absolute foundations of my Jewish upbringing.
I became not observant — in the Orthodox Jewish term, I became not frum — when I was 18. Leaving the Orthodox Jewish world was traumatic in many ways, but it also enabled me to be exposed to and to live in other worlds that have brought me such joy — being able to recognize and understand that I am a lesbian and to live that truth fully, and to get a sense of other cultures I would not have known about in the same way. But I always remained very close to my father, to my Orthodox Jewish siblings, and very respectful of religious beliefs and practices.
Seth: So did you come out when you were in college or after college?
Chai: In college. I started Barnard College early, when I was 16. I spent my sophomore year at Michlalla, an Orthodox Jewish women’s seminary in Jerusalem, and then I came back to Barnard for my junior year. That is when I got exposed to the political world, to the feminist world, and to the feminist lesbian world.
This was 1977 to ‘78, really in the midst of the women’s movement, the women’s music movement — Holly Near and Cris Williamson. I reconnected with Sharon Kleinbaum, whom I had met several years before when I was a leader in NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth). At NCSY, I had been Sharon’s teacher on Rashi and other Jewish texts. At Barnard, I learned from Sharon about progressive politics, so it was a nice role-reversal!
Seth: That’s fantastic. You started to talk a little bit about the connection between your Jewish identity and your work for equality and justice. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Chai: To me there’s an absolute connection between my Jewish upbringing, my connection to Jewish values, and my commitment to equality for all people.
In terms of Jewish values, you need to care for yourself — because if you’re not for yourself, who will be for you; And if you’re only for yourself, who are you, right?
But it starts with caring for yourself, caring for your family, caring for your immediate community — which is often your Jewish community — and then caring for the world overall.
So once I decided I wasn’t going to have a career that was focused specifically on something Jewish — my first plan had been to get a Ph.D in Talmud, like my father, and be the first female Talmudic scholar — I definitely wanted to do something that would advance social justice.
I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1989. The AIDS epidemic hit in the beginning of the 1980’s and as a lesbian, I was part of that affected community. My work on AIDS led me to a commitment to disability rights at large.
It’s like every time that I personally saw an injustice that needed to be fixed, it mattered to me to fix it. And one of the things about fixing social injustices is that it is never just an individual effort. To make real social change, one must work with broad coalitions. I feel so grateful that I’ve been able to be part of those type of coalitions my whole professional career.
Seth: That leads very nicely into the next question: of which accomplishments are you most proud? You haven’t just been an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) Commissioner. You have a wonderfully long career working in a variety of areas within and outside the LGBTQ community.
Chai: As I said, accomplishments in the policy arena depends on working with fellow advocates and willing allies. I feel the two primary areas where I’ve been able to work in that way, and accomplish the most, are disability rights, which directly benefited people with AIDS and HIV, and non-discrimination protection for LGBT people. In both of these area, I was able to work legislatively in Congress and then in the administrative process at the EEOC.
As part of the coalition that worked to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I worked to craft and negotiate the bill, talking with lawyers across the country. I did that while I was a staff attorney for the ACLU AIDS Project, so I was coming to the work from the perspective of protecting people with AIDS, but using a law that would protect way more people than just people with AIDS, which was so important.
After the ADA passed in 1990, I started a Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown Law School and for over 18 years, my students and I represented various disability rights organizations before Congress and agencies. The biggest thing we did was work with the coalition to pass the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which restored the full definition of disability under the ADA.
And it was really gratifying to be able to continue my disability rights work at the EEOC. I feel my main accomplishment there was to help the agency issue a regulation to implement Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 501 requires the federal government to engage in affirmative action of people with disabilities. The regulation the EEOC issued put teeth into that requirement. If properly implemented, it can be a game changer in the employment of people with disabilities, particularly those with manifest disabilities who often get stopped right at the job interview stage.
On LGBT issues, I’ve again been lucky to have had the chance to work on both the legislative and administrative fronts. I started in 1992, working with the civil rights community to help draft a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There had been bills introduced every Congress for years, starting with the first bill introduced by Congresswoman Bella Abzug, that would have prohibited discrimination against gay people. But these were not bills that had the full support of the mainstream civil rights community, which was led then by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). So that’s what we were working on.
The first bill that we drafted with LCCR covered a broad range of areas, including employment, public accommodations and entities that got federal funding. As a political matter, we could not amend existing civil rights laws because people were afraid to open up those laws to amendments. So we wrote a free-standing bill, which is what we had done with the ADA. We hoped to have the bill introduced in June 1993, in time for the 1993 Gay Rights March on Washington. But the deal-making just wasn’t done by then. Another part of the problem was that we had our hands full with the gays in the military fight. President Bill Clinton had announced during his campaign in 1992 that he wanted to lift the ban on the service of LGBT people in the military. A few people created a new group called the Campaign for Military Service (CMS), designed just to support the President in making this happen. Tom Stoddard, an amazing leader, headed up CMS and I signed on as the Legal Director. So we were working on gays in the military fight and on the new gay civil rights bill at the same time. And then, as you know, Congress enacted the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law that summer, which required LGBT service members to stay closeted in order to remain in the military. Once that defeat occurred, the gay community had lost so much political momentum that the expansive gay rights bill had to be cut back to one that covered employment only. It was the only politically viable thing to do at the time.
For many years after that, I was the main lawyer who helped draft, negotiate, put in new provisions, often new compromises etc for the bill as it kept getting introduced each Congress. I was a Georgetown Law professor during this whole time. I had started my work on the gay civil rights bill as a consultant for the Human Rights Campaign Fund (as it was then called), and then continued my work as a consultant to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (as it was then called.)
I think it’s fantastic that politically the community has now been able to go back to introducing a full-blown expansive bill, the Equality Act, that covers all types of different areas. That is precisely the bill that should have been in play the whole time. And it is really great that this is a bill that amends existing civil rights laws, instead of having to be stand-alone bill.
The one other thing I would say about my journey in helping to draft this bill was that I was in the room from the beginning when we grappled with whether to include gender identity in the bill. My personal journey on this has tracked the bill’s journey. When I helped draft the first version of the bill in 1992, I felt we didn’t need to include gender identity because it was obviously a form of sex discrimination that was already prohibited. But over the following years, I changed my position and helped others to change theirs.
I felt that if Congress was going to pass a new law, it had to cover both sexual orientation and gender identity despite the understandable greater political problems with getting such a bill passed. To me, as a matter of an ethical, moral position, the law had to cover both.
And, of course, gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, but so is sexual orientation discrimination! So my final accomplishment in this area has been to help the EEOC move to what to me is a common sense position — that the prohibition on sex discrimination, absolutely, just by sheer common sense, includes a prohibition on discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. If the Supreme Court validates that legal position in the cases it is hearing this fall, that will be one way to get to protection. And if the Supreme Court rules otherwise, it will just create greater energy to have Congress pass the Equality Act.
Seth: Agreed, agreed. And I would also think that so much of that work had the effect of changing hearts and minds in the country, which is in of itself a win…
Chai: Yes, absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned that. In terms of accomplishments, I do think about the writing I’ve done about moral values. I created a website called moralvaluesproject.org to spread the message that we should not just be asking for tolerance, we should not just be asking for equality. Loving is a positive moral good.
Seth: Were there things that you felt like you were unable to finish in your time at the EEOC that you hope either future administrations or other entities are able to move forward and to accomplish?
Chai: There were tons of things I wanted to do. One was to take a good look at the gender guidelines that the EEOC had developed. Those were last updated in the 1980’s and they need another update. I would have liked to have looked at some of the dress code issues. I don’t see us getting rid of dress codes altogether. But I would have wanted to look at cases like the Jersperson one, where a woman was forced to wear makeup on the theory that it’s not more of a burden for women to put on makeup than for men to put on ties. That needs to be looked at.
I also did a lot of work trying to help the agency structurally through strategic planning. If I were ever back at the agency, my top priority would be to get a huge infusion of money into the agency. There are so many good things the EEOC could do, and could do better, but not without a real infusion of money from Congress.
Seth: Shifting a little to something that’s quite near and dear to my heart — Keshet. Last year, Keshet had a huge impact on a win on the ballot initiative to protect trans rights in Massachusetts. We turned out more folks to canvass and show up at events than any other organization in the state. And so, I’m curious about your thoughts about how Jewish communities can make a difference.
Chai: I think it’s absolutely essential for the Jewish community to stand up, be present, and have its voice heard on issues of social justice. It’s both because of our history and our values. Our history — we know what discrimination feels like, we know what exclusion feels like, we know what being kicked out of one land after another feels like, so we have to be there for people who are experiencing oppression now.
And because of our values: whether you’re religious or not, the Jewish value of tikkun olam, of making the world a better place, is a huge part of who we are. I think we need to show up as the Jewish community on issues of social justice wherever they arise and whenever they arise.
Seth: Finally, what does receiving the Hachamat Lev award and honor from Keshet mean to you?
Chai: Well, it’s huge…It’s really a huge honor to get an award from Keshet. I wish my parents were still alive because I think they would get a kick out of it, they would think it was a wonderful thing. I think that’s because being Jewish is such a large part of who I am, and believing that we must use our Jewish heritage and culture to advance social justice makes a group like Keshet so important. So in terms of the work that Keshet does with individual Jewish LGBTQ individuals, which of course is who I am in terms of my identity, and then the work that Keshet does with institutions and organizations speaks directly to the things that I care about. So to get an award from an organization that carries two of my primary identities is absolutely wonderful.
Seth: That’s fantastic. Thank you. Thank you.
Chai Feldblum will be honored at Keshet’s annual OUTStanding! NYC 2019 Gala on November 12, 2019. To get your tickets, visit keshetonline.org/outstanding/