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Fain Honorable Mention - Moving Forward Together

Moving Forward Together

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
Boca Raton, FL
URJ District: South
Program contact: Rabbi Daniel Levin, Senior Rabbi

Program goals: 

The goal of Moving Forward Together was to bring awareness to the impact that the ongoing denial of civil rights means to the LGBT. By bringing together a panel of different leaders and personalities, our panel discussions sought to educate participants about the challenges of living as a gay man or woman in our society, issues facing LGBT teens, the legal challenges that gay individuals and families face, the legislative opportunities to advance the cause of civil rights, and the religious mandate grounded in text and tradition to promote the rights, integration, and humanity of the LGBT community. By pulling together a powerful, diverse, and compelling panel of leaders, we sought not simply to educate on the issues listed above, but also to promote our congregation as a place where LGBT individuals would feel welcome, validated, and supported.

Major program milestones:

Moving Forward Together began with a conversation in January of 2014 between Rabbi Dan Levin and the regional director of ADL about how we could work together to advance the cause of civil rights for the LGBT community, including rights surrounding marriage, employment and housing discrimination, and other areas of discrimination. We developed a co-sponsored program with a diverse panel, including a woman who had to travel to NYC to legally marry her partner of 20 years, ADL's regional counsel and legal advisor, the deputy director of Equality Florida, which advocates on for LGBT civil rights in Florida, and Rabbi Levin, moderated by ADL's regional director. The event was successful, and we decided to produce a similar event on a larger scale the following January, during the more active "season" in south Florida. For our second panel, we brought together a much more prominent panel, including noted CNBC personality Suze Orman; Mitchell Gold, well-known founder of Faith in America who counters religious based homophobia and anti-gay bigotry; Abraham Foxman, National Director of ADL; Nadine Smith, founder and CEO of Equality Florida and founding board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization; Jamie Schaefer, board member of Faith in America and community leader; Rev. Andrew Sherman, Episcopal priest, and Rabbi Levin. The panel discussion was held January 19, 2015 to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nearly 1,000 people attended the event, including several members of congress and local leaders.

How did this program engage your target audience or peripheral audience?

The program engaged the community by offering several powerful personal presentations by Suze Orman, Mitchell Gold, Jamie Schaefer, and Nadine Smith about their experience as gay men and women, and how the denial of civil rights has affected them and their experience. The program also brought to the audience's attention various pieces of legislation that they could encourage state legislators and the Florida governor to support. Lastly, the program brought two religious perspectives that helped the audience understand the religious imperative to work for civil rights for the LGBT and how to understand the biblical and religious texts that traditionally marginalized gay men and women.

The program also brought together Jews from beyond our congregation from across south Florida who wanted to learn and show their support for civil rights for the LGBT community. We also captured non-Jews from the community who sought to understand a religious perspective they do not hear in their own faith traditions and houses of worship. Lastly, the program inspired participation from a wide range of LGBT men and women who were moved to find a mainstream congregation and community that chose to be at the forefront of this struggle. In addition, the program was live-streamed to a group who were watching at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with whom Jamie Schaefer has a relationship.

Partnerships with outside organizations: 

Our co-sponsor was the regional office of ADL. Not only did we benefit from their advice and experience, we also were able to bring our congregation together with those who support the ADL around a shared cause. We also partnered with Equality Florida, who helped to publicize the event in the gay community. We also were sponsored by Northern Trust Bank, who helped fund our publicity.

Program leaders/coordinators:

The program was coordinated by Temple Beth El and the ADL - led by Rabbi Dan Levin, and Hava Holzhauer, ADL Regional Director

Budget (approximate): $10,000

Program outcome & success: 

A major part of the change in Florida and the US surrounding gay marriage and the struggle for civil rights requires the development of grass roots understanding and support. Our program brought together nearly 1,000 people to learn about the struggles gay men and women face from their childhood through adulthood, and how they can influence the political process. By having such a large attendance with coverage by local news media, our program not only affected the 1,000 people in attendance and the several hundred people who watched our live-stream at home and at ASU, we helped bring the message of equality and understanding to a large and diverse number of people. In addition, many people often believe that religious institutions are part of the impediment for civil rights and that religious teachings denigrate gay men and women. This panel discussion, by presenting both a Jewish and Christian religious ethic of love and inclusion, counters that misconception. Several people in attendance, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were literally brought to tears by the idea that religious voices would celebrate the inclusion of LGBT individuals.

In addition to bringing together nearly 1,000 people to show their support for civil rights for LGBT men and women, members of the community were educated on important legislation in the Florida legislature that will advance civil rights and freedoms for the LGBT community. Many important local businesses have begun to advance equal rights for LGBT employees, including Publix Grocery Stores, which is the largest private employer in Florida.

The feedback both we and ADL received has been extraordinary. Our pre-publicity and post-publicity in Social Media has drawn significant attention. So many people remained after the formal program to meet with members of our panel. Rep. Ted Deutch has begun plans to bring our panel to address Congress in Washington, DC.

How has this program strengthened your congregation?

This program has strengthened Temple Beth El in a variety of ways. First, we have made a very public statement to our congregation and the broader South Florida community that Temple Beth El is a congregation that not only integrates LGBT members into its community, but we celebrate them. Many in attendance told us that it was the first time they have felt comfortable in a synagogue in their lives. Secondly, LGBT members of the congregation felt particularly inspired that their own personal struggles were validated and given voice. Leading up to the program, a 20 year-old young woman came to meet with our senior rabbi to process her decision to "come out" as a lesbian. It was because of this program that she felt the synagogue and her rabbi were safe to explore this challenge in her life.

It is our hope that this panel discussion will be the catalyst to a broader program of advocacy for civil rights for LGBT men and women for our congregation and community.