‘I am proud that Jewish students are now seeing LGBT+ role models’

Dalia Fleming, the outgoing CEO of KeshetUK, speaks to the JC about how the Jewish community is changing in its attitude towards its LGBT+ members


Dalia Fleming, KeshetUK's first ever executive director, who is leaving the organisation this summer (Photo: KeshetUK)

When Dalia Fleming joined Keshet UK as its executive director in 2017, she was determined to tackle the exclusion felt by LGBT+ Jews from some parts of Anglo-Jewry.

Six years later and lots has changed “for the better”, reflects the former RSY-Netzer leader, as she gets ready to say goodbye to the charity for a job in social housing in local government.

“I am still going to volunteer of course,” she says. “It goes without saying. I love Keshet UK and what we have achieved.”

Dalia, 35, says her “proudest” achievement has been Keshet UK’s efforts with the UK's Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, to produce the first ever guide for Orthodox Jewish schools to improve the wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pupils.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that is the proudest moment of my career so far and maybe my life. The significance of that should never be underestimated,” she says.

Dalia was instrumental in working with the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue to produce the guide, which aims to reduce potential harm to LGBT+ pupils across the community.

“It was years and years of conversations and building trust,” she explains. “Keshet UK is an organisation that wants to understand who we are working with and what they need.”

“We want people to know we there to call them in and not call them out. It is not about what they are doing wrong,” she insists.

“The guide that we did with the Chief Rabbi was really inspiring and I think it has enabled more schools in the Orthodox world and mainstream Orthodox communities to talk and to learn and try to understand LGBT+ Jews."

She notes that “[Rabbi Mirvis] is the only rabbi in the world of his standing to have said what he said, and for him to have done that is huge.”

Following the publication of the guide, the Chief Rabbi released a statement, saying: “Our children need to know that at school, at home and in the community, they will be loved and protected regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.”

The education and training charity works across the Jewish community to ensure that Jewish LGBT+ people and their families are included throughout Jewish life in the UK and Dalia says she has seen how the Jewish community has grown in its “thoughtfulness” to LGBT+ members over the years.

There are LGBT+ people across the Jewish spectrum and Keshet UK’s role is to support them, when she was a teenager at JFS, that wasn’t the case.

“I didn’t know you could be an adult LGBT+ Jewish person, she says. “I am proud that students are now seeing LGBT+ Jewish role models and they can be themselves and share their stories.”

The charity’s main passion is education and Dalia is excited that the incoming director will be able to continue with the charity’s latest work in developing training and education platforms for parents and other adults who support young people.

“We realised as an educational organisation, we weren’t offering parents what we were already offering to students.”

“We often get parents who say to us: ‘I said this, and my kid yelled at me, and I don’t understand why.’”

“We are not offering therapeutic support, but we are offering an educational space. We want to enable parents to be able to make the decisions that are best for their families and their children.”

She says the charity recognises they are “not halachic experts”, but they are regularly approached by LGBT+ people planning life-cycle events and in need of support.

Keshet UK works with the different Jewish movements “in times of joy and grief so that the Jewish experience and the LGBT+ identity of congregants feels just as held.” 

“If someone has passes away in a same sex couple, we work with rabbis and individuals to see what that might look like in terms of a funeral in an Orthodox setting for example.

“If you are a trans person who has passed away, how does a rabbi do a eulogy that is respectful of that entire person's life. Rabbis often have these skills, but they haven’t transferred them onto these moments. And we can help them think about that.”

She says that small acts, such as acknowledging that Hebrew is “a very gendered” language and “creating a more neutral language” allows LGBT+ Jews to feel included.

“It is not about saying all Jewish spaces need to do this either. It is about saying the spaces in which a community’s halachic understanding and values enable them to, can do it proactively.”

Dalia knows what it is like to feel excluded in Jewish spaces having first come out to her peers at school before telling her own family.

“It took me some time to come out to my parents,” she says, recalling the moment she nearly did it in the car “on the way home from Brent Cross”.

“I realised it wasn’t the best idea to give someone big news while they are driving. So, I held my breath and when we got in and were sitting down, I said: ‘Mum, I am not straight, and I don’t want to tell Dad.’”

Her dad, who was a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine, had previously said some things that were “quite painful”, which had put her off telling him about her sexuality.

“I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond, and I only knew one person who had come out, and their parents had not responded well,” she says.

Her mum kept her secret, and, at the time, Dalia says she didn’t recognise that was an act of “accidental allyship”.

She says: “I didn’t consider what it would be like not to tell your best friend, the man you're married to. She probably wanted to, and she didn’t.”

Some years later, when Dalia was at university, she came out to her dad with the encouragement of her brother and mother.

He dad’s response was: “’Well that is silly,’” she says. “It isn’t the worst response, but it was not the best.”

His concern for his daughter was, she says, that she would not be fulfilled or have a family.

She explains: “He was in his 70s at this point, and he genuinely didn’t think I could be very happy and live my life how I wanted to. It took a bit longer for him to understand and get used to it.”

But the moment she brought home a partner home who was able to help her dad use his computer, he soon understood the relationship dynamic was the same as with any couple.

“For some people, it is so much outside their sphere of knowledge that you can understand why they are worried for you.”

Despite progress in the Jewish community, she says it remains difficult for some LGBT+ Jews to come out, and many are “forced” to choose between their LGBT+ identity and Jewish one. But, says Dalia: “It is not a choice, is it. You are both at the same time.”

She thinks rabbis are in better places today to support congregants thanks to “access to information, but I do think it depends. The stats still show that it is harder in faith communities to come out.”

A few days after the interview, KeshetUK, together with West London Synagogue, announced that they would not be taking part in the Pride in London march this weekend after listening to members who “do not feel safe”. Instead, they will host Pride picnic for LGBT+Jews.

In previous years, a contingent of around 200 Jews have attended the march, but since October 7, pro-Palestinian groups such Queers for Palestine and some other LGBT+ marchers at the anti-Israel demonstrations have left many LGBT+Jews feeling intimidated and unwelcome. 

Earlier this month, Pride in London put out a statement on social media, accusing Israel of committing “genocide”.

Dalia acknowledged: “There are LGBT+ Jewish people struggling in certain places since October 7.

Personally, she has been “touched” by people who have reached out to her post-October 7 to offer support.

As for the position of LGBT+ Jews within the Jewish community, She says that Keshet UK will always try to “find the middle of the Venn diagram” when it comes to engaging Jewish organisations on LGBT+ issues.

“I hope the community continues to trust that we will meet them where they are and work in partnership with them rather than against.”

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