When Dalia Fleming says LGBT+ Jews face exclusion from some parts of Anglo-Jewry, she is speaking from experience.
The new director of KeshetUK recalls that a couple of years ago she was pushed out of the female circle at a friend’s wedding by another guest, because of questions about her gender.
“I was wearing trousers and to them I looked like I didn’t belong there. They pushed me out and told me to get out of that space. It was horrible,” she says.
Dalia (she objects to the titles Ms or Miss and prefers to be referred to by her first name) says as the first full-time employee of the grassroots campaign group, she will work to ensure LGBT+ Jews no longer feel unwelcome in certain parts of the community.
She says: “There is still a lack of awareness around issues affecting LGBT+ Jews. We need more education about what to do within different institutions to make our community feel welcome.”
The 28-year-old activist, who will take up the post in November, said simple fixes such as “modifying the language on synagogue leaflets,” would boost inclusivity.
She explains: “Instead of having ‘mum and dad’ on a synagogue form, you can have parent one or parent two, for example.”
According to the activist, there is “a disconnect” between religious leadership and congregants’ values, particularly within an Orthodox framework.
“The LGBT+ community as a whole has come forward [in the wider world] but that has meant [out] Jews feeling abandoned by parts of the Jewish community.”
Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Josef Dweck, who faced criticism this summer over comments on gay love, should be encouraged to raise issues rather than be silenced on them, she says.
In a lecture, Rabbi Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, said although sexual intercourse between men was forbidden, they could love each other in other ways.
The row that followed was resolved only after the intervention of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
“What that controversy showed was that the community is not ready to hear these things talked about by a rabbi,” Fleming says.
“KeshetUK wants to support religious leaders to raise those questions.”
Dalia, who has volunteered with KeshetUK since 2012, admits that such a change in culture will be hard to achieve.
However, she is confident the charity could make it happen, even within “hard to reach places of the community”.
She says some older Jews still have the attitude that being homosexual is seen as inferior to being heterosexual.
“A lot of young people worry about how their families will react to them, and families worry about their children and question whether they can be successful [if they are gay]. Our job is to educate people to the answer, which is obviously ‘yes’.”
Drawing on her own experience as someone who identifies as “queer” — defined as someone who doesn’t identify with traditional categories around gender identity and sexual orientation — she recalls coming out to her parents.
“When I came out to my dad he said: ‘That is a bit silly because you’re going to make a good mum’.
“His initial response was of fear that I would miss out on that opportunity. But I explained to him that I still will be a good mum.
“Both my parents are over 50, they were alive when being gay was illegal to talk about in public. That generation has a lot to catch up on.”
She says Jewish schools across the community had responded well to advice on how best to support its LGBT+ pupils.
“One of the things we do is work on how schools deal with reports of homophobia and how it is taken seriously. They are generally really good at dealing with it.”
Jewish institutions feel most inclusive when they have visible LGBT+ people in them, she says.
“It makes it clear to people that these are safe spaces for them. It sounds obvious, but if your synagogue or organisation doesn’t have LGBT+ people in it, then it doesn’t look like a place they can be free.”
Dalia, who grew up in a traditional Orthodox environment in north London and went to JFS, says she sometimes feels nervous in traditional settings. “I ask myself ‘am I meant to be here, how am I meant to look?”
It is those “challenging” settings that KeshetUK wants to reach.
“There are LGBT+ Jews in every part of the community whether they are visible or not. It is about reducing harm to them. If people are willing to have conversations with us, then that is the start.”
She says it is wrong to assume the most liberal are the most inclusive.
“Often it is those communities that make assumptions about their inclusivity.”
She warns of the danger of the view among some more religious Jews that LGBT+ members undergo “conversion therapy” with a view to “curing” their sexuality.
“They are wrong and they do nothing but cause harm to people. They alienate and drive people away,” she says. “People should not be made to feel as though they have to pick between their identity as a Jew or someone who is LGBT+. I don’t believe there is a choice.”
Dalia, who will build on the charity’s training, education and advocacy work, says her main aim as director was to engage with communities and organisations KeshetUK has yet to work with.
“We will talk to anyone and we won’t expect the impossible.”