B.D. Wahlberg, like many other millennial Jews, would love to be dating another Jew.
But for Wahlberg, it is difficult to find someone with whom the recent University of Pittsburgh grad has enough in common, and the Jewish community here, so far, has not been of much help.
Wahlberg, a native Pittsburgher who identifies as “nonbinary transgender,” says that for them (Wahlberg’s preferred pronoun) and for other LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Jews, communal organizations set up to encourage connections among young members of the tribe are falling short.
If that trend continues, those young Jews may become turned off to Judaism altogether, Wahlberg said.
“We need to see an obvious sign that it is OK to exist, or we back away out of fear of not being accepted,” Wahlberg explained, emphasizing the difficulty of being both LGBT and Jewish. “We’re a marginalized group within a marginalized group. We’re discriminated against as Jews, and we are discriminated against as queer. Only another queer Jew would understand that.
“There is no question that I want to date someone I really connect with, and only another Jew would understand some of our Jewish experiences, plus what it is like to be a queer Jew,” Wahlberg continued. “I’d love to have a Jewish household and marry another queer Jew and raise kids with great role models.”
According to Gallup, 3.8 percent of the adult population in the United States identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. If Pittsburgh’s Jewish population hovers around 42,000 — based on a 2002 survey, the most recent figure available — there could be approximately 1,600 Jews in Pittsburgh who identify as part of the LGBT community.
And yet, there is an admitted lack of organized programming for this group.
“We definitely don’t do enough,” said Ronna Peacock Pratt, director of J’Burgh, an arm of the Hillel Jewish University Center, which works to connect young Jews who work or study in the area. “We go to the [Pittsburgh] Pride[Fest] every year, but we really should be providing a more robust set of programming.”
The Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh’s Young Adult Division likewise has no programming specifically for LGBT millennial Jews, according to Jason Oppenheimer, the director of that division. The only related programming that Oppenheimer could point to was a Federation event held in solidarity with the LGBT community in response to the terror attack at an Orlando, Fla., gay bar earlier this summer.
And while the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is focusing “on treating people as holistic and integrating people into the community,” there are no current efforts to create programming geared specifically to LGBT Jewish millennials, according to Rabbi Ron Symons, the JCC’s senior director of Jewish life.
“Everything is open to everyone,” Symons said. “It’s more about integration than separate programming.”
Yet, programming specifically geared to the needs of millennial LGBT Jews is desired by at least some members of that community.
“They don’t have enough programming,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation, basing her conclusion on conversations she has had with young LGBT Jews. “The Jewish community needs to help. I know of nothing being done. And I think this is an opportunity. I know a good half-dozen people under 25, and I’d like to find a way to get them together. This is an unaddressed need.”
David Warga, a member of Pittsburgh’s young LGBT community who works as the rabbi’s assistant at Congregation Beth Shalom, agrees.
“Aside from the Orlando event, I haven’t see any programming [for the LGBT community] since I’ve been back in Pittsburgh,” Warga said, who returned to the city in 2012. “I’m on the lists of most of the Jewish organizations in town — Shalom Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation, The Chronicle. I have never seen anything there reaching out to LGBT Jews, [and] not just millennials.”
Although organizations such as Shalom Pittsburgh and J’Burgh support the LGBT community by participating in PrideFest, “the pride parade is not outreach,” Warga said. “There has to be active engagement.
“Look, its hard for someone to find a Jewish partner, if that’s important to him,” he continued. “It’s even harder to find a LGBT Jewish partner. It’s helpful to have these types of programs so that LGBT Jews can meet each other. It’s great that LGBT Jews join a club on campus or attend Shalom Pittsburgh events. But I think that hanging out with people who don’t really understand your experience — you come in and automatically you feel like an outsider.”
Warga contrasted Jewish Pittsburgh’s lack of offerings for its LGBT community with that of Washington, D.C., where he lived from 2002 to 2007. In 2006, about a year before he left Washington, GLOE, the Kurlander Program for GLBTQ Outreach & Engagement, was launched at Washington’s Jewish Community Center. GLOE holds about 40 programs a year, including in the areas of arts and literature, community service, holidays, social justice and social events. It was the first program of its type through a JCC.
“Even in its early stages, you could tell it was something people wanted,” Warga said. “Washington is a bigger community, but people were thirsty for the programming.”
Programming for LGBT Jews is important beyond providing a place for them to meet each other, according to Warga. “When you start to do specific programs for LGBT Jews, it makes people feel included into the community at large, and makes them want to be included in that community.”
Such inclusion is important for the even younger generation as well, he said. He and his husband have recently become foster parents to a child.
“We want to show our child there is a space where we can be included, where we can say, ‘Look, there are other people just like our family,’ ” explained Warga. “We are a vulnerable community within an already vulnerable community. Our stories are just now coming out with more acceptance. In the last decade we have reached a critical point in our struggle. There’s a lot to do to make up for all that lost time.”
While Pittsburgh has been home to Bet Tikvah — described on its website as Pittsburgh’s “queer-centric, independent minyan” — since 1988, its offerings are “limited,” Warga said. “It’s nice to connect there,” but it tends to attract partnered members with children, and many millennials are not yet at that stage of life.
“Bet Tikvah feels old to them, but comfortable — socially and spiritually. But it’s not enough,” echoed Henry.
While Bet Tikvah has held some events in an effort to appeal to LGBT millennials, the congregation is small, run by volunteers and does not have the capacity to offer stronger programming without the help of those who want it, according to Deb Polk, a longtime member of the congregation.
“Bet Tikvah does initiate a lot of this type of programming, but if a group comes to us, we’d be more than happy to do something with them,” Polk said. “We are not a millennial organization. We have an intergenerational range.”
About five years ago, Rabbi Donni Aaron, then working for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, tried to engage in outreach to the LGBT community, she said, but things never got off the ground.
“When I was there, there was a glaring gap in programming offerings at the JCC,” recalled Aaron, speaking from Chicago, where she now lives. Aaron lived in New York City, as well as Chicago, before she came to Pittsburgh, and contrasted the larger cities’ offerings for the Jewish LGBT community with what’s available here.
“It stood out to me that there wasn’t anything [in Pittsburgh], and that was weird,” she said. Although she met with members of Bet Tikvah and various focus groups, “at that point, no one was willing to do anything. People wanted stuff, but they wanted someone else to do it.”
“I’m sensitive to this community, but not part of this community,” Aaron continued. “No one was willing to do the work.”
Wahlberg, along with Keren Kedem, a rising junior at Pitt, were willing to do the work while on the Pitt campus last year, and launched a new group called LGBT-Jew-IA: Queer Jews of Hillel.
“When I was coming to terms with my own sexuality, I felt disconnected from Judaism,” explained Kedem. “I came from an Orthodox community in Westchester, [N.Y.] and felt judged.”
That led her to take a break from organized Judaism for a while, but she began attending general programming at Hillel-JUC in her sophomore year. What she found was a community more “accepting to everyone for who they are,” she said.
Once she felt she was in accepting environment, she joined forces with Wahlberg to establish LGBT-Jew-IA, which held several events during its inaugural year, including a Shabbat dinner, a social action seder, a screening of the documentary “Trembling Before G-d” and a talk by Assi Azar, a gay Israeli celebrity who lauded Tel Aviv for its receptiveness to those in the LGBT community.
LGBT-Jew-IA “is a place where you can meet others,” Kedem said. “It’s hard being a minority. I’ve met so many people through this group. It’s great because we can relate similar experiences.”
“We reached people who were not already involved in the [Jewish] community,” noted Wahlberg, adding that through the new group, they realized the impact of community connection for young Jews.
“As Pittsburgh continues to attract new doctors and IT people to the city, we are going to see more Jews of a younger generation looking for that queer connection as well as the spiritual,” Wahlberg said.
Stuart Kurlander, the founder of GLOE, noted that programming tailored to young LGBT Jews creates not only connection for that demographic, but also a pathway to integration and engagement into the Jewish community at large.
“If there’s nothing being offered in Pittsburgh, or very little, there’s an opportunity to offer something,” Kurlander said.
“GLOE has been very successful. It has helped to provide a welcoming place for LGBTQ Jews to enter the community without barriers, including financial barriers.”
The majority of GLOE’s programs are either free or less than $10.
“Hopefully, there is at least one person who wants to get something started in Pittsburgh,” Kurlander said. “But there has to be someone willing to step in and make it happen. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.