Hitler’s motherland is historically the last place that you might expect to find an eclectic group of Jewish LGBT individuals—groups that were both targeted by the Nazis. But this week, 64 leaders of the LGBTQ Jewish community are gathering in Salzburg, Austria to discuss issues of religion and identity. The inaugural conference, called Eighteen:22—to reclaim the verse in Leviticus (chapter 18, verse 22) that refers to homosexuality as an abomination—was created as a way to “transform the world for LGBTQ Jews,” said founder Robert Saferstein, through “dreaming and doing.”
From August 11 to 13, participants are immersed in round-the-clock sessions at Salzburg’s Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Schusterman Foundation and its Connection Point’s Program, as well as the support of LGBT organizations like Keshet, Friday Night Lights, and Hebro, among others. Activities thus far have ranged from a “conversation between North and South,” during which LGBTQ activists from South Africa and Russia spoke about the differences between Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation and South Africa’s more accepting legislation, as well as the Jewish communities there, to frequent snack breaks (for networking purposes, of course), as well as public speaking workshops that serve to educate activists as to how to tell their stories and personal missions compellingly.
The entrance to the conference overlooks the Alps, where The Sound of Music was filmed, and participants on the first day soaked in the scenery while constructively discussing issues like gendered language in Biblical texts, to gender identification and societal privilege. And between sessions, participants congregated on the lush green lawns talking about how they could best integrate the ideas being exchanged at this conference to help change their communities, to help change the world.
But it wasn’t always sunshine and daisies. Though the conference took steps to ensure that all attendees would feel comfortable and safe in their identities by, for example, including every participants’ preferred gender pronoun (PGP) on their name tags, some members of the “T” population, or transgender individuals, felt like outsiders. This was the case at Wednesday morning’s opening session, which was co-facilitated by Joanna Ware, the Boston Regional Director of the Jewish LGBT group Keshet.
The session’s intention was to enable participants to understand carying degrees of societal privilege within the LGBTQ community. In order to accomplish this, people in the room were encouraged to gain awareness of those around them by answering, through movement, a series of questions, such as “Have you ever been harassed on the street?” or “Would you ever not be counted in someone’s minyan?” Then participants either stepped forward or backward depending on their responses these vulnerability-invoking questions. For example: “Step back if you have ever experienced harassment in a bathroom.” This did not sit well with the transgender community, since this was a question that quite literally made them take a huge step back from the rest of the group.
As a result, discussions quickly shifted to a space where transgender persons vented frustrations with fundamental misunderstandings about them—held even by members of the LGB community. Afterward, during the exercise’s debriefing session, S. Bear Bergman, a transgender conference participant, raised a point that many lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the group (let alone those who identify as heterosexual) display “low competence” when talking about transgender issues.
Participant David Gee spoke up and added that as a cisgender man, meaning a person who was born in a male body and identifies as male, he recognizes that he is probably one of the more privileged people at this conference. “All of us are put under the same umbrella of LGBT, but we’re not all the same,” he said.
These conversations surrounding transgender sensitivity, especially in a Jewish context has become an underlying, ever-present theme at the conference.
This conversation regarding transgender identity “is a reflection to where we are in the Jewish community,” explained Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives at the Schusterman Foundation, which funded the conference. “We as a [global] community struggle with how we relate to individuals who defy classifications, and we as a Jewish community also struggle with people who defy classification.”
A large part of the conference though, while not explicit, “is to find a way to transform this dissonance into a dissonant chord,” explained Rachael Fried, an Orthodox gay conference participant. “This conference isn’t yet a symphony,” Cohen said. “We’re here to set a tempo. Harmony is our ultimate goal, where each voice brings an authentic addition to the orchestra.”
Put differently, “We’re beyond the question of is it possible to be a queer Jew,” explained conference co-chair, Halley Cohen. “We know that. We’re at the next step.”
The Eighteen:22 conference has brought leaders from around the world together to try to collaborate. Its founder Robert Saferstein said, “It’s my hope that we leave here in the spirit that we’re not alone doing the work that we’re doing.”
The rest of the conference promises to be a whirlwind of activities. On Wednesday night, participants are encouraged to decompress from their intense schedule by dressing up—some will wear ball gowns and tuxedos, some will dress in drag, and others in don silly get-ups like bananas or prison jumpsuits. But for the rest of the conference is back to the races, with panels on Orthodoxy and deviating from the gender binary, and community building.
In Seth Cohen’s words, “It’s not an end, this is just the beginning.”