In recent years, Jewish communal organizations have made unprecedented efforts to make their spaces and programs more welcoming to LGBTQ Jews. Likewise, Jewish philanthropies — including major funders such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Shimon Ben (Jim) Joseph Foundation, and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation — are supporting Jewish LGBTQ initiatives like never before.
For people who have been working and living in both worlds, it’s a heartening development, albeit an overdue one. And according to leaders like Stuart Kurlander, Washington, D.C.-based attorney and philanthropist, even more can be done to support this segment of the Jewish community.
Kurlander, a past chair of Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ organization and past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, has long supported LGBTQ Jewish causes. As early as 2005, Kurlander led an LGBTQ mission to Israel and he came away with “a sense that there could be more done with respect to the LGBTQ Jewish community in a variety of different ways.”
Philanthropists Jeff Schoenfeld and Alex Greenbaum were similarly convinced. Schoenfeld is chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel & Overseas Committee and the first openly gay president of the UJA-Federation of New York; Greenbaum is a member of the Jewish Funders Network-Israel and an organizer of Pledge to Protect, an Israeli project that funded and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to North American Jewish social services agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The three philanthropists were also aware that, perhaps for the first time, there was enough wealth and interest among fellow gay Jewish philanthropists to support their own community. To that end, the trio founded the Jewish LGBTQ Donor Network in 2021.
“Alex, Jeff and I, who remain very active in the Jewish community, looked around and saw there were a number of LGBTQ Jews who were not as engaged in the Jewish community, not as engaged in their dual identities [as we were],” said Kurlander. “We felt that this group had really developed and matured. Many of them had become very successful financially and [we thought that] they could be partners with us in a network focused on relationship-building, education about the LGBTQ Jewish community and philanthropy to support various LGBTQ Jewish causes.”
In January 2023, the network hired Neil Spears, a former educator and recent executive director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, to be the network’s inaugural executive director. Spears shares the founders’ belief that the Jewish LGBTQ philanthropic community is rife for expansion.
“Over the past several decades, queer people in America have enjoyed increasing rights and acceptance and freedom that has come slowly,” said Spears. “As that progress has happened, it has happened also in the Jewish community. We’ve seen initiatives around making Jewish spaces more inclusive of LGBTQ people. We’ve seen that across the entire spectrum of the Jewish organizational landscape. And we’re really lucky that now there are many places in this country where LGBTQ Jews can walk into a Jewish space and feel welcomed.”
“That progress has been made by the pioneering efforts of activists and key allies in the community, the Jewish communal space, including philanthropists, people in charge of resources and leaders in organizations. But we’re definitely not there yet.”
That’s where the network comes in.
Though Spears is still acclimating to his new position, he envisions his role as to “harness the big ideas and vision of the founders and the initial members and to translate that into a strategy, a regular drumbeat of education and networking and giving, and ultimately to grow our impact by growing the membership and by growing the amount of money we’re able to funnel back into the community.”
To date, the network has attracted the interest of approximately 50 LGBTQ Jewish donors. Most reside in the United States, and a few live in Israel, where cofounder Alex Greenbaum is based. The founders have hopes that it will eventually become a worldwide funding collective.
To begin with, Spears plans on “doing a lot of listening, understanding where they’re coming from, and then layering that over what the research I’m doing in the field and understanding the needs that are out there and trying to match the two.”
The network will be organized around three pillars — networking, education and giving.
“They all interrelate, right? At the end of the day, we are a philanthropic network, so giving is an incredibly important part of what we’re about. We want to funnel significant monies into LGBTQ Jewish spaces,” Spears said. “To do that, we build a network and a community of LGBTQ Jewish philanthropists. It’s not just about the valor of hitching your name to a thing. It’s about really knowing each other, about being in a relationship with each other. It’s about sharing their dreams and hopes and stories to inspire together as we make a collective impact.”
A plan for the network’s philanthropic strategy is currently in the works, but Spears imagines that it will involve a “regular cycle where we approach or request proposals from organizations and entrepreneurs.”
Initially, grant amounts will range between $5,000 and $50,000 distributed over one to three years. There will be a vetting process that involves educating network members about grant-seeking organizations, but Spears emphasized that the network won’t work like a giving circle.
“We won’t ask members to give X amount of dollars. It’s basically aligned giving where we’ll come out and say, ‘We’ve identified these handful of organizations in this cycle. We’re trying to raise X amount of dollars. Please make your pledge. We’ll then bundle those contributions together and send them out.’”
Both Spears and Kurlander hope the network can serve as a complement to the philanthropic support that already exists in the LGBTQ Jewish space.
“The idea here is not for us to enter the space and elbow out the friends and allies who have gotten us this far,” Spears said. “We’re saying, ‘Look, some of you have professionals on your teams who identify as LGBTQ or LGBTQ and Jewish. Some of you don’t. Regardless, we want to be a resource. Let’s talk, let’s share information. Let’s share stories, and let’s also do some co-funding together.’”
Ultimately, Spears believes that making the Jewish community more inclusive for LGBTQ Jews benefits the Jewish community at large.
“When populations that have historically been excluded from Jewish life thrive and are able to show up as their full selves, that’s good for everybody there. The experience of being LGBTQ has required us to develop a resilience, a sense of humor, and to invent new ways of doing family and life that are really valuable to the community at large.”