by Danielle Cantor
Idit Klein always had an awareness of who was – and was not – included in our society. The founding executive director and leader of Keshet, the national organization for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life, cites learning about her family’s Holocaust history as the defining moment that set her on a path to lifelong activism. Klein was born in Israel and came to the U.S. as a toddler, arriving in Massachusetts for what was supposed to be a short time but has, thus far, turned out to be most of her life. She started building Keshet in 2001 as a local organization; today it supports tens of thousands of rabbis, educators, and other Jewish leaders nationwide working to make LGBTQ equality a communal value and institutional imperative. Now living in Boston with her wife and their son, Klein has spearheaded leadership development programs for queer Jewish teens and mobilized Jewish communities in Massachusetts to preserve marriage equality and advance transgender rights. She sits on the advisory board of the Safety Respect Equity coalition (of which Keshet was a founding member), was honored with a “Women Who Dared” award from the Jewish Women’s Archive, and has been named to the Forward 50.
How did you know you were meant to be an advocate?
The most pivotal experience of my life was when I was four years old and I asked my great aunt about the blue numbers on her arm. She told me that when she was 18, “Bad Men” took her away and they tattooed her arm with the numbers. When I asked her why, all she said was, ‘Because I am a Jew.’ I immediately became terrified and utterly convinced that at that moment the Bad Men were racing through the streets of New Bedford, Mass., to snatch me away, too. I felt a lot of fear – and then felt this ferocious determination and clarity that if the Bad Men were out there, then I needed to do whatever I could do to change the world, so there wouldn't be Bad Men. I was way too young to have to face that sense of vulnerability, but for whatever reason, I was able to move from that place of fear to a place of conviction around my purpose in the world. So I feel very grateful that it happened, because from that day forth I knew that I was meant to advance justice in the world.
Another significant piece of my childhood was the Orthodox Jewish day school I attended from third to eighth grade. I'll never forget my first day: My black-hat, Orthodox rabbi put a chumash (Torah book) in front of me, opened to a random page, pointed at the text, and said, "Here is the main story." Then he pointed at two different commentators and said, "Here and here are what two different people have to say about it. Sometimes they disagree with each other. Sometimes I disagree with them. Sometimes you may disagree with them, or you may disagree with me, but I want to know what you think." It was amazing then, and it's more amazing now, that this 40-something-year-old Orthodox rabbi was telling an eight-year-old secular girl, "You may disagree with Rashi and Onkelos, you may disagree with me, but I want to know what you think." That gave me a very profound sense that Judaism is a multi-vocal tradition, that we are a multi-faceted people, and that there's a place for everyone within it.
Has leadership always come naturally to you?
I was always the kid who was organizing the other kids around whatever injustice, real or perceived, we were experiencing at the hands of our teachers. I was trying to organize my parents and younger brother to get involved as a family in different justice campaigns in our community. But like a lot of girls and women, I have also struggled with dynamics around how much space to take up and how to be a leader. Do I have something worthy to offer? Is my contribution significant enough that I should speak out, write something, take up space? So I would say that leadership is a groove that I have been drawn into, but I have definitely not been immune to the imposter syndrome that a lot of us experience.
Have you faced any particular challenges that have helped to inform your work?
One fundamental challenge is about what it means to be a professional queer Jew. We all get asked at least frequently what we do for work. I've been in this role for 18 years, so on most days, when I share what I do for work, I face that moment of coming out. Granted, I have a wife and a child and I have been out since I was in college, so it's not like I wouldn't be out otherwise. But I'm still struck by how, after all these years, I still feel some vulnerability. It's a constant reminder that coming out isn't a one-time thing; it's something that you do over and over, and that is an emotional challenge. It’s actually helpful in that it keeps me connected to the challenges that other LGBTQ people experience: If I feel even a flicker of vulnerability, and this is what I’ve done professionally for so many years, what some others experience is all the more so.
Tell me about your experience coming out for the first time.
I came out between my junior and senior years of college, in 1993. Initially I did so at a National Coming Out Day speak-out on campus, where people would line up at a microphone in the middle of a green and declare, "I'm gay," or "I'm bisexual," and tell their stories. After I spoke to hundreds of people there, I realized that I needed to come out in the Jewish community, because that was my primary home at Yale. No one was out in the Jewish community at that time, so it was scary when I came out at a Hillel executive committee meeting. I learned later that I was the first-ever leader in the Jewish community on campus who had ever come out. Most people were supportive, but there was a minority of voices asking whether it was appropriate for me to be on the Hillel executive committee, to be the editor of the Jewish journal at Yale, and so on. That was hurtful, and it strengthened my resolve that attitudes in the Jewish community were not what they should be.
What are some of the online resources that Keshet offers the LGBTQ Jewish community?
Our website is actually used as much, if not more, by folks who are not LGBTQ – straight, cisgender staff and lay leaders of Jewish communal institutions – because so many of our resources are about how these institutions can become places that advance LGBTQ equality and build inclusive cultures, programs, and policies. But many LGBTQ Jews also come to our website seeking resources for wedding ceremonies and other Jewish life events. We also have a lot of resources that bring a queer perspective to different traditional Jewish texts. And we have a database called the Equality Directory where Jewish institutions can sign themselves up, indicating the ways in which their organizations are LGBTQ-inclusive. So, for example, if you were a queer couple looking for a synagogue in Poughkeepsie, you could go to the Equality Directory, enter the zip code, and see which synagogues within a certain distance are registered for the Equality Directory.
What changes in attitudes and laws have you witnessed throughout your career?
When I started building Keshet, that was pre-marriage equality; it was at a time when it was still illegal for gay people to adopt kids in various states. Then and now, LGBTQ people do not have federal non-discrimination protections. But then there were even more states where you could be fired or denied housing or refused health care for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or being perceived as such. Obviously, we saw tremendous progress on the marriage equality front and in terms of social awareness. When I was starting out, I would give speeches and ask people to raise their hands if they knew someone who was openly LGBTQ. Sometimes no one would raise their hand. I don't do that anymore, because everyone knows someone who's LGBTQ. There's been such a surge of people being able to be out, being able to live openly and share the truths of their lives with others.
What is it like to be a parent in a same-sex couple in today's political and social climate?
Under the current administration, our rights are under attack, and our ability to advance our rights are thwarted, if not completely frozen in time. We had been in a period of tremendous forward momentum regarding LGBTQ rights in general, and certainly regarding recognition of LGBTQ families and support for LGBTQ folks having kids, celebration of lots of different kinds of family structures, and an affirmation that what most matters is love. Now we're hearing about foster care and adoption agencies refusing to place children in need of homes with same-sex couples, and in some cases with straight Jewish couples – basically in any families that do not abide by "traditional Christian values." This administration is supporting that practice, which is obviously deeply troubling and appalling, and makes all of us more aware than ever of how precious and in need of protection our hard-won rights are.
You've said that you felt you were destined to be an advocate for justice since you were a child: Why have you chosen to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community in particular?
As someone who grew up with the Jewish community always being my home in the world, and fully expecting that that would continue when I came out, it was motivating for me when I came out and discovered that there was a real gap between where I expected the Jewish community to be and where it was. Historically, Judaism – as a religious tradition and as a people – has denied LGBTQ people full membership in Jewish life. Indeed, the Jewish community was not a place that embraced queer people when I came out, and Jewish communities around the country were not, on the whole, taking action to advance LGBTQ equality and to speak out against discrimination and anti-LGBTQ bias. That, to me, felt like a personal betrayal, and it felt like a communal betrayal of who we are as a people and what our values are as a people. I wanted to be a part of changing that.