Open-Door Policy

They are your brother, your cousin, your lawyer, your best friend, or possibly yourself. Yet, while there are as many gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the Jewish community as in any other, they often feel like outcasts in their own faith, afraid that they can’t be open about their sexuality and a committed Jew as well.

Am Echad, a group that formally became part of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles in March, aims to help change both the perception and the reality of being homosexual or bisexual in the Southern California Jewish community. The organization, whose name means “one people” in Hebrew, will, for the second year, have a booth at the Christopher Street West Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival (CSW) this weekend (June 21-22), at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood. The importance of visibility was underscored by Am Echad co-chair Bruce Maxwell.

“I think it’s very important that many gays, lesbians and bisexuals feel that they don’t have to go back in the closet to get involved with the Jewish Federation Council or with any other Jewish organization,” Maxwell said. “Many people come to [Jewish] events with their spouse or partner, but, if you’re gay or lesbian, you have to think twice about whether you can safely support something because you’re not sure if you can bring your partner.”

By providing a safe place for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to come out as committed Jews and be visible in their own community, Am Echad “puts a face to the stranger,” said Maxwell.

At last year’s CSW Festival, Am Echad gathered 250 names of people interested in volunteering and contributing money to the Federation. Some were already affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, but many were not.

“For some, for the first time, they felt that ‘maybe, I can be who I am and be part of the larger Jewish community,'” said Stuart Leviton, Am Echad’s campaign chair.

Several groups within the Federation are co-sponsoring the Am Echad booth at CSW, including the Federation’s Metro and Western regions, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

“It’s a tremendous step the Federation has taken in recognizing this community,” said Jan Simons, who chairs Am Echad’s Public Relations Committee.

Am Echad is the first gay and lesbian outreach group that has been made an official part of any federation across the country, Maxwell said. At least three similar groups are beginning efforts to affiliate with federations in San Francisco, Philadelphia and South Florida, he said.

The initiative to bring this organization into the Los Angeles Federation came from the Metro region, said Federation executive vice president John Fishel.

“There are large numbers of residents of this community who are positively identified as Jewish and are part of the gay and lesbian community, and who would like to be more…active in Jewish life,” Fishel said. “We thought that it was a good thing, and we’re encouraging it.”

For more information about Am Echad, call the Federation’s Metro office at (213) 852-7759. n