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Fighting for Same-Sex Marriage Rights

In the summer of 2008, four Bay Area Jewish organizations allied to support the California Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling and to defeat a ballot proposition, Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. In November 2008, Proposition 8 passed, by a narrow margin; the fight for same-sex marriage rights in the State of California continues. Despite the failure to beat back Prop 8, the intra-faith organizing effort of these Bay Area Jewish organizations was itself a success, offering a blueprint to the Jewish community for how we can come together around political and social issues of joint interest. This article was originally published in the Fall issue of Zeek’s quarterly print magazine (subscribe here)–Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, Editor, Zeek

When the California Supreme Court issued its historic same-sex marriage ruling on May 15, 2008, a virtual “Kol haKavod!” cheer reverberated throughout Jewish LGBT communities around the country. The community immediately began mobilizing and organizing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, staff and members from the LGBTQ-based Congregation Sha’ar Zahav started planning a visible queer, Jewish celebratory and social justice presence at City Hall.

Progressive Jewish Alliance, a California-based Jewish social justice organization, saw the ruling as a victory for its four-year long campaign to assert equal access to marriage for all people. Yet the organizers realized that the court ruling would be challenged, and began mobilizing for a response. Meanwhile, both the LGBT Alliance at the Jewish Community Federation and the new Bay Area staff of Jewish Mosaic: the National Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity, saw the ruling as an opportunity to foster full inclusion of LGBT Jews in institutional and spiritual Jewish life. In short, these Jewish social justice organizations immediately understood how the marriage ruling advanced their organizational missions and got to work. Nothing out of the ordinary there–turning on a dime is part and parcel of an activist’s life. What was extraordinary, however, was that our four organizations, with separate staffs and different agendas, made a decision to celebrate together and to work together on the inevitable response. In short, we made a decision to try intra-faith organizing. An Intra-faith Ketubah After a joyful celebration on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall, complete with rainbow chuppah, wedding cake, and klezmer music to commemorate the historic first day of legal gay marriage in California, the four organizations plighted our own troth, forming an official coalition called Kol Tzedek (“voice of justice”). It truly is a union that reflects our own diversity. Currently, Kol Tzedek includes straight, bisexual, queer and gay and lesbian people, Israeli and American born Jews, those with Zionist and post-Zionist politics, and people who are single, married, and partnered.  Our collaborative partners have included rabbis, Jewish educators and communal service professionals, lay leaders, genderqueer Jews, students and scholars.  Kol Tzedek is reaching both inside and outside the Jewish community to find these partners, working closely with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California, ACLU of Northern California, Jews for Marriage Equality and other LGBT and social justice organizations. The initial focus of the coalition is to organize the Jewish community around the defeat of California Proposition 8, which would amend the California Constitution so that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Following the election, Kol Tzedek will evaluate its work to date, and further articulate its vision, strategies and guidelines regarding any future organizing, including the participation of additional organizations.

Secrets to a Happy Coalition Kol Tzedek’s natural inception and continued harmonious collaborative work can be attributed in large part to he values that underlie our work: We embrace the differences among our four organizations, each of which contribute a wealth of diverse and complementary experience, education, skills and resources. We honor and include each organization’s unique niche and skill set: PJA’s focus is progressive grassroots organizing; Sha’ar Zahav represents the synagogue and family education perspective; Jewish Mosaic’s work is transforming Jewish institutions through professional development, training, research and leadership building approaches, and the LGBT Alliance, as the first of its kind in any North American Federation, provides financial resources, lay leadership and planning on behalf of LGBT Jews in the Bay area. We honor and include individuals’ unique backgrounds and skill sets. Members of the coalition include educators, therapists, social workers, philanthropic leaders, artists, writers, and community organizers, all of whom have important contributions to make. We share a mutual respect and reciprocal investment in successful outcomes for every organization’s goals and visions. To that end, Kol Tzedek decided not to set up its own staffing or to solicit donations. Instead, potential donors are referred to the many organizations working for marriage equality in our community. We do welcome volunteers from our own organizations and from the community at large. We are committed to ensuring Jewish visibility within the statewide effort to defeat Proposition 8. We share progressive, feminist, queer-conscious Jewish values and strategies for galvanizing social change within the Jewish community.

While all these elements are important, we feel it is our shared emphasis on core Jewish, feminist, and queer-conscious values that underscores the collaborative quality of our work. Jewish values tell us to pursue justice, to speak out when we see oppression in our midst. Our feminist and gender queer values prioritize collaboration and mutual respect. These values translate into a group process includes a collective, clear, mutually agreed upon vision agenda and focus. Each contributing organization and participant is encouraged to lead with their strengths. We are like a quartet of four entirely different instruments, and each of us has moments when may perform solo, while other times we are playing together as a unit. And.. Have Fun Ultimately, the collaboration among these different yet very active organizations, all of which speak to the same audience, succeeds because the approach to working together is relational, not territorial. Kol Tzedek’s participants ensure that responsibilities are shared in a way that reflects individual and organizational needs, skills and resources. For example, since PJA’s primary work is grassroots community organizing, it has taken on the role of organizing Jewish phone banking nights in the weeks leading up to the November election. The LGBT Alliance’s role is leadership development and Jewish communal planning around LGBT issues; hence, the LGBT Alliance is organizing regional community discussion events about marriage equality and the No on 8 campaign. Jewish Mosaic provides expertise in creating educational materials, while Sha’ar Zahav offers outreach to other faith institutions. Our focus on dialogue has also helped us navigate the cultural minefields around same-sex marriage. When we first got together in early June to plan our celebration at City Hall, we had some awkward pushback from one of the more moderate secular organizations for marriage equality. Apparently this organization feared our dress code and our behavior might be inappropriate and detrimental to the cause. One of the Kol Tzedek members reacted strongly to what seemed to them a misplaced and unwarrranted assertion of authority. Before responding to the other organization, we took the time to reach consensus among ourselves. That enabled us to meet the other organization with a united front, and to engage them in a constructive dialogue as well. The elements that make an organization work are not always identical to the reasons individuals choose to participate. The four of us have devoted our time and energy to Kol Tzedek because we believe in our mission, because we care about each other and our organizations, and because, well, we have fun. We forget too often that the the zest of collaboration often comes from integrating humor and fun with accountability and honest caring dialogue. It is a real simcha when the work you do and the process you are engaged in can both reflect and embrace the value system that defines your commitment to social justice work. The net effective is meaningful and highly productive organizing.

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