Project aiming to sensitize JFCS staff on gay issues

Margaret Rothman's career goal is to be out of a job. Like many working for the benefit of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Rothman explained, "I want to see them feel so safe and so acknowledged that there will be no reason for them" to need advocacy services.

But Rothman, the LGBT Outreach Project coordinator for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children Services, won't be pursuing early retirement just yet. Even in a socially conscious city like San Francisco, said Rothman, homophobia and persecution run rampant.

And while the Jewish community often embraces the idea of working against oppression, heterosexist ideas — like socializing a daughter to grow up and "marry a nice Jewish man" — she said, can often negatively impact "those Jews who are not heterosexual."

In reaction to those obstacles, JFCS has decided to "come out" as an agency, said Rothman, who was hired last September to help the agency "actively meet the needs of LGBT folks."

Gay issues are nothing new for an agency that served a population of more than 40,000 last year alone. JFCS has established services in recent years aimed at the gay community and their families, ranging from therapeutic and clinical services, to helping same-sex couples adopt babies.

But when it took an internal look last year and conducted an anonymous survey of more than 60 LGBT Jews in the community, "We felt we could do better," said Amy Rassen, the agency's associate executive director.

"Basically we wanted to make sure the services we provided were what the LGBT community really wanted."

Said Rothman: "A lot who were surveyed said they want to come to a Jewish organization, because that is their community, but they also said that they'd like to know that they're safe here and they don't feel safe yet."

But Rothman, herself bisexually identified, has spent considerable time in various LGBT settings, which has given her "a lot of insight" into the ways that outreach and sensitivity training — needs indicated by survey respondents — can "make the agency and services more inviting."

Therefore, she is developing sensitivity and education training for the people whose job it is to interact with clients — all JFCS staff and volunteers — to address the needs of LGBT Jews most appropriately.

The idea is to engage "everyone from the receptionist to the therapist to the person who delivers meals" on the complexities and humanness of the LGBT Jewish community while combating homophobia, said Rothman, previously director of a YWCA program for queer and questioning youth in Palo Alto and a former Kohn intern.

By consulting with a JFCS clinical psychologist, Rothman's training program is specifically tailored to each department and emphasizes its particular role in the LGBT community.

For the Seniors at Home department, for example, Rothman organized a panel of LGBT seniors to detail their experiences growing up in an older, extremely homophobic generation. Several ended up revealing emotional stories about the fear of readily identifying themselves as gay to a teary-eyed audience made up of the 45 Seniors at Home staff members.

Those stories are something the staff must constantly keep in mind when providing services to LGBT clients.

Take, for instance, the case of an aging client whose caregiver is his lover. If the client is completely hush-hush about his sexual preference and ends up being hospitalized, the social worker who does not understand may err.

"That social worker may think that a client needs to be institutionalized because they have no support from their family," said managed-care worker Craig Bruce. "But oftentimes that client does have support, the social worker just doesn't acknowledge it."

Bruce, who is gay, said the training has really helped him recognize that these instances actually happen quite often. He also said he learned that "just because I'm gay, I don't know about gay seniors. It's not that easy."

While she has met resistance from some of the JFCS staff who say "they're not sure how this can benefit them," Rothman said, "They tend to walk away feeling extraordinarily grateful." Eventually, JFCS hopes to be a training resource to other Jewish organizations.

Rothman is also working with an advisory committee comprised of queer community leaders to implement new services for LGBT Jews while making existing programs more inclusive.

Describing the JFCS efforts as "part of the Jewish culture — healing the world," Cherie Golant, a case manager said: "If you recognize that people in the LGBT community are persecuted and those things get in the way of providing them with the best care, then this is the logical thing to do."