(Jewish News)

Author: Ellen O’Brien

A new group for LGBTQ Jews and allies is aiming to bring people together throughout Arizona.

AZ Jews for Pride, an initiative co-chaired by Cantor Ross Wolman of Temple Chai and Deb Behrendt, launched in January. While the COVID-19 pandemic put some of the group’s most ambitious plans on hold, its co-chairs are committed to continuing to reach out virtually.

“We know that there’s Jews and there’s LGBTQ Jews and there’s LGBTQ allies across the whole entire state,” Behrendt said. “So we’re really trying to reach out and involve all of the communities together, even if it’s just marching in their local Pride or Phoenix Pride — we’re really just bringing the Jewish community together as allies and the LGBTQ community.”

The new group is capitalizing on the momentum of the last three Phoenix Pride parades, in which a coalition from the Jewish community has marched since 2017.

Behrendt credits Wolman as the driving force behind the turnout at Pride for the last three years. “He is an amazing ally,” she said.

Before he arrived at Temple Chai, Wolman served congregations in Illinois, where he attended the Chicago Pride Parade and saw the enthusiasm of the community that came out to support its LGBTQ members.

“On the sidewalk, it’s packed eight people deep — you can’t even get close to the street and it’s huge and it’s awesome,” Wolman said. “And we got here, and there’s barely anybody on the sidewalks, and none of the Jewish community was represented. So we said this, ‘Let’s change it, let’s do it.’”

Hoping to recreate that enthusiasm in Phoenix, Wolman organized a contingent to march together in Phoenix Pride 2017. That first year, around 100 people marched together. By 2019, around 300 people joined the march in orange T-shirts with the Hebrew letters for Ahava, or “love.”

“We have had nothing but success,” Wolman said. “We’re really glad to have liberal Jews uniting together, and it was a really nice gathering for the last three years.”

This year, the group’s organizers decided to make it official by forming a steering committee, designing a logo and starting a new Facebook page as a place for statewide outreach and community building.

“It’s just a forum and a place for LGBTQ Jews to come together and feel like they can have a voice,” Behrendt said. “So many of us have different crossroads and intersections of who we are, and to have a place where the LGBTQ community and the Jews can come together — that’s really what I’m hoping — and the cantor is really hoping to support.”

AZ Jews for Pride planned to march in the Phoenix Pride parade on April 5 this year, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19. While another parade is tentatively scheduled for November, Wolman said the group is going ahead with plans to reach out to LGBTQ Jews from across the state.

“We are now just reaching out to other people in the state and saying, ‘Who wants to join us in statewide conversations?’” Wolman said. “And it’s Pride Month, so we’re trying to just get the excitement going and celebrate pride in a way that we can in Arizona.”

Most importantly, Behrendt said, the coalition is expanding beyond the Phoenix Pride Parade to provide year-round support to LGBTQ Jews and allies.

“We’re more than just marching in Phoenix Pride,” Behrendt said. “You’re a Jew every day and I’m gay every day, so it’s not just one weekend that I get to celebrate who I am. I get to be who I am every single day.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, AZ Jews for Pride has put its most ambitious plans on hold for now. But now more than ever, its organizers feel that it’s important to provide a space where people can feel safe and connect.

“When life has a pause button pushed, it kind of makes you look at life a little different,” Behrendt said. “With everything going on, I just feel like everyone as a community needs to stick together, regardless of who you are and where you come from.”

Ultimately, Wolman and Behrendt want AZ Jews for Pride to be a space members can explore the intersection of their LGBTQ and Jewish identity.

“I’d love for people to know that there’s a safe place for specifically Jews who are LGBTQ, and that they feel safe and that they feel empowered and validated,” Wolman said. “What we want more than anything else is for them to feel validated and feel that they matter and that we care. And so I hope that that continues to flourish.”

Behrendt has seen the Jewish community in Greater Phoenix show immense support for its LGBTQ members over the last few years, and she expects that it will only continue as AZ Jews for Pride grows.

“I don’t know if everyone accepts me in the Jewish community, but I can tell you that the majority of people in the Jewish community absolutely accepts my wife and myself,” Behrendt said. “That’s what’s been so amazing about it. Just being able to represent the Jewish community as a lesbian has been really amazing, and the support from that is far beyond what I think I could have imagined.”

This article originally appeared on Jewish News.

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