In 1999, supervisors of fieldwork programs for students on the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) first shared evidence with HUC-JIR administrators that:
  • The Jewish community generally does not address the needs of, and is often perceived as inhospitable to gay and lesbian Jews;
  • Institutions serving gay and lesbian Jews often do not routinely serve as placement or training sites for future Jewish professionals;
  • Students training to be Jewish professionals lack adequate skills to meet the needs of gay and lesbian Jews and are unable to challenge and eliminate homophobia in the community.
In response, and with seed funding from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Liberty Hill Foundation and the Galinson Family Foundation and the Shefa Fund, starting in 2000, HUC-JIR developed a unique pilot program to provide rabbinical, education, and communal service students in Los Angeles with: (1) training workshops on meeting the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jews and organizing for inclusion; (2) specialized field placements in congregations and agencies serving LGBT Jews; and (3) Jewish religious texts, personal testimonies and case studies from rabbis, congregants and lay leaders to provide the religious values, theory and praxis for committing oneself and one's community to achieving full inclusion and welcoming of LGBT Jews, their families and friends.

The pilot program was called the Sexual Orientation Issues in Congregations and Communities (SOICC) Initiative. The SOICC Initiative achieved a milestone when Rabbi Erwin and Agnes Herman created a fund in 2001 to establish the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center on Sexual Orientation Issues in the Jewish Community (JHVRC) in memory of their son who died of AIDS.

This major gift enabled the College-Institute to launch an on-line website in 2003 presenting a host of articles, text studies, organizing strategies, policies and positions of the Reform Movement and more as tools for students and alumni to use in advancing the cause of full participation and inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish religious, educational, cultural and communal life.

In 2004, a strategic planning process by Lowell Selvin, then CEO of San Francisco's PlanetOut Partners, Inc. reviewed the progress of the Initiative and the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center. The Strategic Planning Committee decided that the success of the Initiative and the response that it had generated as well as a sense of the larger importance of the work demanded a new more encompassing vision that would reach out past the boundaries of HUC-JIR and into the larger community. To create this, the Strategic Planning Committee envisioned an Institute format with a professional director.

In October 2005, Dr. Joel L. Kushner was hired as the first Director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation and the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center.

Since the Director's arrival, the IJSO and the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center have enjoyed significant growth and expansion in their programming. The Jeff Herman VRC has been completely revised including the addition of bisexual and transgender resources, a completely new liturgy and ritual section and many other improved features. Once all resources were checked and updated, the site was opened to the general public with a formal announcement made at the Multifaith Conference hosted by the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at World Pride in August of 2006.

The Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation has reinstated ongoing Lunch and Learn seminars including topics such as Marriage Equality, LGBT families Issues in a Jewish Context and how to create LGBT inclusive environments. The Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation has also partnered with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to offer a community-based interfaith LGBT discussion series called Out and Faithful; LGBT People – Faith, Religion and Spirituality. For a complete review of our programming and activities, past and present, go to our Activities section.

Member of Keshet Ga'avah, World Jewish Congress of GLBT Jews