The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity has announced a new mission and strategic plan to expand its reach.

The plan includes a new mission statement — Advancing LGBTQ affirmation and empowerment across the South” — and a comprehensive strategy for accomplishing the goal of “LGBTQ inclusive communities inspired by Jewish and universal values.”

The growth involves people and programming. SOJOURN plans to add several members to its board to more authentically represent the people it serves. New programs will focus on diversity and understanding within the context of the LGBTQ community.

Executive director of SOJOURN Rebecca Stapel-Wax (left) and Education Director Robbie Medwed (right) with Jeff Graham

Executive director of SOJOURN Rebecca Stapel-Wax (left) and Education Director Robbie Medwed (right) with Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham

The strategic plan comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court established same-sex marriage as legal nationwide and after several years of battles in state legislatures in Georgia and other Southern states over the line between religious rights and gay and transgender rights.

“Basically, it is our first very focused opportunity to lay out our future. This is what our stakeholders have said is most important to them,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, the executive director of SOJOURN. “We found that this plan really allows us to be more effective and create change considering the social atmosphere right now for LGBT people and their allies, especially in the South.”

SOJOURN’s expansion in terms of representation will focus on transgender issues because board members have determined they have too little transgender representation, but the organization also anticipates hard work countering general anti-LGBT sentiment.

“We are very involved in the anti-LGBT bills, and we are advocating very strongly for a comprehensive equality bill across the country,” Stapel-Wax said, explaining that while SOJOURN doesn’t lobby, it makes it a priority to inform people about legislation and support certain bills.

While legislation is high on its list, SOJOURN’s real mission is countering the culture itself that leads to anti-LGBT bills.

SOJOURN does that by partnering with congregations, workplaces and communities to try to open dialogue and help people learn about other lifestyles and cultures. “If people were to meet somebody — it’s hard to hate someone when you know their story. This is an opportunity for people to have dialogue, and there is humanity in everything, in diversity. It is really not something to fear, but something to celebrate.”

Stapel-Wax said SOJOURN makes a difference at a grass-roots level. “Success looks very different in different places,” she said, noting that even the work two large Reform synagogues in the Atlanta area, The Temple and Temple Sinai, involves very different approaches. “How we approach every community is that it is theirs. We are a resource or a guide to enhance the inclusion practices they are eager to do, but they do not necessarily know how.”

A big concern is LGBT youth, and along with transgender issues, that will be an area SOJOURN looks to grow. A Jewish youth retreat with a “Southern twist” is being planned to provide an opportunity for community to youths who may not live among many LGBT people.

“Our youth focus is really building more community,” Stapel-Wax said.

SOJOURN always operates from a Jewish point of view not just for community, but also for perspective about the dominant culture, she said. “Coming from a Jewish perspective allows for us to take that on and really dissect the problem with that interpretation of how we see the world and who should be given equal rights.”