SOJOURN's Phillip Rush Community Builder Award Acceptance Speech

On Saturday night, June 20, SOJOURN was presented with the Phillip Rush Community Builder Award at Georgia Equality's Evening for Equality. The text below is SOJOURN's acceptance speech, as written and presented by our Executive Director, Rebecca Stapel-Wax.


I stand here tonight on behalf of our dedicated board of directors with our assistant director, Robbie Medwed, our board president, Leanne Rubenstein, and our founder, Rabbi Joshua Lesser.  

Standing together to accept this award signifies that although our individual efforts can be immense and meaningful, the results we produce together, as a community, are awe-inspiring. 

Thank you, Georgia Equality, for recognizing SOJOURN and the impact we made on our community this year.

Thank you for creating an opportunity for our Jewish family to partner with you as we boldly fought against the so-called, RFRA.

Thank you for your perseverance.  On a daily basis you are present and visible.  You tenaciously advance your mission. We know you have all of our backs.

We are so proud to have an engaged Jewish community with whom we share this recognition.  

This was truly, what we call, collective impact…each of us bringing our talents, our voices, our advocacy and our influence to the cause. 

Finally, our success at building community, like any worthy  journey, has been a process. 

To show how far we have come:

In 1999, Rabbi Josh, is and was openly gay, and was hired as the first full time rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim.  He experienced horrific treatment including overt condescension and even death threats.  At that time, he committed to building a non-profit that focused on community action to support LGBT people: The Rainbow Center.  

When I came on board as the 3rd executive director of The Rainbow Center, in 2004 there were less than a handful of congregations that would take my calls, meet with me or schedule a workshop that was, ironically, focused on Jewish values and how they are a foundation for building respectful relationships.

Over the years, we have worked with every Reform and Conservative synagogue in the Atlanta Metro area and we have consulted with Orthodox rabbis to ensure that they are equipped to affirm their gender and sexually diverse congregants. 

Since SOJOURN was incorporated in 2013, we have grown our Jewish contingency marching in the Pride Parade to include 15 rabbis, 36 Jewish organizations and nearly 200 people.

In the last 12 months alone, over 2000 people have attended a SOJOURN workshop.  We have travelled statewide and educated children, teachers, parents and mental health professionals about gender identity, bias, and diversity. 

During our legislative session this year, we were all faced with RFRA.  As Jews, to deny rights and equality is reminiscent of many examples in history, and currently, of fear and hiding who we are. We must stand together, take responsibility and be accountable for what is right…AND THAT IS WHAT WE DID.  

This spring, an international Jewish organization’s local chapter chose to honor a dangerously homophobic minister. The community insisted that the organization reverse its decision and ultimately he was not honored. 

SOJOURN is taking a lead on the provocative issues that impact the Jewish and LGBT communities in the Southeast and across the nation. 

Clergy and congregants have grown to trust and rely on SOJOURN's integrity and expertise.  This is why they stood with us in our disagreement over the honoring of a hateful community leader, they welcome us into their communities to help them embrace and champion diversity and equality, and why they got involved in this year's RFRA fight.   

For all of these accomplishments and more, we are here tonight with gratitude for your recognition and we humbly accept the Philip Rush Community Builder Award.  I hope we are all blessed with fortitude for what continues to lie ahead and the wisdom and humility to share the work and the successes.