Helping to integrate gay, Jewish identities
Michael Hopkins, former JCC director, heads retreat programs
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Michael Hopkins, former executive director of JCC MetroWest, has taken the helm of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality.
A national organization headquartered in New York City, its mission is to offer programming, mostly in the form of retreats, designed to empower gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to explore their Jewish and gay identities and then return to their home communities to transform them.
Hopkins began his new role on Oct. 20. He succeeds Jay Michaelson, who founded the organization seven years ago and will stay on as founding director.
“For me, this job aligns two parts of my identity,” Hopkins said in a phone interview. “As a gay man and as a Jew, to combine both parts of who I am and make it my job — that’s pretty exciting.”
Although on the job for less than a week when he spoke to NJJN, Hopkins, who lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, had already traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area in California to meet with a group, and was getting ready for a New York City retreat over the Oct. 29-31 weekend.
Hopkins noted that gay issues have captured state and national attention in recent weeks, from debate over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to the suicide of a gay Rutgers University student, to the outcry over the shifting stance by the Bergen County-based Jewish Standard on announcing same-sex marriages.
“It’s a crazy time to be working in the LGBT space,” he said. But it’s also an “interesting time to be helping the Jewish community accommodate diversity and understand that we are all created in God’s image and we are all part of the Jewish community.”
‘A unique position’
Hopkins said that many gay Jews find it difficult to integrate their dual identities.
“There are Jews who feel comfortable as Jews but struggle with coming out, and there are the opposite — lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgendered people who have not explored what it means to be Jewish,” he said. “They have come to believe they are mutually exclusive.”
That’s where Nehirim — which means “lights” in Hebrew — comes in, he said. “We create transformational experiences where people can explore their identity, figure out who they are, and make a difference back in their home communities.”
Hopkins acknowledged that he fits neatly into the category of Jews who struggled with coming out. He worked for 30 years as a Jewish professional in the JCC world. He and his wife were married for many years and had two children together. Hopkins served as executive director and CEO of JCC MetroWest from February 1998 through February 2009.
He only began thinking about getting divorced and coming out in the last three to four years, he said.
And he did that with the help of Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, founder and then director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center. Two years ago, she put him in touch with Nehirim, and, he said, attending a retreat sponsored by the organization was “one of the first experiences I had struggling with my identity as a gay man.”
Not long after that first retreat Hopkins joined the Nehirim board. And, after placing ads for the executive director position, he had his epiphany.
He withdrew from serving as part of the search process to throw his hat in the ring.
“I knew it was a unique position and it totally spoke to me,” he said.
As executive director, he said, he does the same kind of work he did at JCC MetroWest: running programs, supervising staff, working with a board, managing a budget, and “having a great impact touching people’s lives.”