CT News

Justice, Equality, Civility

Connecticut native Ethan Felson, a longtime LGBTQ rights advocate, named head of A Wider Bridge

By Stacey Dresner

NEW YORK, New York – West Hartford native Ethan Felson has spent his career advocating for the Jewish community and Israel, first at the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford as director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and through the years at leadership posts within organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Most recently he served as co-director of the Israel Action Network (IAN), working on efforts to promote a healthy dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian issues, counter delegitimization, and build interfaith cooperation.

Felson has also been a gay rights advocate, supporting a wide range of LGBTQ issues over the years and serving on the UJA Pride committee. He also helped pass the first broad-based Jewish policy on gender relations while at the JCPA.

Now Felson’s two passions have merged after being named the new executive director of A Wider Bridge, a New York-based organization that is described on the organization’s website as “working through education, advocacy, relationship-building and grant-making to create equality in Israel by expanding LGBTQ inclusion in Israel, and equality for Israel by cultivating constructive engagement with Israel.”

“It’s very exciting,” Felson recently told the Jewish Ledger. “Anybody LGBTQ knows what it is like to have their life compartmentalized. Having the opportunity professionally to do work that embraces my Judaism, my Zionism and my pride gives me the same thrill that I felt the first time I was in Israel and met with LGBTQ Israelis who were all Jewish. It is the same rush that I feel when I think about the work that A Wider Bridge does.”

“A Wider Bridge stands for justice, equality, civility – all the values that I hold dearest and that have been kind of a hallmark of my work over decades,” Felson added. “It is proudly Jewish, fights antisemitism and for a strong relationship with Israel.

”I am particularly excited to work with the talented board, staff, and networks of A Wider Bridge as we build strong alliances, demand justice, fight discrimination and delegitimization, and support LGBTQ North Americans and Israelis in the struggle for full inclusion, especially Black and trans people in our communities.”

Alan Schwartz, CEO and board chair of the board of A Wider Bridge, called Felson the perfect person to head up the organization.

“Ethan brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the role, as well as a passion for our work demonstrated through decades of grassroots work for Jewish, Israeli and LGBTQ communities,” Schwartz said. “We are confident his leadership will help us both navigate this time of great uncertainty and also position us for our next decade of mobilizing LGBTQ people and our allies as a powerful force for inclusion and equality here and in Israel.

“Israel advocacy keeps evolving and changing on a lot of levels, but the truth is that the struggle against antisemitism, anti-Zionism, homophobia, and transphobia not only is not over, but is occurring on a deeper level. I can think of no one else better than Ethan to handle these challenges in the next few years.”

This is not Felson’s first time working with A Wider Bridge. Last year, while at the Israel Action Network, he co-led a trip to Israel with A Wider Bridge for members of the clergy.

“It was eight days of joy, meeting with the leaders of the LGBTQ organizations in Israel that are funded by A Wider Bridge,” he said. 

“When Ethan and I co-led a mission to Israel through A Wider Bridge last year, I saw firsthand his intellect, drive and dedication to the causes of LGBTQ equality and Zionism,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California. 

“He is a passionate leader and a tireless advocate for justice, and he is the perfect choice to build on A Wider Bridge’s decade of successes and strengthen the connections they have cultivated between Jewish and LGBTQ communities in North America and Israel,” she added.

Community support

Felson was born and raised in West Hartford where his family be-longed to Congregation Beth Israel. He points to his participation in the North American Federation of Temple Youth – or NFTY – the Reform movement’s youth group, and Beth Israel’s assistant rabbi at the time, as being major influences in hi life. 

“When I was a teenager, Congregation Beth Israel hired as an assistant rabbi one of the first women to graduate HUC, Rabbi Jody Cohen,” he recalled. “One Shabbat after services, she welcomed me, got to know me, and helped me understand that as an out gay Jew, I belonged.”  

Coming out at the age of 17, “I felt supported,” he said. “I have nothing but fond thoughts about growing up in West Hartford and being supported by that wonderful community. 

“I think back to my time in Hartford where I was very involved in LGBTQ rights, and professionals at the Jewish Federation that could not have been more supportive – Cindy Chazen, Stephen Bayer, and Bob Fishman were remarkable mentors and friends as I learned and grew as a Jewish professional. And I carry all of that with me into this new position.” 

Earlier this month, Felson was also chosen as one of the Top 50 Jewish/American/Israeli Influencers in New York City by @IsraelinNewYork, the official twitter account of the Consulate General of Israel in New York.

“It’s an honor and I think it is also a reflection of the culmination of my work in the LGBTQ space and my work in the Jewish community, coming together,” Felson said.

Felson began working virtually at A Wider Bridge on Monday, July 13, which coincides with the organization’s 10th anniversary. 

“It is an exciting milestone for a group that has really grown significantly in terms of reach and impact,” Felson said. 

“There is a great story to tell about LGBTQ rights here and in Israel – and much work still to be done including the fight against racism and trans-phobia… Both societies have complex networks of people who would turn the clock back. And we can’t let that happen.” 

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