Making it easier for LGBT Jewish kids to be open, honest

Someday, maybe every gay Jewish youth will have as easy a time coming out as Elias Rubin did.

“I came out a few days after I figured it out myself,” said the 11th-grader from Valley Village. “Everybody was totally supportive and accepting.”

That was when he was in eighth grade. Rubin, now 17, didn’t see the point in keeping it a secret, whether at home or at school.

“Everybody knows, everybody’s OK with it, and we just go on with our daily lives,” he said.

Not all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are so lucky. Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, and more than one-third have attempted suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project (, a collection of video testimonials in support of LGBT youths and in response to harassment and bullying.

A number of Jewish schools and youth organizations in the area are doing their part not only to provide resources for students struggling with their sexuality, but also to ensure inclusive environments where they can thrive.

At New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, about 15 students attend weekly meetings of the B’tselem Elohim / Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The Hebrew refers to the idea that humans are created in God’s own image. Members of the group, now in its second year, have discussed articles from current events and watched videos from the It Gets Better Project.

“The mission is to raise awareness about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues today, all the while encouraging acceptance in our community today,” said Sivan Lipman, the NCJHS group’s faculty adviser.

Milken Community High School in Bel Air has a GSA as well. Members are organizing a Day of Silence on Nov. 18, modeled after a national day of action in which students take some form of a vow of silence to call attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools, according to Stephanie Monteleone, Milken’s group adviser.

“The students who started the GSA felt there was a need for increased awareness about homophobia and how that impacts our community as well as establishing a support network for students who identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an e-mail.

Milken’s middle school also includes a unit on diversity during which the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” is shown.

Simply providing access to information is one easy way to help LGBT students, said Joel L. Kushner, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. Based in Los Angeles, it has a massive online collection of resources at

“It’s really important for Jewish settings … to have the information so that a child can … know that ‘oh, I can be Jewish and not an abomination — you know, from the Leviticus 18:22 verse — and my community will still accept me,’ ” he said.

He said he has seen progress when it comes to openness and awareness in schools and camps, but it needs to be taken to the next level. That means doing education for teachers and not waiting until high school to talk to kids about LGBT issues, he said.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has taken that to heart. Its middle school offers a human development class that starts by teaching sixth-graders about bullying, teasing and how people get targeted for their differences. By the eighth grade, students are sharing their personal stories and smashing stereotypes, from racism to LGBT issues, said counselor Inez Tiger, who teaches the class.

“We just want to create an open, inclusive dialogue,” Tiger said.

Students watch “Straightlaced,” a documentary that examines gender biases, and there are gay speakers who are part of panel discussions. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, also discusses the biblical issues surrounding homosexuality.

Much has changed since Tiger first offered the class.

“I would say it has transformed from when it started 10 years ago, when some parents wouldn’t let their kids come to this section of the class, to now, when they don’t even opt out at all,” she said.

One of the next challenges is turning tolerant spaces into inclusive ones, according to Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides programs and services for the LGBT Jewish community.

“Understanding that LGBT community members can come and participate and won’t be discriminated against is ‘tolerant.’ Being inclusive is offering LGBT-specific services. They have particular needs,” Gellis said. “Do you have a welcoming page on your Web page? Do you have LGBT role models? Are you offering support for parents of LGBT kids? It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Southern California regional programs manager for the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), understands this. While part of the group’s response has been simple — “We have an intolerance for intolerance,” she said — leaders realize there’s more to consider.

“For example, we’re looking at doing one event, possibly this year, that is gender-segregated. The regional board is already talking about what happens with the teens who may want to be with a different gender than they are biologically,” Lipmen said, referring to transgender identity. “It’s something that we’re keenly aware of.”

JQ’s Gellis said he has worked with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, NFTY and Pressman Academy on LGBT issues. Overall, he’s pleased to see how far things have come in the last 25 years.

“The changes are quite dramatic,” he said. “It went from a period of growing up in the ’80s and having no queer Jewish role models — it was a subject that was never discussed — to a conversation that is happening at Shabbat dinner tables, happening on the pulpit and happening in the classroom.”

‘Wagging’: My Story as Gay Jewish Male

A couple of years ago, I heard about an oral history project for older gay men and women that resulted in a staged play. I didn’t see it, but when Bob Baker, the adapter-director, sent out the call for a new cast, I signed up.

We listened to each other’s stories, wrote up the most telling ones and turned remembered conversations into dialogue. After nine months, out came a play.

Everyone’s life is a book, a saga of depth, dreams, passion. The art is all in the telling. This is our story.

We performed “Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” to three sold-out houses one weekend in February at Highways Performance Space. And we’re about to perform the show again.

Stonewall, for those not up on queer history, was the bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, drag queens and minority gay patrons revolted against yet another police raid and said, “enough!” From sexual liberation to AIDS to gay politics and so on, no other generation of gays or lesbians has quite the same perspective that we do.

Here are some of my stories:

When I became the director of the Workmen’s Circle in Southern California in 1995, we opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, which is now celebrating 10 years of Jewish and socially conscious art. A show I mounted in early 1996, while still in my six-month probation, presented photographs by Albert Winn, a gay man seriously ill with AIDS.

None of us knew whether Al would survive until the opening. But I considered it the special mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) I was uniquely positioned to provide. I was willing, in fact, to put my job on this line.

Older members might inform our board that they could not approve of Al’s photo studies of pill bottles in the form of a menorah. But no one complained.

Even better, that spring, the new AIDS treatments came in and saved his life. He’s a thriving artist today. I believe that his resilience to hold out for his “last show” kept him alive until that Shehecheyanu (blessing that thanks God for a long life) moment.

Here’s another: Our youth branch here in Los Angeles was the first in The Workmen’s Circle to endorse same-gender marriage. There were some who felt this was not an appropriate issue for us, but within a couple of years, it had become our national policy.

Like society in general, Judaism has always responded to changing times. We always need to hear the voice of the “outsider,” the “stranger” and the “other” to advance our sense of righteousness in the world.

Coming out is an ongoing process. As new people come into your life, it matters or it doesn’t that you’re gay, and you have to determine their need to know. At first, my 70- and 80-something doyennes of Yiddish socialism had daughters to fix me up with, but after a few months, that stopped. Funny, though, they never mentioned their gay son or nephew.

The story of my life as a gay man also is a Jewish tale. Today, in the bloom of our GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement, we have rabbis and others who hold leadership positions in myriad Jewish communal organizations, who reveal new paradigms of Jewish life. Our homosexuality is simply one more aspect of life to factor in.

With others, it might be their left-handedness, their disability, their shyness, their aptitude, their love for a non-Jew, their political orientation, their crisis of faith. Being gay is qualitatively different, however, because social pressure causes boys and girls, young men and women, to turn against themselves.

What comes up in our play so insistently is that for kids who are genetically wired to turn out gay — and a certain percentage always are — the signs are there early on. Removing shame and disgust from the social equation will make those kids, and all of us, a whole lot happier.

When my sexual thoughts and urgings started, I took note. A few early relationships with women ultimately gave way to the openly gay person I am now, since coming out definitively in 1971. My gayness exerts no less active a presence in my life than the next guy’s heterosexuality, with all his attendant affairs, relationships, marriages, children, divorces, alimonies, moves.

For me, gay liberation came more easily than for some. From my teen years on, I had already defined myself in opposition to the establishment — opposition to Christian hegemony, to banal popular culture, to racism, to war, to imperialism.

Gay oppression was another thing to protest. It became almost a habit. That also partly explains why I felt drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew.

Homosexuality is never really a private matter, as some of our liberal and tolerant friends demand. How can it be? The social structures and prejudices that continue to bring misery, depression and worse to our queer sisters and brothers must be changed as part of the work of tikkun olam (healing the world).

I think my gayness has been an asset to my work. I give my time — evenings, weekends, holidays — in ways that I simply would not be able to if I had a family. I love my work, and I know it needs my full dedication.

But mine is a very special marriage of personality to career. I am not suggesting that gay people can therefore be loaded down with extra work assignments.

One Sunday, as I drove to work for an afternoon program, I had this epiphany. Asking myself, “Why am I doing this? No weekends, little time to myself? No fun?” I suddenly realized that being director of the Workmen’s Circle right here, right now, is who I am in this life. It’s what I do. It’s my contribution to the world.

People say the best way to meet someone is just by going about your business, and if it’s beshert (ordained), they’ll turn up. I’m not big on bars and drinking, anyway. So this guy attended a gallery opening recently, and …well, another meise (tale), another time.

That’s part of my story. Come see our show to hear more. Just as importantly, listen to the voices around you.

“Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” will be performed on May 13 at 8:30 p.m, May 14 at 2:30 p.m. (followed by a meet the cast), May 19 and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. at The Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. $10-$12.

Producer Channels

Gays weren’t even on the radar in Ilene Chaiken’s Jewish community in Philadelphia back in the 1960s.

The creator of Showtime’s lesbian drama, "The L Word," grew up in a home of "good liberal Jews" and belonged to a Reform temple.

"But I think the closest one ever came to acknowledging that homosexuality existed was that ‘queer’ was an insult," said Chaiken, 46. The poised, cerebral executive producer spoke to The Journal in her publicist’s Beverly Hills office. "For years, I was conditioned to think of myself as heterosexual and to measure myself in terms of how I fared in the heterosexual world."

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the 22-year-old Chaiken obtained a job as an agent trainee and a steady boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. But despite the external stability, she felt out of sorts.

"I sensed it had something to do with my sexuality, but I didn’t confess that even to myself," she said.

The change came when she began hanging out at a West Hollywood cafe owned by several lesbians; eventually she struck up a friendship with one of the women, with whom she had her first same-sex affair.

While the relationship didn’t last long, she said, "it let me know that this was a possibility, and once I became aware of it as a possibility, suddenly life seemed a bit more right. The process was scary, but it was much more just a revelation and a relief."

Chaiken channeled that experience and others into "The L Word," which centers on a circle of hip lesbians in West Hollywood. The first television series to revolve around lesbian characters, it joins gay-themed TV shows such as HBO’s "Six Feet Under," NBC’s "Will & Grace," Showtime’s "Queer as Folk" and Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Although "The L Word" has been well-received by TV critics, some observers worry that the series and others like it will enhance the allure of "bisexual chic" among teenage girls.

"Children, in particular, are vulnerable to messages they receive from the popular culture," said Robert Peters, president of the interfaith watchdog group, Morality in Media.

Chaiken, who dismisses such thinking as "archaic," insists the show "is not going to make something happen that is not already happening in the zeitgeist." In fact, she conceived the show while writing an article for Los Angeles magazine four years ago on the gay and lesbian baby boom, a trend she had personally experienced when her partner, Miggi, gave birth to their twin daughters in 1995.

"I suddenly realized that I was very much writing about my life and my community, and that there were so many more [lesbian] stories that hadn’t been told," she said. "I figured the best way to tell them was to do an ensemble TV show."

She brought elements of her own life to several of the characters, including the fictional Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a passionate, bookish Jewish writer, who is new to Los Angeles and living with a boyfriend, albeit sexually confused.

While Jenny soon questions her heterosexual relationship, the more hesitant Chaiken continued dating men for a year after her first lesbian experience. It took her even longer to come out to her parents, which happened when she was 24 and living with Miggi, an architect, whom she described as her roommate. But a few days after her mother came to visit around 1984, Chaiken knew she had to come clean.

"Things got very tense and awkward, because it’s unpleasant to live a lie," she recalled.

Over the course of 12 years, the Chaikens began including Miggi in family seders and calling her their daughter-in-law.

Each "L Word" character also tells her coming-out story, which Chaiken calls a seminal experience in every gay person’s life.

Charges that the steamy sex in the series is a ploy to draw male viewers irk Chaiken.

"The whole notion that we did this just to titillate men is just so off the mark," she said. "The sexuality portrayed in the show … speaks directly to gay women starved for representations of themselves on TV."

Although Chaiken’s primary concern is telling meaningful, universal stories, she also hopes the show reaches lesbians who feel as lost as she did during her early years in Los Angeles. "I hope it helps them come to terms with themselves and to feel less alone," she said.

"The L Word" airs Sundays, 10 p.m., on Showtime.