October 22, 2019

UK Guide Offers Safe Space to Orthodox LGBT+ Students

Could a new United Kingdom resource guide designed to help create safer spaces for LGBT+ Orthodox Jewish students be a model for something similar in the United States?

That appears to be the hope after the guide’s creators, KeshetUK Executive Director Dalia Fleming and KeshetUK Trustee Dr. Benjamin Ellis, recently undertook a five-city tour across the U.S. to share their findings. 

The tour was coordinated by Eshel, a U.S. organization that creates community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.

KeshetUK works across the Jewish community with Jewish LGBT+ people and their families. At a recent event hosted at a private home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, around 40 community members came to hear Fleming and Ellis talk about how the guide could potentially be applied not just to schools but also to shuls, camps and youth groups. 

“The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools” (which can be read and downloaded at keshetuk.org) was a joint project between LGBT+ Jews and the office of Chief Rabbi of the U.K. Ephraim Mirvis. It includes textual sources, psychological studies and an approach to caring for these students and their families. 

The guide is interlaced with halachic phrases and principles like “Lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa” (Don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow). One chapter is subtitled “Preventing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.” Other chapter titles include “Ona’at devarim: Using language responsibly,” “Middot: Living a Jewish ethos” and “V’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha: Providing pastoral support.”

“People in the Orthodox community are really struggling to reconcile what they believe to be true about humanity and what they see in the halachah that doesn’t quite mesh for them,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, a Pico-Robertson resident (and former Jewish Journal writer) who organized the event. “And when you know someone who is suffering because of that disconnect, it goes from being abstract to being very real.”

“KeshetUK has a vision of a world where no one has to choose between their Jewish and LGBT+ identity,” Fleming said at the event. “Too many people feel forced to live as one or the other. The Jewish community takes wonderful care of the Jewish community. We want to make sure we don’t forget our LGBT+ population.” 

“People in the Orthodox community are really struggling to reconcile what they believe to be true about humanity and what they see in the halachah that doesn’t quite mesh for them.” — Julie Gruenbaum Fax

According to a statement from Fleming and Ellis included in the guide, the document came about “because of the passion and commitment of the Jewish community to
get this right. Jewish educational professionals, rabbis and other communal leaders have a desire to work with KeshetUK to make sure that young LGBT+ people are safe and can feel welcome in their Jewish school environment. Nowhere have we seen this more clearly than in our close and collaborative work in recent months with the Chief Rabbi and his office.” 

In his introduction to the guide, Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote, “A priority for every school is the well-being of its students,” and that many school leaders and rabbis believe “there is an urgent need for authoritative guidance which recognises the reality that there are young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) students in our schools to whom we have a duty of care.”

Mirvis also noted that KeshetUK has been “totally respectful of Torah values, never seeking to undermine or contradict any issurim (prohibitions) or important areas of hashkafa [halachic perspective]. They have not sought acclaim or praise — their only motivation has been the well-being of young Jews.” 

Gruenbaum Fax said focusing on inclusion for children was important because “kids don’t have options. Adults see communities that don’t work for them [and] they can walk away. The child has to stay in the school and family that they’re in, and they’re the school’s and the family’s responsibility. We are working to keep them from rejection, self-harm and complete rejection of Judaism.” 

Mirvis’ letter added that “the production of this document together with KeshetUK represents something far more powerful than the sum of its parts. It is a statement that individuals, organisations and communities can have fundamentally different beliefs about important issues and can, nonetheless, see the humanity in others and truly care about one another.”

Gruenbaum Fax called Mirvis an “amazing role model of collaboration and courageous community action.” As for next local steps, Fax said that without a chief rabbi for the U.S., it’s hard to identify the person who would mirror Mirvis’ level of authority to the Jewish community at large. “But I don’t think that fact should be used as an excuse to not do it,” she said. “If we get together with enough of our leaders on a local or national level, we can make the same impact that the Chief Rabbi made.”

How to move from the community’s current position to “one step better” looks different for different people and different organizations, Gruenbaum Fax added. “But everyone across the board recognizes that things need to change.”

There is already some traction for greater LGBT+ inclusion in Orthodox Jewish life among Los Angeles organizations. On its website, Congregation B’nai David-Judea states its goal of creating “a safe, inclusive community for all who enter our doors,” specifically inviting those who are “Jewish by birth or by choice, new to halachic observance or born into it, married, single, divorced or widowed, gay or straight, old or young, whatever your level of ability or whatever challenges you face — all are invited to join with us in prayer, Torah study, tikkun olam, support for Israel and the sacred work of being a Jew.” 

Shalhevet High School has instituted Eshel’s high school pledge, committing to inclusion and support for all students. 

“The presence of everyone here is inspiring,” Ellis said at the event. “Some LGBT+ people may leave [Orthodoxy], but we want to bring hope that Orthodox communities can be safe and loving.”

Fleming and Ellis explained how KeshetUK works with schools, rabbis and educators on teacher training, as well as advising on policies, curriculum, communications and website content, while also developing respectful relationships with them to determine what they need, relationship by relationship.

“Before an organization can get from A to Z, it has to get from A to B,” Fleming said. “It’s not our place to change halachah but to reduce harm and enable people to stay sitting in the community and with their families. Schools are open to the idea that there are steps they can take. We’ll do more teacher training and consult on things that come up, to ensure that young people are safe.”