Well-being of Orthodox LGBTQ students considered

Pictured at an event on the well-being of LGBTQ pupils in Orthodox day schools are, from left, Dalia Fleming, Benjamin Ellis and Peninah Gershman. Photo by Samantha Cooper

Last fall, Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, the chief rabbi of England, published a guide for how Orthodox schools can become more welcoming to LGBTQ students.

“Our children need to know that at school, at home and in the community, they will be loved and protected regardless of their sexuality or gender identity,” he said in his introduction to “The Wellbeing of LGBTQ+ pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools.”

Last week, two members of KeshetUK, the British nonprofit that helped create the guide, were in Rockville to spread the word to an audience at Congregation Pardes, a modern Orthodox synagogue affiliated with the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.

These are the points they made:The Torah and traditionally understood halachah (Jewish law) have prohibitions relating to LGBTQ people, and the guide does not shy away from that fact, said Benjamin Ellis, a trustee of KeshetUK. “Therefore, the work of the guide is to stand in the face of those texts and nevertheless to say, ‘So what does it mean?’ This is a guide for Orthodox Jewish communities.”


The guide calls for gradual change in a school’s point of view, said KeshetUK Executive Director Dalia Fleming, rather than going straight to celebrating LGBT+ identities.

“Each community will have their own boundary. If you feel like part of your community is intolerant and you want to get to accepting, if you just jump to accepting, that’s a big leap,” Fleming said.

Schools should make sure that students are aware that homophobic and transphobic bullying is unacceptable.

The guide suggests that schools keep the identities LGBTQ students private if they do not wish to come out to certain people, including family members. This is for the student’s safety, as some families might kick the student out of the house or abuse them if they were aware of the person’s sexual or gender identity.

Fleming said that even though she came out to her mother, she didn’t do so to her father for several years because she was afraid of how he would react.

Schools need to associate Judaism with kindness and acceptance toward LGBTQ students, as many of them turn their backs on Judaism after being bullied.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky, rabbi of both of Congregation Pardes and Berman Hebrew Academy, called the presentation “an opportunity to hear how another community is wrestling with the same issue we’re wrestling with and some of the steps they took to address those issues.”

But audience member Azariah Kurlantzick, a college student, didn’t think the presentation offered enough for transgender people.

“I feel progress is moving more slowly for transgender people, especially in Orthodoxy, because of how many things are based in gender,” said Kurlantzick, who is transgender. “In their examples of transphobic bullying, there was a lot of gender-based teasing but nothing about addressing that misgendering someone is grounds for bullying. I appreciate where they’re coming from, but I think when you’re giving somebody a baseline for what transphobia looks like, it’s important to address all of what that means.”

Jill Katz and her daughter, Abigail Katz, of Silver Spring, attended the talk together.

“There is a disconnect between social justice and Orthodoxy,” Jill Katz said. “So, I wanted [Abigail] to see that you could be liberal and Orthodox. You could be respectful of issues and respectful of Torah observance. Lot of people think it’s one or the other.”

“I like how people are actually striving to look at both sides,” said Abigail, a 10th grader at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. “I really do like both aspects — you gotta treat everyone with respect and you have to stick to the traditions — so I like how they try to balance both.”

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