Early this summer, a young man took his life. He graduated from a school that is perhaps like your own and was learning for the summer in an Israeli yeshiva. He was a brilliant, kind-hearted and determined young man. He had a large group of friends who loved and respected him as well as a family that adored him. While he had experienced an array of emotional challenges, in his last message he identified that his struggle with his sexuality was key among them.
At the funeral, the family’s rabbi ended his eulogy with a hopeful charge that we can be “more understanding of boys and girls who are struggling with their sexuality. We are all children of Hashem, and no matter who you are you belong in our community. You are part of our nation. You belong here.”
As religious leaders who work with students in the Orthodox community, it surely comes as no surprise to you that there are LGBT+ students struggling in your school. In every traditional Jewish school, whether it is a mixed-gender high school, an ulpana or a yeshiva, there are students who are contending with an emerging sexual orientation or gender identity that does not neatly fit in the social worlds where we are raising and educating them.
How can your school help these teenagers trust that their lives won’t fall apart when the truth comes to light? How can you, as an educator, ease their fears? How can you help them see a future for themselves where Torah and mitzvot continue to be at the center of their lives? In what ways might you be able to accompany them on their journey of self-discovery?
In the two months from Tisha b’Av to Yom Kippur, we move from loss to consolation and from accountability to renewed commitment. During the next few weeks, as you prepare for the coming school year, we would like to suggest a few related steps that you and your faculty can take to assure that our LGBT+ teens do not succumb to despair.
Make sure your students understand, even before they have the courage to ask, that when a student comes out they will be supported and protected. Even if you feel confident that your staff will take a caring approach behind closed doors, students will only know that will happen if it is stated clearly and openly. By adding a candid statement of understanding and support in your student guide and including it as part of your back-to-school orientation you can calm fears and relieve anxieties. Ultimately, the challenge is to give your students a clear answer to the question, “What will happen if I am truthful?”
While each school will craft its own statements, there are some basic promises most schools should be able to make: that when a student “comes out,” he or she will not be thrown out of school or pressured into damaging “conversion therapy”; that a school will not tolerate bullying and will offer the support and integration that students need. For a model, there is a student guide policy statement created by your colleague, Rabbi Ari Segal, and a student of his at the Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.
United Kingdom Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, working with LGBT Jews, published a remarkable document last fall, “A Guide for The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils in Orthodox Schools.” Rabbi Mirvis’ two-page introduction movingly explains the key purposes of the guide. You can use it as a resource for board deliberations, staff trainings and classroom study to launch conversations about LBGT+ inclusion in religious settings.
There are halachic and philosophical challenges to LGBT+ inclusion and no easy answers. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t face the questions. In order to consider the various approaches to policy, pedagogy, and curriculum, schools can shape teams that spend time in deliberation to come up with more detailed plans that are imbued with the particular values of the school and are responsive to the needs of LGBT+ students. Working groups can include administration, key educational and religious leaders and mental health professionals. For at least some of the deliberation, local stakeholders, like parents of LGBT+ children and recent LGBT+ graduates are key.
As educators you have all pledged not only to transmit a sacred tradition, but to build students, to give them a foundation for intellectual depth, moral integrity, and loving kindness that will carry them forward into their adult lives. We know that their well-being is precious to you.
In the Haftorah of Shabbat Nachamu, Yishayahu responds to the hopelessness of the exiles with the affirmation that Hashem has not abandoned Israel, and that despite it all, there is still hope. This is the essence of consolation. “Like a shepherd, God pastures his flock; gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom.”
LGBT+ Orthodox teens can easily feel lost about their place in the Jewish community and hopeless about their future. If you demonstrate that you are committed to their total well-being as people and as Jews, they too will know that despite their worst fears, they belong in your school, and in the arms of the Shepherd.
Miryam Kabakov is is executive director and Rabbi Steve Greenberg is founding director of Eshel, a nonprofit that works to create inclusive Orthodox communities for LGBTQ+ people (eshelonline.org).