Just before school started in England this month, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, in collaboration with Keshet UK, released a 36-page document entitled “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools.”
It is a remarkable expression of responsibility and caring that could very well become a trendsetting standard across the Modern Orthodox world.
There is no equivocation in this guide in regard to the human condition. Homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgender identities are not signs of illness, perversion, or bad character. Rather they are presented as basic expressions of ordinary human difference. As such, educators and administrators need to know that the complex legacy of the tradition cannot override the respect, dignity and care that everyone deserves. Levitical prohibitions, claims Rabbi Mirvis, while not rejected, need not lead to humiliation. Indeed, the opposite is true. The guide marks a number of religious duties that decry homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
On this side of the Atlantic a parallel effort has been underway. Eshel, an organization dedicated to the support and inclusion of LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, launched a yeshiva high school inclusion campaign of its own.
A few years ago, when a student came out of the closet, Shalhevet High School, a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, adopted a transparent pledge of inclusion. This past summer Eshel began a social media campaign to encourage all Orthodox high schools to follow suit. Alumni and allies of all ages have been joining the effort, signing a petition and making their own short video pleas for their school to follow Shalhevet’s lead and “take the pledge.” The Pledge promises that if a student comes out in high school, he or she need not fear expulsion, bullying or being forced into change therapy. While navigating the various challenges of adolescence they can expect to be remain embraced by their school community and fully involved in school life.
With already more than 56,000 views, 500 petition signatures and 40 video statements, the project is already having an impact. A number of Orthodox schools have already adopted the pledge into policy or included its language in their student handbooks.
The power of the Chief Rabbi to call upon all United Synagogue schools to embrace fully their LGBTQ students is unparalleled here in the U.S. While not all Orthodox schools in Britain are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi, even in more charedi settings the conversation can no longer be avoided. Schools not accepting the Guide must explain what they find difficult and what not. The bully pulpit of the Chief Rabbi’s office has generated a transparent public standard by which every Jewish school in Britain now must be measured.
Here in the U.S., with no single Chief Rabbi, it will take a groundswell of alliance to move Orthodox leaders forward and encourage schools to adopt a well thought out pledge of inclusion. American rabbis are beginning to voice their concerns. Among them is Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, who co-authored the pledge. He wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people…. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. As individuals and as a community, we must tackle this issue head-on.”
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, also of Los Angeles, conducted a year-long study with his community on the topic. He did so because he concluded that homosexuality may very well be a feature of the human condition and consequently “homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort.”
Rabbi Noah Cheses of Sharon Massachusetts, in a recent letter, urged his congregation to commit to LGBT inclusion. He shared that Moses, in his last oration, speaks to the whole Jewish people, from the “wood chopper to water drawer” (Devarim 29:9). This suggests a profound interdependence, a solidarity nourished by difference and joined together by a shared destiny that makes for a resilient and creative people.
The orchestrated top-down initiative in England and the bottom-up piecemeal groundswell in the U.S. are both aimed at the protection of vulnerable teens. However, a bigger picture comes into view as well. The various rabbis’ embrace of LGBTQ Jews marks a growing sense that the varieties of human experience are not threats but invitations to a discovery of an even deeper solidarity, one enriched by the very difference that once seemed to challenge it.
While these initiatives are encouraging, the work has only begun. It remains to be seen how a halachic system that retains a strong rejection of physical love between people of the same sex can truly offer a vital religious future to LGBTQ students and how a social world divided sharply by gender can manage the awareness of fluidity.
The British and U.S. attempts begin with basic human decency and respect, by listening to LGBTQ Jews with an open heart. While Orthodox congregations will continue to read the famously challenging verse from the book of Leviticus on Yom Kippur afternoon, the broad efforts in schools have the power to interrupt what has most often been received as an accusatory message. As we ready ourselves to bear responsibility for all our deeds and to ask forgiveness for our trespasses, what we all need most is an assurance of our worth, an affirmation of God’s steadfast love of us all, from the wood choppers to the water carriers. It is this mix of accountability and love that makes the final shofar blast so profoundly redemptive.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg is founding director of Eshel.