Some of my rabbinic colleagues have already responded more fully to the incident of a charity, which promotes an attitude that people who are gay can be ‘cured’, being featured in a lesson at JFS. I do not want to simply repeat what they have said, though it goes without saying that I actually find the inclusion of the charity within any sort of presentation is outrageous. However, here are some of my additional thoughts about the story which featured prominently in the JC.
I think there are three points that I want to make: what seems to me to be a woeful understanding of sound educational principles and concern for welfare of students; the outrage it has prompted is a positive reflection of what I think indicates the dominant open, inclusive and progressive Judaism that a voice in UK Jewry which is slowly becoming more forceful; Liberal Judaism was the pioneer in terms of inclusivity and helping the wider Jewish world become more aware of issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, but must not sit back on its laurels.
Let me take each of these in turn. Regarding educational principles, the statement by JFS seems to betray an utter contempt for the idea that context is everything in education. For a school which prides itself on a high standard of education it is disappointing to see them appear to fail to appreciate that showing a slide of this charity, as has been alleged with no real context or discussion, and claiming it is to ‘leave students with food for thought’ is a specious argument. Some students seem to have been savvy enough to appreciate that the presentation appeared to promote the charity; it is therefore surprising that the head teacher seems to be unable to recognise this same problem. That a school could be so unaware of the impact such a mention could have on the well being of their students, which after all, is of paramount importance in a school seems doubly concerning. Mental health problems for young people who struggle to find acceptance because of their sexuality are a serious concern; a school that undermines a young person’s growing sense of identity in such a way must surely re-evaluate its general level of care for young people.
The positive side of this story, if we can find one, is in the outrage that has been prompted since it broke earlier this week. What I have witnessed is a voice in the Jewish community that is open and inclusive and prepared to be heard. Though we (some of the leaders of the Jewish community) could be accused of being slow to react, I am pleased that it is not only gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews who have spoken out. Movements and movement leaders, rabbis, young people and JFS alumni have all demonstrated that it is no longer a voice of exclusion, ignorance and homophobia which sets the agenda. That is a sign for hope for Jewish life in this country that welcomes and values everybody.
Lastly, I work for The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, which is constituent synagogue of Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism was the first denomination in the UK to offer a liturgy for same sex commitment ceremonies and has been at the forefront of the campaign for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples who want civil partnership ceremonies in religious buildings. There are many leaders, including rabbis, who have driven this agenda forwards in the last year. What this story at JFS shows us is that we must not rest on our laurels; discrimination, homophobia and ignorance are never far away, even if we accept the school’s account, the fact that charities exist, such as the one which was presented, remains deeply worrying. This is not even an orthodox/non-orthodox issue, thereby placing JFS (an Orthodox Jewish day school) beyond the direct influence of Liberal Judaism. It is an issue for all Jews and, in fact, it is an issue for all of humankind.