Monday, January 12, 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

A friend recently asked me to comment on GLBT issues in Jewish schools for a research paper he was writing. Specifically, he wanted information that could be used in a staff sensitively training. I have copied my comments below, directed at teachers, counselors, coaches, and parents everywhere:

When we think of life-saving professions, we often think of doctors and fire fighters, but teachers are also charged with this awesome task. In most schools, the default environment is one of homophobia. This is especially true in a Jewish school. As such, closeted gay, lesbian, and transgendered students often feel alone and rejected. Walk through the halls of any middle or high school in the country, and you'll be horrfied by the number of homophobic comments you hear on a daily basis. "That's so gay." "You're such a fag." These remarks are said in jest, but they drive home the message to GLBT youth that their existence is disgraceful and therefore quite fitting for the punch line of a joke.

Here's where you come in: Do not allow homophobic comments in your classroom. Make it a rule on day one and enforce it vigorously. Take it one step forward and express your acceptance of GLBT individuals. If you bring up the topic even once, you will forever be viewed as an ally by your students. When -- not if, but when -- your gay students want to come out, they will know that you are a safe person, one in whom they can confide.

For those of you who come from a religious background, there is no greater mitzvah than making GLBT youth feel comfortable. You do not need to condone or condemn their sexual behavior. Rather, just accept the person for who he or she is -- באשר הוא שם.

How does this make you life-savers? The suicide rate among GLBT teenagers is staggering. The kind words of one teacher can provide hope to a hopeless child, giving him or the courage to continue living. Because one friend in this world is infinitely better than none.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Trail Blazers

In this week's Torah Portion, Vayigash, Jacob and his family descend to Egypt to escape the famine and live in the land of Goshen. The Torah tells us that Jacob sent Judah ahead of the rest of the family so that Judah could להורות, prepare for their arrival and instruct them how to live in a foreign land. Rashi cites a midrash that Judah was sent ahead in order to build a yeshiva -- a house of Jewish study. From this we learn that Torah and Judaism must be our first priority when establishing a new community.

As gay Jews, I believe we can read an additional meaning into the verse. While the gay rights movement has existed for many years, it has only recently begun to penetrate Jewish institutions. Thus, like Judah, we must act as trail blazers, forging a Jewish community that accepts us for who we are and enables us to integrate our Judaism and our homosexuality. We must pave this path for those who are in the closet as well as for those whose Judaism is in the closet. We must pave this path so that future generations are not forced to choose between their Judaism and their homosexuality, G-d forbid.

Being true to the meaning of the word להורות, we must teach and guide -- teach heterosexuals acceptance and guide homosexuals toward an integrated Jewish life.

Good Shabbos