Coming Out in the Classroom

A decade ago, the movie ‘Hineini’ opened a discussion about LGBT issues in Jewish schools. Now educators say the situation has improved—although challenges remain.

By Judy Bolton-Fasman|January 12, 2016 12:00 AM


It has been 10 years since the release of Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School. The film, which chronicled 16-year-old Shulamit Izen’s sometimes bumpy journey to identify as a lesbian at The New Jewish High School (now called Gann Academy) in suburban Boston, marked a turning point for the Jewish LGBT community. Since its release, there have been sweeping changes, particularly in Judaism’s more liberal branches, where LGBT issues have been at the forefront of policy initiatives in Jewish day schools, youth groups, and camps.

These changes have been brought on by effective advocacy, often in concert with Keshet—an organization that describes itself as working for the full inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of Jewish life. Founded in 1996 by two gay Jewish men in Boston, Keshet was an all-volunteer affair until Idit Klein came on board in 2001 as executive director. One of her first major undertakings at Keshet was to provide on-the-ground support in the form of friendly advice and the sharing of Keshet’s then-growing resources to Izen when the film was shot 15 years ago.

In a recent interview, Klein talked about Izen’s early struggles to found a Gay-Straight Alliance at Gann and Keshet’s involvement in producing Hineini. “The story that we tell in Hineini,” said Klein, “is a narrative that can be seen in multiple ways as a coming out story and a story about organizing. But it is also a narrative about the kind of support that best enables young people to lead. If Keshet had not existed, I’m confident that [Izen] would have found her way. The outcome may not have been the same and the journey would have felt much more isolating and uncomfortable for her.”

Filmmaker and director Irena Feyngold during post-production of Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School. (Image courtesy of Keshet)

In the past decade Hineini has grown into its own enterprise, with a 150-page curriculum guide that has been deployed in a variety of Jewish educational settings, including day schools. Klein notes that while actual numbers have not been reliably tracked, Keshet is aware of several hundred day-school community screenings of Hineini. Additionally, day schools have used the film in curricula about pluralism and contemporary Jewish issues and placed the film in their libraries. Schools have also used it—and, according to Klein, this programming has been primarily driven by students—in programs around National Coming Out Day, Day of Silence, and Pride Month.

Marc Kramer, co-executive director of RAVSAK—the central agency of the independent Jewish day schools in North America—observes that “Hineini has opened up conversations in many schools about what it means to be a safe school for LGBT kids, teachers, administrators, and parents. A decade ago our schools were quietly good places for LGBT families. But now this is a conversation that we have more openly in America and in the Jewish community.”

Izen—who is now a Reconstructionist rabbi and training for the chaplaincy [2]—nervously laughed at the suggestion that she is a pioneer. “It wasn’t about me,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I wanted a space where I knew there would be other people that had to be gay, and shame on us if we were letting people struggle alone. I was a queer Jewish woman, and all of those identities needed to be present at school.”

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Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, head of The New Jewish High School when Izen came out—as well as Gann’s first head of school and a central figure in Hineini—was one of three panelists at a recent 10th-anniversary celebration for the film held at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Now the president of Hebrew College—a non-denominational institution that trains pluralistic Jewish leaders, educators, rabbis, scholars, and lay leaders—Lehmann describes Izen’s coming out as “formative on the leadership level. At the time I had the attitude that people’s sexual orientation was none of my business, and that was a huge mistake. My role was to be a person who listens, but I wasn’t comfortable with being the listener in a seat of authority. I didn’t understand my role at the time.”

Looking back, Izen notes that Lehmann played a pivotal role in her years at Gann. “I met with him a year or two ago and sat with him as two rabbis,” she told me. “I have so much more compassion and understanding for the situation he was in at the time.” But she also acknowledges that she was “devastated” when Lehmann told her back then that he didn’t want to hear about her sex life. “He’s evolved so much since then,” she said.

Panelist Susie Tanchel was a Bible teacher at Gann when Izen came out—and while Izen was trailblazing her way to a GSA, Tanchel was still in the closet. “[Izen] forced me to a reckoning of my own,” she said at the Hebrew College celebration. Today Tanchel is the head of school at the Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, Massachusetts—a pluralistic K-8 school that she describes as a place where “students can hold multiple perspectives.”

Tanchel describes a GSA as a place “that gives LGBT kids a space where they can just be. Not being able to freely communicate about your life takes energy.” Lehmann agrees that “in a community engaged in pluralism and inclusion you need intentional focused places,” but he notes that he has never cared for the term “Gay-Straight Alliance,” which is particularly popular in public schools. “I wanted to bring the GSA into a Jewish conversation,” he said on the panel. “I didn’t want the GSA to function like one in a public school. Our GSA needed to have a Jewish core in which Judaism was at the heart of its mission.” In response to Lehmann’s concerns, Gann’s GSA was named “Open House” after The Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which serves as Israel’s flagship organization for LGBT people.

Different schools take different approaches to how their GSAs function: When Zachary Silver became the school rabbi four years ago at the Conservative Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (then known as the Chicagoland Jewish High School) in Deerfield, Illinois, it was a priority for him that an activist GSA have a Jewish identity. He began by naming the GSA Ga’avah, the Hebrew word for pride.

However, at Ramaz, a modern Orthodox co-educational high school in New York City, the GSA takes on the form of a discussion group about sexuality and LGBT issues, rather than an outright advocacy group. Ramaz calls its version of a GSA the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, and it is described on the school’s website as being “designed to provide a safe space for discussion of various topics of sexuality within the Ramaz student body.” Ramaz’s school psychologist and director of guidance Jerry Zeitchik advises the club, which has been on hiatus for the past couple of years due to lack of interest. He is cautious about how the group is perceived. “Ramaz is a mission-driven Orthodox school,” he said, “committed to a diverse student body and extremely sensitive to the dignity of every human being. Given that context, it’s important for schools not to politicize the issue.”

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A decade after Hineini, Jewish schools across the country are dealing with LGBT issues in a variety of ways, but there are still few LGBT people in positions of power at the schools. Lehmann, who now struggles with the fact that there is no openly gay or lesbian full-time faculty at Hebrew College, said, “We need to create communities with LGBT people in leadership roles.”

Eliana Dobres graduated from a community day school in Cleveland in eighth grade and went on to become active in BBYO, formerly known as the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. As it happens Dobres met Izen, who was a counselor at a BBYO summer program. It was through Izen and BBYO that she connected to her identity as a Jewish lesbian. Izen then introduced her to Keshet’s LGBT Youth and Ally Shabbaton. Now in its fifth year, the Shabbaton is held on both East and West coasts and was founded as yet another safe space for Jewish LGBT teens to come together. Today Dobres is a freshman at Ohio State, where she is forming a group connecting Judaism to LGBT identity. “So far, we’ve had discussions of how different parts of the Torah relate to LGBT identity and hope to celebrate Shabbat together next semester,” she said. “I’m excited to see LGBT Jewish leaders in the future.”

Reform and Conservative youth movements have been actively mentoring such leaders in the past decade. The National Federation of Temple Youth sees LGBT inclusion as a social justice issue. Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, NFTY’s Director of Learning and Innovation, notes that in the past year NFTY’s teen board has addressed gender and sexual equality through deliberately creating safe spaces for LGBT teens. Wood also points out that NFTY policies have been in keeping with a comprehensive resolution passed at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial in November 2015 calling for transgender equality in temples and other Reform Jewish communities. “[The URJ resolution] inspires us to think about how we can go further and think about transgender issues, whether it’s gender-neutral bathrooms or housing for regional events,” said Wood.

Rabbi David Levy, director of teen learning for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, admits that transgender issues are new territory for United Synagogue Youth, but he said, “We are thrilled that teens are asking for access as they identify. We are working in combination with an inclusion mode and a risk-management mode to figure out the best approach so that every participant feels safe and comfortable. We’ll eventually get ahead of the issue and make it work. We’re still a work in progress.”

Transgender issues are ‘the new frontier where work has to be done.’

Many day schools and other Jewish youth institutions are coming to understand how to welcome transgender members in their communities. Seventeen-year-old Azariah Kurlantzick says he has benefited from this new Jewish awareness around transgender issues. Kurlantzick, who lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb and identifies as a gay transgender man, has participated in Keshet’s Shabbaton since ninth grade. He also stays connected to his Jewish queer identity through GLOE at the D.C. JCC. GLOE, which stands for GLBT Outreach and Engagement, was founded in 2006 as the first and still only full-time GLBT program at any JCC in North America.

Kurlantzick’s Jewish transgender experience hasn’t always been comfortable. He left his parents’ Orthodox synagogue when he was not allowed to sit in the men’s section. He subsequently went to a Conservative synagogue, where he said the rabbi and youth outreach staff member “make me very happy and make me feel very safe in that community.”

Klein asserts that transgender is “the new frontier where work has to be done. Not too long ago we were explicitly told not to talk about transgender issues when doing a training. ‘It’s too much, it’s too scary. Start with the G and the L.’ More often than not [transgender issues] are now the desired focus, that’s where the need is for youth groups, camps, and JCCs.”

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Levy does not see LGBT inclusion as just a liberal Jewish issue. He has a specific wish for “our Jewish youth movement community to be speaking in one voice.” Among the potential voices that Levy hopes will join the chorus are people like Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of the Orthodox-based National Council for Synagogue Youth. “We’re very committed to having NCSY be a place where any Jewish teen can come and be inspired in their Judaism and to explore and hone their Jewish identity,” Greenland said. “How to do that in a way that takes into consideration all the various policy concerns and acts in fidelity with halakha and traditional practice is one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

In terms of LGBT issues, Greenland said that NCSY is “in thoughtful consideration with mental health professionals and rabbinic guides about how to craft such policies and language in a way that’s true to all of our values.”

Ramaz’s Zeitchick says that “the challenge is to figure out how to help every kid feel accepted and embraced in an Orthodox school without rewriting the Torah.” Rabbi Marc Baker, Gann Academy’s current head of school, sees another dimension to that challenge: “We are a pluralistic school, which includes Orthodox people in our tent who are wrestling with [the LGBT] issue. They are bound to a certain interpretation of Jewish law. We want those people, too, and we want them to wrestle with the question of halakha, Torah, and homosexuality. If we don’t, [the Orthodox] might go into the closet about their faith.”

What happens to the gay Orthodox Jew who is in the closet about his sexuality? Morris Alper, a senior at MIT, says his homosexuality isolated him in the Orthodox community. In response he co-founded an organization called Netivot that would meet his social and spiritual needs. The organization, whose name means “paths” in Hebrew, states that its mission “is to create a space to explore the intersection between our LGBTQ and traditional Jewish identities and to move the traditional community toward greater understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ Jews.”

Alper says when he started Netivot almost two years ago, the response was modest. Today there are more than 100 members and the group is growing, making him optimistic about the future for LGBT Orthodox Jews. “Young Modern Orthodox people,” he said, “have become much more accepting than their parents’ generation. They know LGBT people and for that reason are less likely to be homophobic.”

For his part, Lehmann said, “I never imagined as a person rooted in my Orthodox identity I would be engaging in LGBT issues and providing a core example of a school dealing with it.”

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