Following the Orlando shooting, the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Bronx called its students, grades 8-12, into the auditorium for a vigil and prayer service for the Pulse nightclub victims. The event soon became an unprecedented showing of support from the school’s administration for its own LGBT student body, a population at risk.
On Tuesday June 14, SAR Academy High School principal Rabbi Tully Harcsztark provided three reasons to students as to why they had gathered in memoriam, all of which were grounded in Jewish thought and law. After invoking the teachings of Maimonides to explain to students their obligation to mourn with Orlando and greater LGBT community, he clearly declared support for the SAR LGBTQ student body.
“There are gay students in our school community, some that we know of and some that we don’t, and a parent who sent me an email saying this a very tenuous, fragile moment,” said Harcsztark, whose progressive-minded leadership has at times caused controversy. Shortly thereafter, his speech went viral.
Harcsztark’s speech brought SAR ninth grader Shamma Pepper Fox, who came out to friends and family earlier this year, to tears. “When he oriented the discussion towards the students and all the more so towards the gay students, it was really amazing,” Pepper Fox said.
As a previously closeted student, Pepper Fox said he would’ve wanted to have heard the support from a person representative of the entire institution rather than from only one teacher who’s supportive of LGBT students. As Pepper Fox explained, closeted students often see the world in terms of potential allies and people who cannot be trusted, so until an institution comes out as supportive, the space is unsafe. “Once a school ‘comes out,’ no pun intended, and says we are a safe space and we want to support our students…once that happens publicly, then students can feel more comfortable.”
And that’s exactly what happened at SAR. In his speech, Harcsztark explained that now is a time to “reflect, to ensure that our environment is a safe environment and we model that for others as well.”
Sima Lichtschein, a social worker who works with LGBT Orthodox teens at risk through the Jewish Queer Youth drop-in center, called Harcsztark’s address, which she watched on Facebook, “special.” She explained that most teens who come to the center “didn’t expect a response [to the Orlando shooting] from their schools. They’re used to silence around LGBTQ issues.” Harcsztark’s remarks were surprising and unique, she explained, not only because they were made, but also because the school shared the video publicly on Facebook. “It could have just stayed there in that auditorium, but it didn’t. SAR made the decision to share it, and in doing so, offered support and comfort to those who were not getting these things from their own schools and communities.”
A 9th grade student who currently attends a different modern Orthodox high school in Queens felt moved and comforted by the SAR memorial, which she heard about from friends and then watched on Facebook, especially since her own school didn’t acknowledge the LGBT facet of the Orlando attack. Though the teen (who asked not to be named) is out to family and a few friends, the student is not otherwise publicly out of the closet. “It bothered me that they [my school] didn’t give any support to the LGBTQ community and they still see it as an abstract concept and don’t realize there are LGBTQ students in the school,” the student said. “I’m more than a concept.”
According to the Family Acceptance Project, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. That statistic, coupled with the fact that 73 percent of Jewish kids in New York are Orthodox, a community that has traditionally outlawed homosexuality based on the Biblical verse Leviticus 18:22, puts teens at an even higher risk.
Related: Coming Out in the Classroom
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.