The Chief Rabbi and a Jewish LGBT+ charity have jointly launched an unprecedented guide to protect LGBT+ pupils from bullying in school, in a move warmly welcomed by Europe’s biggest Jewish school, JFS.
In an historic step, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has spent almost a year working with LGBT+ umbrella group KeshetUK to draft the 33-page document, urging tolerance towards young Jews discovering their sexual and gender identity.
It follows a landmark report last year from human rights group Stonewall, which found that half of all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) pupils are bullied at school, with those who identify as a different gender particularly at risk.
Stonewall found that 84 percent of transgender pupils self-harm and 45 percent have tried to take their own life, in some cases succeeding. More than one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils did likewise.
The new document, called ‘The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools,’ is available to read on the website of the Office of the Chief Rabbi, who described it as “essential” in his introductory statement.
Some Orthodox Jews in Britain and elsewhere continue to think those who identify as non-heterosexual or who do not identify with their gender of birth are making “lifestyle choices” that require “conversion”.
Writing in Jewish News this week, Joe Hyman explains how he underwent three years of “conversion therapy” before finally getting support and acceptance, in a moving account in which he suggested Mirvis’s intervention would save lives.
In his ground-breaking guide, which will be read with interest by Orthodox communities around the world, the Chief Rabbi said: “There is an urgent need for authoritative guidance which recognises the reality that there are young LGBT+ students in our schools to whom we have a duty of care.”
KeshetUK praised the Chief Rabbi for his stance, saying anti-LGBT+ bullying is “used to aggressively enforce gender stereotypes and limit young people’s academic, career and personal life aspirations… It doesn’t have to be this way.”
One former pupil, who attended an Orthodox Jewish school, recalls in the guide how his teacher had once said: “I’d sit shiva for my son if he ever came out.” The pupil, who had not yet come out, left school shortly after hearing that comment.
Mirvis said it was a conscious decision to include the reflections of former LGBT+ pupils “to provide an essential insight for teachers into how some of their pupils may be experiencing their education”.
He acknowledged that Orthodox schools find it “exceptionally challenging” to deal with LGBT+ issues, but said: “Failure to address it at all amounts to an abrogation of our responsibility to the Almighty and to our children.”
- OPINION: Joe Hyman: Chief Rabbi Mirvis writes LGBT+ Jews into the Book of Life
- OPINION – Rachel Fink: Let’s resolve to be there for all our young people
Among Mirvis’s recommendations is that schools update their code of conduct to make staff “role models” in terms of the language they use, as well as to promote the wellbeing of LGBT pupils and take a zero-tolerance approach to LGBT+ bullying.
The Chief Rabbi also urges “a joined-up approach where Kodesh/Jewish Studies teachers, Rabbis and Rebbetzens work together with other departments to deliver a sensitive, balanced approach to those who are discovering their identity”.
Rachel Fink, head-teacher at JFS, said the school was “proud” to support the guide, which had been written “with great sensitivity and wisdom” and amounted to “an important publication which every Jewish school should embrace”.
She added: “It considers both the students who need our support whilst remaining true to Halacha. The Chief Rabbi leads the way for all educators in how we must actively work to prevent homophobic, transphobic and biphobic bullying and provide appropriate pastoral support.”
Hyman also praised the Chief Rabbi’s intervention as “a bold step in starting public conversations around sexuality, gender identity and the vital importance of our inclusion in our schools and Jewish communal life”.
He added: “The efforts made by him and KeshetUK will provide the strength and knowledge needed for leaders and educators to create environments that allow Jewish young people to achieve their potential, free from bullying, discrimination and fear.”
In a statement ahead of the launch, Mirvis said the guide was “an extremely significant milestone” and that it would have “a real and lasting impact on reducing harm to LGBT+ Jews across the Orthodox Jewish community”.
He added: “Our children need to know that at school, at home and in the community, they will be loved and protected regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.”
However, he will know that some rabbis may take issue with his involvement in the guide’s production, and addressed concerns in the guide. “We are, of course, aware of the Torah’s issurim (prohibitions) here, including Vayikra/Leviticus 18:22,” he says.
“But when homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is carried out with ‘justifications’ from Jewish texts, a major chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) is caused. We must be ever-mindful of the mitzva to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Vayikra/Leviticus19:18), considered by Rabbi Akiva to be the most important principle of the Torah.”
- FULL Jewish News interview with John McDonnell: ‘MPs shouldn’t face deselection’
- Listen to the full interview with John McDonnell here: