August 18, 2018

Pledging Safety in High Schools Regardless of Sexuality and Gender: The Eshel Pledge

By Lily Fisher Gomberg

Lauren Grobois loved her experience at SAR High School. She loved her teachers and the curriculum, and got along with her classmates well. So on June 12, 2018 when she shared a video testimony imploring SAR High School (among other Modern Orthodox high schools) to take the Eshel Pledge, “It wasn’t me against SAR, it was more me talking to an organization that I know listens to people and also is very caring,” said Grobois, SAR High School, Riverdale, NY class of 2014 and Brandeis University, class of 2019.

The Eshel Pledge is an explicit promise to LGBT+ students that there will be no expulsion, bullying, or reparative therapy, and full inclusion, support, and open admission at Modern Orthodox high schools. Grobois said that her motivation for sharing the pledge on social media was partly to bring attention to the pledge at SAR, but also because “I wanted queer people on my Facebook feed to see that I stand with them, and I stand with this Eshel Pledge, which is important because a lot of times queer students don’t necessarily feel like they can come out in Modern Orthodox spaces, because, even though most of their friends and most of the people around them are so welcoming and so okay with them coming out, nobody really voices that opinion.” Grobois says that she didn’t know anyone who was out of the closet in high school, but she does know of past classmates who have come out since. She also notes that since she graduated, “other students have come out, and the administration has been really great to my knowledge. In general, they’re really welcoming and I think that they understand the situation, but they have not taken this pledge… it’s important that they do.”

The pledge is now being promoted by Eshel, an LGBT+ Jewish advocacy group, but it was not directly developed by Eshel but by Micha Thau, class of 2017 at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, CA. Thau wrote in his 2016 article in Jewish Journal that he waited two years in “anxious fear” to come out of the closet at Shalhevet. When he did come out, his experience was much like that which Grobois described, his school and classmates were more accepting than he had expected. After a summer fellowship with Eshel, he decided to sit down with  Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal to create a pledge that would let LGBT+ students know that Shalhevet would accept them. Rabbi Segal even wrote a public article about inclusion of LGBT+ folks in Orthodox schools.

Shalhevet ’07 alum and Brandeis doctoral candidate Benjamin Steiner noted that “it’s probably a bold move for them [Rabbi Segal], and I applaud it.” The pledge was adopted 10 years after Steiner’s graduation from Shalhevet, but he believes that it’s emblematic of Shalhevet’s inclusivity and openness to hearing students opinions. When asked why he believed the pledge wasn’t created sooner, he said that the timing wasn’t right in 2007, “it’s sad that they didn’t have it till now, but I wouldn’t fault them for it.”

The pledge was met with enthusiasm at Shalhevet, and Eshel has decided to take it national. An Eshel representative said that the pledge is timely because “in the past two years, acceptance in the Orthodox community has grown, and schools’ policies don’t necessarily reflect that… this is authentic to orthodoxy. The alumni really believe in this, and we’re just organizing it. The students want this.” Now, Eshel is calling on students, alumni, and parents who have connections to Modern Orthodox high schools to create video testimony and ask their school to take the Pledge. Actually taking the pledge is an end goal, but the immediate goal of these videos is to create dialogue about inclusion and LGBT+ issues in the Orthodox community.     

One current Brandeis student who prefers not to be named recalls that at their Modern Orthodox high school “there was one basically one queer student, and [there were rumors that] they were asked to leave the school if they were going to be out.” They cite this perceived lack of acceptance as a reason why they personally stopped identifying with Orthodoxy. This alum is glad that the pledge is gaining momentum now, and hopes that many schools will adopt it. They are not surprised, however, at the timing in which the pledge is gaining momentum because LGBT+ issues have been “picking up momentum outside the Orthodox community for a long time, [and the pledge is] pretty much in line with how we’re progressing in queer issues… [but] Orthodoxy is always last”

The Orthodox Union didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this issue, but they did publish a statement two years ago when gay marriage was legalized in the United States. The statement is expressly anti-gay marriage, saying that marriage is defined in Judaism as a “relationship between a man and a woman,” but also “that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.” The statement also expresses strong feelings that the civil liberties of gay marriage should not infringe on the religious liberties of any group which cannot or will not support gay marriage. In the context of the Eshel Pledge, this seems to fit in. The pledge does not ask schools to perform marriages, only to include, support, and protect their LGBT+ students. For Steiner, the most important part of the pledge is the promise of no bullying in the face of “gay expression,” and he says “I would think that even the OU would not want bullying.” Additionally, an Eshel representative pointed out that “the pledge was crafted very carefully to avoid halachic issues” and “what we’re asking is for them to say that a child expressing their identity is not a reason to be bullied or to have to leave the school.”

When asked about the future of the pledge, Grobois pointed out that “most of who this pledge is trying to improve is institutions that are basically there, and just need a bit of a push… the schools that aren’t going to accept it aren’t even the target.”

At this time, Shalhevet High School is the only school to have taken the pledge. Eshel says that there are “several schools interested in the pledge, but none have committed.” If you have a connection with an Orthodox high school, and you would like to sign the petition or make a video in support of the Eshel Pledge, please visit http://www.eshelonline.org/pledge/.

Lily Fisher Gomberg is the summer blogger for Fresh Ideas. She is a rising junior at Brandeis University.

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