August 19, 2019

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.

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

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