Sixth formers (high school seniors) at JFS, the oldest and largest Jewish day school in England, are being taught that homosexuality can be cured. At least, that is how some students, parents and community leaders understand the inclusion of information about JONAH — Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (an American organization that maintains that homosexuality can be “mitigated and potentially eliminated”) — in a Jewish text class on homosexuality and the Orthodox viewpoint.
Complaints have been lodged with the school’s administration, contending either that introducing the notion of gay “conversion” is offensive, or that at the very least, opposing views to those of JONAH should be included in the class. Material from or mention of Keshet UK, the LGBT forum, were reportedly not part of the course of study.
One student told the Jewish Chronicle that the PowerPoint presentation used by the teacher in class ended with a slide showing the JONAH website. “At the end, we were asked what we thought about religious Jews who might hate themselves because their religion condemns being gay,” he recounted. “The last slide on the PowerPoint was a picture and a link to the JONAH website, after we were discussing what gay Orthodox Jews can do, if they hate themselves.”
Another student expressed his concern for classmates who happen to be gay or questioning their sexual orientation. “If I were gay or worrying about my sexuality, sitting through that lesson, I would have been so upset,” he said.
JFS head teacher Jonathan Miller responded by saying that the situation had been misunderstood. He claimed that by showing the JONAH website, the teacher was trying to show the different Jewish perspectives on the issue. “It is absolutely not the case that we promote JONAH. The teaching materials explicitly state that Judaism would utterly condemn homophobia and discrimination,” Miller asserted.
JFS alumna and 2005 head girl Alma Smith was so incensed after hearing about this that she wrote a letter to the school’s leadership. She posted it on her Facebook wall and encouraged other JFS alumni to follow suit. In the letter, she wrote: “This week I’ve spoken with a number of hurt current students and alumni. I loved my time at JFS, but there was a culture of homophobia then, and through my work with young Jews, I know nothing has been done to address it.”
Alma ended her letter with her hope that things will change at JFS in this regard. “I hope there will be training put on for all staff on how to discuss sexuality within the classroom and how to respond to homophobia outside of it… I hope that students of all sexualities will start to feel truly safe and supported in JFS,” she wrote. “Please make me proud of the school again, by taking this as the opportunity to make LGBT students feel welcome and loved, rather than failing in your duty of care and making them feel unwanted,” she concluded.