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Workshops Challenge the Deafening Silence Around Gay Issues

Three years ago, a study conducted by the LGBT Education Collaborative about how Jewish schools deal with sexual diversity — one of the first studies of its kind — found that many educational institutions maintain a “deafening” silence on the subject.

That is beginning to change.

Mosaic: The National Jewish Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity advocates more vocal discussion on the issue. Founded with the purpose of fostering Jewish communities that do not discriminate on the basis of sexuality, the organization recently has been spearheading initiatives designed to create more accepting and inclusive Jewish schools.

In San Francisco, for example, Mosaic recently organized Yom Keshet (Rainbow Day), a day of workshops for educators and parents to discuss everything from combating harassment to coming out in the classroom. Nearly 100 people attended the sessions, which addressed not only the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, but also those of gay parents whose children attend Jewish schools, and the needs of gay faculty members who teach in those schools.

“The first level of inclusion is really dismantling homophobia,” Mosaic’s co-founder and co-director, Caryn Aviv, explained. “Most people are well intentioned but don’t necessarily do anything proactive” about gay issues.

At workshops sponsored by Mosaic, teachers are taught about the effects of homophobia on everyone in the classroom — gay and straight alike. They’re also taught about the other ways that anti-gay attitudes circulate; according to a recent study of San Francisco schools, homophobia in schools runs most rampant on the playground, in the form of derogatory epithets. After working on rooting out the most commonplace manifestations of homophobia, the aims of the workshop expand. “[We] conduct discussion. It’s more than just ‘You can’t say that,’” Aviv said. She hopes that gay issues can be integrated into school curricula eventually, although she noted, “We’re five or 10 years out from that.”

Mosaic got off the ground last spring with two generous donations from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, one from its Youth Foundation and then another from its Jewish Life program.

“I couldn’t find anything else like them,” Lisa Farber Miller, senior program officer of Jewish life at the Rose Community Foundation, said of Mosaic’s leadership. Indeed, when Aviv and Mosaic’s other co-founder, Greg Drinkwater, were designing the blueprints for their organization, which is also based in Denver, they were struck by the dearth of nationally focused groups dedicated to the topic. There are regional organizations that seek to address gay issues in Jewish schools — Keshet in Boston, for example — but Mosaic is unique in its national scope.

When Mosaic’s grant application came up for review at the Rose Youth Foundation, it met with unusual enthusiasm. “It was so new, and so cutting edge,” said Tim Campbell, Youth Foundation chairman and a high school senior from Lakewood, Colo. Usually when the group votes, some members dissent or express concern. Not in the case of the Mosaic application; the group approved it for a grant quickly and unanimously. Using this money, Mosaic conducted several workshops for Jewish educators on how to foster discussion of gay issues.

“This is a reflection of my generation — to say, hey, this is something that should not be happening,” Campbell said. He believes there is a generational divide in terms of addressing homosexuality in the classroom. And polls have indicated that younger generations are more tolerant of diverse sexual identities than their elders are.

Aviv, however, isn’t so sure that such a clear gap exists. “I’ve seen folks in their 60s who are straight and forceful advocates,” she said. “I’ve seen administrators in their 30s who feel a profound discomfort with talking about this issue.” When it comes to making schools more accepting, general demographic trends are less important than the specific people involved in each educational institution.

Denominational differences among Jewish schools also require different approaches. As a rule, Reform and Conservative schools are often open to the notion that homosexuality is neither “wrong” nor “abnormal,” according to several experts interviewed by the Forward, even if those schools do not take proactive stances against harassment of students or address gay issues directly. Orthodox schools, on the other hand, are often less accepting of homosexuality; some even promote so-called “corrective therapy,” which sees homosexuality as a disorder that can be “cured.”

Geographic location also must be taken into account when seeking to change attitudes. To some extent, one can expect schools in areas with sexually liberal attitudes to take liberal attitudes, and one can expect the same relationship between conservative areas and their schools. Yet one should not expect to find too strong a correlation, as even schools in gay-friendly areas like San Francisco have been known to harbor homophobia in their hallways, as Mosaic’s Yom Keshet workshops demonstrated.

Addressing the school leadership first is usually the best route for making changes, Aviv said: “You can’t start with the kids, but at the upper levels of management, and parents and staff.”

Schools are an integral part of the world around them, Aviv said, so it’s only natural that the ongoing discussions about gay issues in the larger Jewish world are beginning to take place inside schoolhouses. “The [gay] civil rights movement has been around for 30 years at this point,” she said. “Why should their Jewish lives be any different? Why would you advocate for first-class citizenship as an American and then be content to be a second-class citizen in Jewish America?”


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