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Making it easier for LGBT Jewish kids to be open, honest

by Ryan E. Smith

November 1, 2011 | 8:44 pm

Someday, maybe every gay Jewish youth will have as easy a time coming out as Elias Rubin did.

“I came out a few days after I figured it out myself,” said the 11th-grader from Valley Village. “Everybody was totally supportive and accepting.”

That was when he was in eighth grade. Rubin, now 17, didn’t see the point in keeping it a secret, whether at home or at school.

“Everybody knows, everybody’s OK with it, and we just go on with our daily lives,” he said.

Not all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are so lucky. Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, and more than one-third have attempted suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org), a collection of video testimonials in support of LGBT youths and in response to harassment and bullying.

A number of Jewish schools and youth organizations in the area are doing their part not only to provide resources for students struggling with their sexuality, but also to ensure inclusive environments where they can thrive.

At New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, about 15 students attend weekly meetings of the B’tselem Elohim / Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The Hebrew refers to the idea that humans are created in God’s own image. Members of the group, now in its second year, have discussed articles from current events and watched videos from the It Gets Better Project.

“The mission is to raise awareness about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues today, all the while encouraging acceptance in our community today,” said Sivan Lipman, the NCJHS group’s faculty adviser.

Milken Community High School in Bel Air has a GSA as well. Members are organizing a Day of Silence on Nov. 18, modeled after a national day of action in which students take some form of a vow of silence to call attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools, according to Stephanie Monteleone, Milken’s group adviser.

“The students who started the GSA felt there was a need for increased awareness about homophobia and how that impacts our community as well as establishing a support network for students who identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an e-mail.

Milken’s middle school also includes a unit on diversity during which the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” is shown.

Simply providing access to information is one easy way to help LGBT students, said Joel L. Kushner, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. Based in Los Angeles, it has a massive online collection of resources at huc.edu/ijso.

“It’s really important for Jewish settings … to have the information so that a child can ... know that ‘oh, I can be Jewish and not an abomination — you know, from the Leviticus 18:22 verse — and my community will still accept me,’ ” he said.

He said he has seen progress when it comes to openness and awareness in schools and camps, but it needs to be taken to the next level. That means doing education for teachers and not waiting until high school to talk to kids about LGBT issues, he said.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has taken that to heart. Its middle school offers a human development class that starts by teaching sixth-graders about bullying, teasing and how people get targeted for their differences. By the eighth grade, students are sharing their personal stories and smashing stereotypes, from racism to LGBT issues, said counselor Inez Tiger, who teaches the class.

“We just want to create an open, inclusive dialogue,” Tiger said.

Students watch “Straightlaced,” a documentary that examines gender biases, and there are gay speakers who are part of panel discussions. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, also discusses the biblical issues surrounding homosexuality.

Much has changed since Tiger first offered the class.

“I would say it has transformed from when it started 10 years ago, when some parents wouldn’t let their kids come to this section of the class, to now, when they don’t even opt out at all,” she said.

One of the next challenges is turning tolerant spaces into inclusive ones, according to Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides programs and services for the LGBT Jewish community.

“Understanding that LGBT community members can come and participate and won’t be discriminated against is ‘tolerant.’ Being inclusive is offering LGBT-specific services. They have particular needs,” Gellis said. “Do you have a welcoming page on your Web page? Do you have LGBT role models? Are you offering support for parents of LGBT kids? It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Southern California regional programs manager for the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), understands this. While part of the group’s response has been simple — “We have an intolerance for intolerance,” she said — leaders realize there’s more to consider.

“For example, we’re looking at doing one event, possibly this year, that is gender-segregated. The regional board is already talking about what happens with the teens who may want to be with a different gender than they are biologically,” Lipmen said, referring to transgender identity. “It’s something that we’re keenly aware of.”

JQ’s Gellis said he has worked with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, NFTY and Pressman Academy on LGBT issues. Overall, he’s pleased to see how far things have come in the last 25 years.

“The changes are quite dramatic,” he said. “It went from a period of growing up in the ’80s and having no queer Jewish role models — it was a subject that was never discussed — to a conversation that is happening at Shabbat dinner tables, happening on the pulpit and happening in the classroom.”

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