If ‘Safe Schools’ isn’t the answer, what is? | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition
Dr Jonathan Barnett is convenor of Keshet Australia.

If ‘Safe Schools’ isn’t the answer, what is?

Dr Jonathan Barnett explains the need for, and aims of, Keshet Australia, an organisation supporting GLBT members of the Jewish community.

GAY, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) children are in our schools, our synagogues, our summer camps, our Zionist programs, in our homes; they are all around us. They are part of our community. But many suffer from depression and anxiety and feel disconnected.

Keshet Australia has a primary goal to help nurture, protect and provide a safe environment for GLBT children. We need to do this to keep families together. We need to do this to keep our GLBT young people within Judaism (no matter what their affiliation) and to not drive them away.

Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s article discussed Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) with respect to its mission to prevent bullying. The SSCV is more than this; it strives to create a safe environment for young people in Victorian schools. Keshet Australia strives to do this within the Jewish community. Keshet, which means rainbow in Hebrew, is an organisation whose mission is to achieve the full inclusion of GLBT Jews of all ages, sects, and philosophies in Jewish life. Keshet Australia’s leadership committee consists of Orthodox, Progressive and non-denominational members. It includes GLBT members and allies, parents and friends. What sets Keshet Australia apart is Judaism and our focus on the Jewish community in Australia.

Keshet Australia’s initial project will bring a well-established educational program to our schools, synagogues and community in early 2013. This “train-thetrainer” program was developed in the US and has the support of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV). The program’s goal is to reach out to rabbis, teachers, youth and lay leaders in the Jewish community so that they can come together to learn how to best develop and lead initiatives to address acceptance and diversity issues. The program shares specific skills and techniques to enhance the mental health of GLBT youth by creating a warm and welcoming environment for all youth. It does so in a Jewish context,focusing on Jewish values and text.

The core value of the program is b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image). As the program teaches, the “image of God” is reflected in the different types of people we encounter in the world. “In God’s image” leads to the other six Jewish values that form the heart of the program, kavod (respect), v’ahavtah l’reacha kamocha (love your neighbour as yourself) and in doing so love our whole selves, avoid lashon hara (especially words that hurt), foster shalom bayit (peace in the home), promote kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (communal responsibility), and practice al tifrosh min hatzibur (solidarity of the Jewish community); we are required to reach out, be an ally and a friend.

The Keshet Program addresses some of the key findings of the JCCV’S Report of the GLBT Reference Group, 2011, some specific examples include:

All schools could increase the level of education within the school so that students are aware that same-sex attraction, bisexuality and transgender are not “conditions to be cured”;

Schools [should] develop and implement discussion programs, or supplement existing ones, to ensure acceptance of differences of all types, including sexuality and gender identity;

All rabbis should participate in professional-development programs, preferably under the auspices of their rabbinical association, relating to these issues. The programs would not only ensure they are factually informed but will also ensure they are able to appropriately counsel their members; and

Community organisations should provide training for their staff and facilitate education for their members and volunteers relating to these issues.

As Keshet’s programs develop they will reach out to other member of the community.

Currently, parents of GLBT children have no Jewish support group to turn to.adult GLBT Jews often feel alienated by the community.

Keshet will develop programs to help these and other groups enhance their Jewish connection, creating a stronger and healthier Jewish community.

The Orthodox view explained | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

The Orthodox view explained

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick believes there is no place for homophobia in authentic Judaism.

THERE is no doubt that the Torah forbids male homosexual acts. The prohibition exists whether or not homosexuality is considered by society normal or abnormal, or whether or not scientifically it is considered a matter of genetic predisposition or a learned behaviour. The Torah, in its divine wisdom, forbids such behaviour regardless of the answer to the above questions, and while it may even be that a person has no choice as to their sexual orientation, they always have a choice whether or not to engage in a prohibited act.

Indeed, one of the most difficult challenges facing the rabbinate is how to authentically convey that message while retaining the dignity of the individual and without harming their self-esteem. Indeed the challenge is greatest for the individual himself, who may have a homosexual orientation but wishes to be observant of, if not all the commandments, as many as he is able – and at the very least accepted by his fellow Jew. We must never underestimate the enormity of that challenge.

Whether or not an individual is able to deal with that challenge, they must always be made to feel welcome and they must never be made to feel that they lose their Jewish identity or ability to worship as a Jew. There is no place for “homophobia” in authentic Judaism; there is no place for being judgmental. Indeed every command of the Torah must be observed, but that includes the command that we love as ourselves, even one who transgresses. There is “no one righteous on Earth, that does only good and never sins”.

However, the prohibition remains. Therefore, no Jew believing in Torah or the seven Noahide laws for all mankind (loosely termed the JudaeoChristian ethic) can be asked to accept a program that “celebrates” homosexuality. While bullying in any form is abhorrent, including the bullying of someone because of their sexual orientation, the solution is not to “celebrate” an orientation that is against Torah teaching. In the absurd, would one expect of an Orthodox school, where perhaps someone was being bullied for not observing the laws of kashrut, to combat that bullying by “celebrating” the eating of non-kosher food? Indeed, to take such an approach would imply that if a particular behaviour could not be “celebrated” or if it was legitimately inappropriate, bullying of a person

The realities of the human condition | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

The realities of the human condition

Responding to Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s controversial article on homosexual anti-bullying programs in schools, Rabbi Fred Morgan says his views on “normative” behaviour ignore the realities of the human condition.

MY impression of Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is that he is a gentle man. When he spoke from the bimah at Temple Beth Israel at his father Sir Zelman Cowen’s state funeral, despite Chabad strictures on their rabbis entering Progressive synagogues, he showed that he is also a compassionate man, someone who is able to appreciate what it means for each of us to be created in God’s image.

I am perplexed, therefore, how a caring individual like Rabbi Cowen can express views about homosexuality that are so hurtful and damaging, as he did recently in an article in the journal of the Australian Family Association. Unfortunately his views made the front page of the free broadsheet mx. The report in mx quoted a leading member of Aleph, Melbourne’s Jewish gay group, as saying that the rabbi’s views are “delusional”. It also quotes a press release from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry distancing Australian Jewry from Rabbi Cowen’s remarks.

The crux of the rabbi’s argument lies in the word “normative”, which he uses repeatedly in his article. For example, in rejecting the value of educating teachers about homosexuality as part of an anti-bullying campaign, he claims it is “using bullying as a pretext to teach all schoolchildren that homosexual conduct is equally normative with heterosexual conduct”. For Rabbi Cowen, what is “normative” really matters since it defines the style of life that a person should lead. There is a “norm”, and those who are homosexual do not fit it. Rather than basing the “norm” on observations of human behaviour, including the experience of homosexuals, the rabbi bases his “norm” on an ideological principle that, in his view, takes precedence over the realities of the human condition.

What precipitated Rabbi Cowen’s article? It seems to be the decision of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and other bodies to seek to educate teachers in how to deal sensitively and compassionately with students in their classrooms who are becoming aware of their homosexuality. These students face ostracism and bullying because we still live in a predominantly homophobic society.

“Keshet”, meaning “rainbow”, is an American-based, Jewish-focused program that trains teachers to be aware of these issues in the classroom. A group has been set up in Melbourne to bring Keshet to Australia. Rabbi Cowen does not seem to believe that programs like Keshet should be used to train teachers in Jewish schools about how to give support to students who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity.

What Rabbi Cowen seems to overlook is that Keshet and similar programs are not about what is “normative”. They do not seek to lay down how people should behave. They are about reality – how people are in fact.

Since an appreciable percentage of the population is homosexual in fact, students who are becoming aware that they are or may be gay or lesbian need to be supported in that exploration as much as students who are exploring their sexuality as heterosexuals.

They need to be supported by teachers who are there not to declare what is “normative” and what is “abnormal”, but rather to offer support to all their students by recognising the differences among them, protecting them from prejudice and attack, and giving them confidence in expressing their deepest sense of self.

Closing down the options | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition
Rabbi Shimon Cowen is the founding director of the Institute of Judaism and Civilisation.

Closing down the options

The problem with the anti-bullying program is not the laudable goal of preventing homophobia, but the overall strategy which promotes homosexuality as a “norm”, according to Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen.

BECAUSE every human being has a soul made in the image of its Creator, every human being should be loved and his or her best potential sought and helped into actuality. This love is the real source and meaning of tolerance. The false meaning of tolerance is moral relativism, with its argument that I must respect another’s practice because who knows what the truth is – maybe s/he has it and not I? The human soul and human tradition resonate over time with a set of universal norms, one of which is the heterosexual union of man and woman.

As with all norms, there are impulses in the human being which fight this norm,sometimes overpoweringly. We can struggle with it, sometimes people cannot even struggle with it, and this can be viewed with much compassion. Still the indulgence of the homosexual impulse was prohibited by the Creator and the small mirror of the Creator, the human soul, where in use knows it.where the soul has been submerged – as in so much contemporary culture – to become aware of the soul, of tradition, of what is required of a person by his or her Creator – all that requires a discussion. Creator wants of us with it, and how to deal with difficulties along the way.

My article made four points with regard to the “anti-bullying” program of the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), which involves the “celebration of sexual diversity”. (1) The article explained the Jewish and Noahide laws’ view that the practice of homosexuality (as distinct from homosexual orientation) is non-normative.(2) The SSCV’S educational modelling to young children of homosexual practices as equally normative with heterosexual practices breaches the right of religious freedom guaranteed by both the Australian Constitution and United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child to be raised in their own religions. (3) It is not necessary to counter the bullying of homosexual children by “celebrating” homosexuality, any more than by celebrating “obesity” to stop the bullying of fat children. A different anti-bullying strategy should be taken. Finally (4) the SSCV’S encouraging children, who feel so inclined, to lock into a homosexual identity is wrong at a developmental stage, when up to 26 per cent of all children experience fluid sexual identity. This could actually cultivate homosexuality in children, 97 per cent of whom would otherwise mature into heterosexual and three per cent into homosexual identities. That is the injustice to the naturally heterosexual child.

But there is also an injustice in the SSCV program to the homosexual child. Children within this program would be locked into a homosexual identity at a very young age. How easily will they emerge from it,if they are later stirred to move towards a heterosexual norm? The philosophy of this program has consequences for homosexuals of all ages. The SSCV does not build a “soul” into its model of the human being – the soul made in the image of its Creator, which is capable of resonating with the laws that its Creator gave, including the heterosexual norm. The SSCV philosophy knows only body and mind.its construes the direction in which the person is driven by impulse and inclination, as its “fate”. By removing the soul from the picture of the person, it takes away from the homosexual what resides in the soul: peace, a moral compass and the greatest resource for transformation or at least self-control in practice. In this it betrays the homosexuals.

Editorial: Live and let love | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

Live and let love

HOW does one reconcile iron-clad laws laid down in the Torah with the shifting moralities of any given age? Indeed, should one even try? When one’s deeply held religious convictions come into conflict with prevailing attitudes, preaching the word of God is branded by mainstream society as Taliban-style fundamentalism … racist, sexist, homophobic, even anti-semitic.

In some cases, as with the aforementioned Taliban or the Charedi extremists in Beit Shemesh, clearly a line has been crossed. In others, those holding such views maintain a dignified silence, recognising full well that their opinions are at odds with contemporary mores and that to voice them vociferously will fuel fires of hostility and hatred. At the very least, it’s recognised that if such views are to be expressed, they should be qualified with a diplomatic and respectful statement of tolerance: “I believe this, but insofar as you don’t seek to impose your views on me, I shan’t impose mine on you.” A case of ‘live and let live’ or indeed ‘live and let love’. How then to view the treatise penned by Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen about the anti-bullying initiative of the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV)?

On its website, SSCV urges teachers to ask themselves how they can help “celebrate diversity” in sexual preferences. In Rabbi Cowen’s eyes, the concepts of celebration and diversity are out of place when it comes to homosexuality, which he correctly describes as violating the Noahide laws underpinning the three monotheistic faiths.

To be sure, Rabbi Cowen does not support bullying in any form, nor does he encourage ostracising any young person who feels they are or might be gay. He emphasises that his is a message of compassion, but at the same time, of personal self-discipline in adhering to Old Testament values. He is, of course, entitled to his halachic view. But in practical terms, where does that leave a student bullied because they think they are, or are seen as being gay?

Ultimately, just as we expect every effort to be made to stamp out racism and anti-semitism in the schoolyard, so too we must ensure students are not abused or assaulted because of their sexuality.

Will specific initiatives targeting homophobia encourage a perception that being gay is “normative”? Very possibly. But only when it is accepted as a norm, will young gay students have nothing to fear from their peers.

The Torah is the timeless centrepiece of Judaism. Interpreted dynamically, its enduring message is one of humanity and compassion. Exposing a youngster to risk, and in some cases, placing their very lives in peril surely does not fit into that picture.

School bullying program sparks heated debate | AJN


24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

School bullying program sparks heated debate | AJN


“I’m a thousand per cent behind stopping bullying of homosexual children.”
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen

A LEADING Australian rabbi has come under fire for attacking programs that aim to prevent gay children being bullied at school.

Writing in the journal of the Australian Family Association, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, convenor of the Institute for Judaism and Civilisation, claimed, “Our society and societies around the world are in the grip of a major social struggle over whether society will accept and teach homosexual behaviour as normative.”

While stating, “it is totally and unmistakably clear that the bullying of a child on any grounds is reprehensible and must be stopped,” Rabbi Cowen added, “this must be radically separated from the moral agenda of the homosexual ‘anti-bullying’ program for schools,” which he claimed “is seeking to legitimate homosexual behaviour in the earliest stages of child education”.

Referring to the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), which is funded by the Department of Education and trains teachers in combating bullying of students for their sexual orientation, he said, “It requires schools to teach (‘celebrate’) the acceptability of homosexual behaviour as a norm. By so doing, it flies in the face of over 3000 years of religious and cultural tradition since Sinai. In terms of the world religions and world civilisation, it is teaching something which is a moral wrong and fundamentally unethical.”

In a further criticism of the program, he said it encouraged students “to lock themselves into a sexual identity in early or pre-adolescence”.

Rabbi Cowen’s attack on SSCV made headlines in Melbourne commuter newspaper mx, drawing criticism from SSCV coordinator Roz Ward, who described his views as “offensive”.’

Fellow academics at Monash University also weighed in, with Monash Education Faculty Members Against Homophobia penning a letter in which they called the views “uninformed” and “profoundly damaging”.

Meanwhile, writing in this week’s AJN, Rabbi Fred Morgan said Rabbi Cowen failed to realise that such programs “do not seek to lay down how people should behave.they are about reality – how people are in fact.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry distanced itself from Rabbi Cowen’s views, stating it “welcomes any government program designed to counteract bullying that has the support of victims and educators”. It described Rabbi Cowen as “highly respected in our community”, adding “that does not mean that his views on any subject are representative”.

Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia president Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, however, defended Rabbi Cowen’s view of the program. “While bullying in any form is abhorrent , including the bullying of someone because of their sexual orientation, the solution is not to ‘celebrate’ an orientation that is against Torah teaching.

“In the absurd, would one expect of an Orthodox school, where perhaps someone was being bullied for not observing the laws of kashrut, to combat that bullying by‘celebrating’ the eating of non-kosher food?”

He stressed that the Orthodox viewpoint was not homophobic. While “there is no doubt that the Torah forbids male homosexual acts,” he said those who may choose to engage in a prohibited act “must always be made to feel welcome and they must never be made to feel that they lose their Jewish identity or ability to worship as Jews”.

Dr Jonathan Barnett,convenor of Keshet, a group which plans to provide training for teachers in Jewish schools in protecting gay adolescents from bullying, said of Rabbbi Cowen’s views:“it may be one way of interpreting Torah, although I don’t think it’s the correct way, [but] I’m worried about today’s children. Do we turn our backs on them? I don’t think Rabbi Cowen means to turn our backs on them either, but it’s an issue of how we help the kids.”

Stressing that “I’m a thousand per cent behind stopping bullying of homosexual children,” and insisting “I am absolutely not homophobic,” Rabbi Cowen told The AJN this week,“our tradition teaches us that every person possesses a soul made in the image of God, and we must have respect for persons for that reason alone.”

He added, “I most certainly do think that bullying of all children, including homosexually inclined children should be tackled in schools. The way this should be done is in ways taught by experts in the area of bullying such as Evelyn Field. She teaches the bullied child methods of ‘bully blocking’and taking the wind ‘out of the bully’s sails’, which works for all pretexts of bullying. If, in conjunction with this, some reinforcing ethic is to be taught which is universally acceptable, it would be that every human deserves respect as possessing a special potential.”

Dr Mary Lou Rasmussen of Monash University speaks about Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen

Title: The Rainbow Report – Freedom of Speech Pt 2
Author: Joy 94.9
Summary: Doug speaks with Dr Mary Lou Rasmussen of Monash University about the uproar created by the homophobic remarks of Rabbi Shimon Cowen, and the implications for academic freedom of speech
Published: Wed, 22 Feb 2012 9:41 AM
Duration: 13:28
Download: RAINBOW REPORT 21022012 PART 2.mp3