Gay youth: teaching the teachers | AJN

10 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition

Gay youth: teaching the teachers

IN JONATHAN Barnett’s eyes, the most important goal is for Jewish secondary school students “to feel wanted and part of the Jewish community”, irrespective of their sexual orientation.

“The consequences of not being welcomed by the Jewish community range from depression and psychiatric problems to suicide, and God forbid, that’s the last thing we ever want,” the American-born fire safety engineer told The AJN.

Barnett, who is gay, is the convenor of Keshet (Hebrew for ‘rainbow’), a group that seeks to train Jewish educators, youth leaders and rabbis so they can deal with senior school students who have identified with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) community.

Keshet Australia stems from the Keshet organisation in the United States, which has so far trained about 700 educators. There are plans now to incorporate Keshet Australia as a notfor-profit organisation, which will implement a training and support program somewhat along the lines of Safe Schools Victoria, Barnett said.

While the local group has strong informal ties with Progressive Judaism Victoria (PJV), Barnett, a PJV board member, said there were GLBTI Jews across the Jewish spectrum, “whether they be Progressive or Orthodox”.

“It’s not a Progressive issue or an Orthodox issue, it’s a Jewish issue. It’s not an issue of simple tolerance, it’s an issue of the community embracing its own members, and its members include GLBTI Jews. But if you’re going to teach people to really create a warm environment, they have to understand what’s needed, and they need to understand it in a Jewish context,” he said.

“The Keshet program has been developed with a focus on our traditions and our texts. It looks at Torah and Talmud and the evolution of Jewish thought and philosophy.”

Once Keshet Australia has been incorporated, there are plans to bring an American educator to Australia to offer workshops.

“One of the reasons we’re not part of the Progressive movement is that the [Jewish] community is more than the Progressive movement,” he said, adding he was elated that the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) has indicated its support for Keshet.

But asked if he expected strong opposition from educators at Orthodox Jewish schools, Barnett said: “We’re reaching out to teachers of day schools, and rabbis and others, because they too are worried about their kids. No one can tell me that the Orthodox don’t care about children.

“Nobody in the Jewish community, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t support gay kids. The issue is how do we do it. We’re not going into the schools to do the teaching. We want to give the educators the tools so they understand how to reach their own children in a way that’s appropriate to them and their philosophy.”

Barnett said he was hopeful that some Orthodox Jewish educators would become involved and that he had already had expressions of interest from teachers at Orthodox Jewish schools.

Last month, the PJV and Keshet organised an open forum linked to a Theatreworks production of Mother Son, a play on a gay Jewish theme. Half the proceeds benefited Keshet, and attendees took part in a discussion after the show with writer-performer Jeffrey Solomon.

JCCV president Nina Bassat said the roof body had asked Keshet how the Victorian Jewish community could help. “Given that it’s educating the educators in an area where there’s a lot of misinformation, we’ve said let us know what kind of support we can give you.”

A JCCV report last year found GLBTI members of the Victorian Jewish community were subjected to widespread marginalisation.

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