Strengthening our community, not virtue signalling | AJN

On July 3 2020 the Australian Jewish News published an opinion piece by Michael Barnett from Aleph Melbourne addressing in part some concerns from a May 15 AJN opinion piece criticising the Zionist Federation of Australia for participating in Pride March.



Responses in the AJN to Bill Leak’s “Waffen-SSM” cartoon

A selection of responses to Bill Leak’s Waffen-SSM cartoon that were published in the Australian Jewish News.  Click on each to enlarge.

Leak's SS and SSM comparison repulsive
“Leak’s SS and SSM comparison ‘repulsive'” by Yael Brender (Sep 30, 2016)

Geoff Bloch letter
Letter by Geoff Bloch (Oct 14, 2016)

Paul Winter letter
Letter by Paul Winter (Oct 21, 2016)

Gregory Storer letter (part 1)
Letter by Gregory Storer (part 1) (Oct 28, 2016)

Gregory Storer letter (part 2)
Letter by Gregory Storer (part 2) (Oct 28, 2016)

Protecting minorities

IT’S a bit rich for Paul Winter (AJN 21/10) to talk about society only protecting noisy, aggressive minorities subverting democracy.

Part of our democratic society is to protest about things we see as wrong. Signalling disapproval to a supplier, such as a hotel, is a legitimate way to make it known that you disapprove of their business practices.  Threatening people is never acceptable and every protest has those on the fringe.  It’s unfair to suggest that all protesters hold the same opinions or use the same actions.  Similarly, overlooking that a vast majority of Australians support marriage equality and that it’s a small minority of religious people who object is to ignore reality.

As a society we must look after our minorities and listen to their needs so that people aren’t simply ignored or regarded as insignificant.  The gay population is about two per cent, while the Jewish population is around 0.5 per cent.

Minorities always struggle to have their plight seen as important by the larger population and struggle to gain recognition and relevance in a world that mostly considers minorities unimportant.

In his letter, Geoff Bloch (AJN 14/10) downplays the obvious Nazi connections with the Leak cartoon.  He said that the cartoon did not depict marriage equality advocates as Nazis, seeming to avoid the only words written on the cartoon “Waffen-SSM”.

Speaking as a man who is gay, I found Leak’s cartoon to be in extremely bad taste and Bloch’s letter equally objectionable.

Carnegie, Vic

Aleph Melbourne presents documentary DVD to Glen Eira Council

Aleph Makes Doco - Australian Jewish News Oct 28 2016Australian Jewish News, October 28 2016

Follow the progress of our documentary on Facebook: Aleph 20 Project

Australia’s LGBT community marks a bar mitzvah milestone | Haaretz

Australia’s LGBT community marks a bar mitzvah milestone | Haaretz.

Australia’s LGBT community marks a bar mitzvah milestone

Thirteen years after the Jewish float debuted at Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, members of the community look back on their struggle and say there’s still work to be done.

By Dan Goldberg | Mar.04, 2013 | 11:19 AM

Mazel tov! The Jewish float at Sydney’s 2013 Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. Photo by Tomer Hasson

It was a bar mitzvah like no other. A throng of Jewish men and women adorned with rainbow-colored prayer shawls and sporting pink kippot danced near the centerpiece of the simcha – a truck decorated with a gigantic Star of David emblazoned with the words “mazel tov.”

Some 10,000 others joined the parade while hundreds of thousands watched, as Australia’s Jewish float marked its coming of age Saturday night at the 2013 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Twenty-four hours earlier, 75 people attended a gay Shabbat dinner at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue, which incorporates Conservative, Reform and Renewal congregations, following a special service peppered with readings by gay members to mark the milestone.

Kim Gotlieb, the president of Dayenu, Sydney’s Jewish gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender group, acknowledged the support from Emanuel Synagogue in a letter last week. It is reassuring to know that “we belong to a gay-friendly synagogue which continues to walk beside us in addressing issues of inclusion and acceptance,” he wrote.

Emanuel’s rabbi, Jacqueline Ninio, also made mention of the LGBT community in the congregation’s weekly newsletter, writing: “During the years, we have used the process of interpretation and understanding to reimagine the laws of Judaism to be inclusive and welcoming of gays and lesbians. But there is still a long way to go – both legally and within our culture.”

‘Stars of David Come Out’

Despite Rabbi Ninio’s caveat, most of Sydney’s gay Jews acknowledge their predicament today is a far cry from the first Jewish float at the Mardi Gras in 2000, which featured a three-ton truck adorned with a giant three-dimensional Star of David. The float has been an annual feature since then, with the exception of 2006.
Back then about 150 gay Jews and their supporters, including Holocaust survivor Susie Wise, celebrated alongside the float, under the banner “Stars of David Come Out.”

“We were the Stars of David glowing in the dark of homophobia,” recalled Dawn Cohen, the coordinator of the first Jewish float, in a reflective article. “We’re saying ‘no’ … we’re going to invite you all to work through your internalized anti-Semitism and homophobia and to celebrate with us.”

Cohen and the other founders named themselves “Dayenu,” the Hebrew word for “enough” that is the common refrain of the Passover song of the same name.

However, “Dayenu” was also the response the group received from the Orthodox rabbinate, which was exacerbated by Vic Alhadeff, then editor of the Sydney edition of the Australian Jewish News. Alhadeff published a front-page photo of the first Jewish float on March 10, 2000.

“Of all the controversial positions I took as editor of the Australian Jewish News, the one of which I was proudest was going to the barricades on behalf of the right of Jewish gays to be gay,” Alhadeff told Haaretz this week. “Because I saw the impact it had – on human lives, on families, on individuals, on members of our own community.”

The controversy dominated the newspaper’s pages for weeks, including an ad signed by 28 prominent Australian Jews expressing support for gay Jewish rights and for the newspaper to reflect the community’s diversity.

2013 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras

Bar mitzvah boys celebrate at the 2013 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.Tomer Hasson

“Overwhelmingly, the community spoke out in support of the newspaper,” Cohen recalled. “They didn’t want Jewish homosexuals to be invisible. It was not a vote in favor of lesbian and gay marriage, but it was an unprecedented warning to the Orthodox rabbinate about the limits of its control.”

Inevitably, the backlash soon followed. The Sydney Beth Din demanded Alhadeff explain himself at a rabbinic hearing. They also summoned Hilton Immerman, the chief executive of the Shalom Institute – which advances Jewish learning and leadership – for hosting a gay Shabbat on the Friday night before the 2000 Mardi Gras.

Neither Alhadeff nor Immerman agreed. Immerman said he would only consider it “after being able to peruse the charges that a particular individual had brought against us.”

“As these were never forthcoming, we did not appear,” Immerman told Haaretz. “I was lobbied by two or three Orthodox rabbis at the time to cancel the event. I explained that any Jews had the right to celebrate Shabbat and that I would protect their right to do so.

“It’s absurd to think that sexual orientation was even regarded as relevant,” Immerman said.

Among those who attended that Shabbat dinner was Ariel Friedlander, an American-born lesbian rabbi, and Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, the senior rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney.

The furor created “huge tension” among Australian Jewry, recalled Kamins, who was also a board member of Shalom at the time.

But gay Jews have become “hugely” enfranchised since then, Kamins said, noting that Emanuel was at the “vanguard and forefront.”

‘Mutual respect regardless of sexual orientation’

Indeed, the former Californian officiated at Australia’s first same-sex Jewish commitment service at Emanuel in 2008 – between Scott Whitmont and Christopher Whitmont-Stein – following a May 2007 decision by the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

However, Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, countered at the time: “While we may and should be tolerant towards individuals, we certainly cannot sanctify something that our Bible clearly prohibits.”
Haaretz recently has learned the names of several Orthodox rabbis in Sydney and Melbourne who welcome individual gay Jews, but their names cannot be made public.

“Do 612 mitzvot and we won’t worry about the 613th,” one Orthodox rabbi told a gay congregant, according to Dayenu’s Gotlieb.

Kamins and Immerman agreed the general Jewish community is more open. “Gay Jews are less marginalized today,” Immerman said. “Most of the Jewish establishment has become more welcoming but I guess some segments of the community are more so than others.”

In 2010, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry adopted a resolution in 2010 calling for “mutual respect” regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

But the elected leadership acknowledged there is still “much work” to be done to “remove intolerance of and unlawful discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the Jewish community.”

Intolerance and discrimination were widespread in Melbourne in 1999 when Michael Barnett led the first attempt by Aleph Melbourne, a Jewish GLBT support group, to apply for membership of the roof body, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

The move sparked an acrimonious debate ending with an impassioned plea by now-deceased Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, who claimed if the motion passed it “may well be a turning point in our community,” and would result in the collapse of the council because Orthodox associates would be forced to resign.

“This JCCV has no right to meddle with the fundamentals of Judaism,” he said.
But Barnett argued that rejecting the group would be “a win for fear, intolerance and prejudice.” The motion was narrowly denied, 46-39, and the Jewish LGBT group has remained outside the tent ever since.

Barnett told Haaretz this week that the improved lot of gays in the general community affected the Jews as well. “The conversations seem to be less unacceptable now, given that homosexuality is more visible in wider society,” he said.

“It’s not something that can just be dismissed as ‘not our problem.’ It’s still taboo in the frum circles, and I suspect it’s pretty much spoken about in disparaging terms,” he added.

But while Reform and Conservative Judaism in Australia has embraced the gay community, Gotlieb wants to “challenge” for more inclusiveness.

“I would like to see more inclusion at Emanuel, more awareness that most gay people are somewhat distanced from their families,” he said.

There are still many Australian Jews whose view on gays is “personal and heartfelt and accepting,” he said. “But then they apologize that they are not able to express that publicly.”

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.”

Time to stop the in-fighting | AJN Letters

8 Jul 2011
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition

Time to stop the in-fighting

JUDAISM on gay marriage – yes or no – can wait; I’m fascinated with Peter Cohen’s implicit support for all things natural – “Could God be behind such a cruel joke?” ( AJN 24/06).

Science also points to genes that naturally predispose humans to anger or violence. If proven, the implications are many. Yet, since when does humankind decide right and wrong based on what the penguin fraternity are up to? Are we merely animals or something more?

As for his swipe at Orthodoxy, and praise for Progressives – let’s for a moment drop the term thrust upon traditional Jews by Reform 250 years ago to make everyone else look irredeemably anachronistic. Judaism was inherently progressive, inclusive, innovative and societally savvy. Just that we’ve seen less and less of this Judaism for oh – about 300 years (except, curiously, in the Sephardi world). What Judaism has neglected to explain is that Jewish laws are like formulae: the inputs to variables change with the times; only the formulae are rigid.

As Judaism gradually stops Woody Allening over slippery slopes and competing movements, we will again occupy ourselves as to how to keep members of the community “in”, rather than “bad” people “out” – and words like Orthodox and Progressive can all safely go the way of the dodo.

Bondi, NSW