Parents supporting gay children | AJN

15 Jun 2012
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition
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Parents supporting gay children

KESHET Australia, a rights group recently formed to protect Jewish children who may be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (GLBTI), is forming a parents’ support network.

Jonathan Barnett, Keshet’s president, said parents are a critical factor in the wellbeing of children, not least when the children are becoming aware of their sexuality.

“Parents are a big issue. How parents respond to their kids coming out, whether it’s a 14-year-old or a 24-year-old, really can make a big difference to how the kid feels and how they feel connected to family and the community. It’s part of our bigger mission,” he told The AJN.

“It’s not just the child that has to come out, but the parent, and they come out to their friends and family.”

Barnett said the three sets of parents founding the network have all gone to Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays (PFLAG), a mainstream support group. “But what they all observed was that nobody else was Jewish and they wanted to be with other Jews, who understand the Jewish community.”

The group is being formed as an addition or alternative to PFLAG. “We’ll have kosher cake, for example, and that’s one of the little differences,” he said.

Barnett reflected that perhaps Orthodox families may need the service more than Progressive families, “but everybody needs it”, he said.

In a letter to The AJN, Barnett stated: “In our community, where success is often defined in terms of heterosexual relationships, marriage and grandchildren, there are many parents of GLBTI children who experience feelings of despair and even isolation. Keshet parents believe that there is a need to reach out and talk about these common concerns.”

Keshet Australia was formed earlier this year as an advocacy group for the Jewish GLBTI community, based on the Keshet organisation in the United States. The local group has strong informal ties to Progressive Judaism Victoria.

AJN Letters: Rabbi Shimon Cowen taken to task – June 1 2012

1 June 2012
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition

Letters to the editor should be no more than 250 words and may be edited for length and content. Only letters sent to will be considered for publication. Please supply an address and daytime phone number for verification.

Rabbi wrong on reparative therapy for homosexuality

IN response to Rabbi Shimon Cowen (AJN 25/05), I feel I must take a stand regarding the false portrayal of homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association voted to repudiate reparative therapy after a comprehensive two-year study concluded there was scant evidence that sexual orientation could be changed.

Their research showed that reparative therapy could lead to depression, self-harm and even suicide.

In mid-May this year, the Office for the Americas of the World Health Organisation issued a statement that “‘therapies’ to change sexual orientation lack medical justification and threaten health,” and that “there is a professional consensus that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality.”

There are no rigorous scientific studies which show that “Practices known as ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘conversion therapy’ … demonstrate any efficacy of efforts to change sexual orientation”.

As our spiritual leaders, could our rabbis be supporting us to be loving parents invested in nurturing our children’s potential instead of pathologising and demonising homosexuality (and our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and intersex Jews)?

Should rabbis encourage parents to denounce their own children as “abominations”? Could we instead focus on investment in the kind of values and ethics that lead to minimising sexual abuse and domestic violence in our community?

Rabbi Cowen, we want our spiritual leaders to echo the statement by Dr Roses from the Office for the Americas of the World Health Organisation: “These supposed conversion therapies constitute a violation of the ethical principles of health care and violate human rights that are protected by international and regional agreements.”

Counselling psychologist
South Yarra, Vic

Study into reparative therapy repudiated

RABBI Cowen’s letter (AJN 25/05) distorts the events and findings surrounding Dr Robert Spitzer’s research into reparative therapies. To be precise and set the record straight:

Dr Spitzer’s 2003 paper was challenged by his colleagues because it was not refereed and because it reached questionable conclusions; it was not a situation, as Cowen implied, in which he was “assailed by the APA [American Psychiatric Association] and various lobbies”.

The primary objection to Dr Spitzer’s work was not, as Cowen stated, that his sample was drawn from highly religiously motivated individuals. But as Spitzer said, “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct.

“The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.”

This year, Dr Spitzer said that his 2003 study was simply to answer the question “How do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?”

Rabbi Cowen wrongly implies in his letter that the study was to investigate the success rate of such therapies.

Finally, Dr Spitzer bared his soul by concluding, “I also apologise to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”

There is clearly no evidence whatsoever that reparative therapy works. In fact, there is ample evidence that for many individuals it causes extreme anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Promoting the possibility of a “cure” for homosexuality ignores current medical knowledge and may indeed result in harm to individuals who are pressured into attempting such fake therapies.

How many of our fellow Jews, especially how many of our children, must suffer from depression and related issues before those who promote quack therapies recognise the harm they are doing?

President, Keshet Australia

‘I’m gay and I don’t need fixing’

RABBI Shimon Cowen’s letter last week reflects an attitude towards gay people that there is something wrong with being gay and that we need to be fixed. I’m here to tell Cowen and others from similar backgrounds that I don’t need fixing.

I’ve stood by my partner as he’s taken on the Orthodox attitude towards himself and his sexuality. While there has been significant changes in some attitudes within the broader Jewish community, there are still large segments that lag behind modern understanding of sexuality, and then there are those who simply don’t want to do anything to upset the Orthodox.

The notion that sexuality can be changed has been shown to be incorrect, the study that Rabbi Cowen relies on is often misquoted and misunderstood. Recently, the author withdrew the study because of the way religious people continue to misuse it.

Those in authority fail in their duty of care if they refuse to understand the nature of the diverse range of sexuality, and doubly so if they make any attempts to subvert the innate nature of the very personal notion of sexuality.

The anxiety caused in young people whose sexuality is not accepted by their faith groups is well documented, and gleefully ignored by those who believe it an abomination.

Rabbi Cowen and others of his ilk need to accept people for who they are; they need to encourage them to grow as individuals and they need to embrace the diverse nature of their community. It is the only way to true social cohesion and understanding for all.

Carnegie, Vic

Suffering caused by reparative therapy

RABBI Shimon Cowen, is continuing to misuse Dr Robert Spitzer’s work as it has always been misused by those whose minds are closed to the truth.

Dr Spitzer’s study is meaningless: it only measured people who said they had changed.

It contained no objective evidence, no proof at all of actual change.

Furthermore, it was based on memories from years earlier; it included ex-gay advocates with a political axe to grind; and tested no actual treatments.

It was based entirely on phone interviews.

Dr Spitzer never implied in the study that being gay was a choice, and he never said it was possible for anyone who wanted to change – no matter how devout – to do so by means of therapy.

By way of contrast, the World Health Organisation calls reparative therapy “a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people”.

Homosexuality is a natural expression of human sexuality: it cannot be cured, only suppressed.

I have personally spoken with many men who have suffered this attempted cure. Even those who remain in “successful” heterosexual marriages admit their homosexual desires continue unabated.

Just as men in prison may become “situationally homosexual” to relieve their frustrations, these men have become “situationally heterosexual” within their marriages. Their underlying natural orientation and desires are unchanged – which leads many of them to despair and suicide.

It is reprehensible in the extreme for someone claiming to be a man of God to peddle false hope in this manner.

Eltham, Vic

Tackling homophobia in the schoolyard | AJN

24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

Tackling homophobia in the schoolyard

In an article published in a journal of the Australian Family Association, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, founding director of The Institute for Judaism and Civilisation, expressed his concerns about programs to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.  In the wake of the controversy, Rabbi Cowen explains his position, while Rabbi Fred Morgan, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick and Dr Jonathan Barnett share their opinions on the issue.

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 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.

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.”

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.

Jonathan Barnett talks about Keshet on JOY 94.9FM

Title: The Rainbow Report-Gamechangers Part 3
Author: Joy 94.9
Summary: On this edition of the Rainbow Report Doug, with the assistance of Rod Swift, local activist, speak with Jonathan Barnett, KESHET, about the implementation of Keshet in Australian schools.
Published: Fri, 9 Dec 2011 2:17 PM
Duration: 10:42
Download: RR_PODCAST_09 12 2011_PART 3.mp3