Coming out in the classroom:Educators share their concerns

A religious-school teacher overhears some of her seventh-graders joking around. “You’re so gay,” one tells another. The teacher tells the boys not to use such an offending term, and then gets the question she most dreads: “Why do you care so much? Are you gay?”

That’s just one scenario that was discussed in a workshop for Jewish educators on whether to stay in the closet with their students. The workshop — held during a program that brought together 97 educators and parents — was part of a Sunday afternoon event called Yom Keshet (“Rainbow Day”) on Oct. 10, at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

The afternoon was put together by the Denver-based Mosaic: the National Jewish Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded and staffed by three former Bay Area residents: Caryn Aviv, David Shneer and Gregg Drinkwater.

At this workshop in particular, led by Rebecca Weiner, educators shared their experiences working at synagogues, Jewish day schools, and at non-Jewish institutions. And judging by the number of participants who did not want their names to appear in the newspaper, it was clear that the climate is such that some still fear reprisals for coming out.

The education director at Alameda’s Temple Israel, Weiner began the workshop by saying that she came out as a lesbian at around the time she began working in Jewish education: 15 years ago.

“I’ve seen things really change over the years, in really positive ways,” she said. Though listening to the educators, it was evident that Jewish institutions still have a long way to go in confronting homophobia.

Kendra Lubalin said that she had taught at a number of Bay Area religious schools, running the gamut from Orthodox to Renewal, and only at San Francisco’s queer-identified Congregation Sha’ar Zahav did she truly feel comfortable.

“It has been excruciatingly painful to come out in other places, having your heart broken by a community” you feel a part of, she said. “I don’t participate in the larger Jewish community anymore, but it makes me sad. I didn’t want to have to retreat [to Sha’ar Zahav], but I feel safest there.”

Another religious-school teacher told of being asked by her preschoolers: “Are you a boy or a girl?” and when she told them, they asked, “Well then why is your hair so short?”

“I answered, ‘Because I like it,’ but it’s so much bigger than that,” she said.

Some educators discussed their fears in coming out: They may not have the backing of the administration; parents may worry they are “recruiting” their children to be gay; or worst of all, some ignorant parents might think they choose to work with kids because they are pedophiles.

Weiner asked participants to think about what their goal was for coming out. Among the reasons given: to be yourself; to make Judaism more inclusive; to give the kids the opportunity to be themselves; and to establish a deeper connection with your students, which is harder to do when you’re hiding something about yourself. With high-schoolers, it was suggested that they may figure it out anyhow, and if you don’t acknowledge it, they’ll think it’s wrong.

Some educators expressed the fear that they might be fired if they were found out, or at the very least, rejected. And perhaps they didn’t want to be the token gay or lesbian on staff.

“We don’t want to be ‘all queer, all the time,'” said Weiner.

There was also a discussion about “passing,” which many educators can do — until they are invited to a synagogue Shabbat dinner with their partner. Do they discuss it with the administration and students first, or just bring their partner?

While the session was only a beginning of the conversation about these issues, it was clear that the next step would be creating a network of queer Jewish educators, to offer support for each other.

For example, Weiner offered to share her knowledge as to which religious school principals are known to be supportive of their LGBT staff.

“I can tell you which principals are allies,” she said. “I keep a little Rolodex.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."