North London Jewish leaders shouldn’t have signed ‘harmful’ sex ed letter, says LGBT+ group
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A Jewish LGBT charity based in West Hampstead has joined voices criticising a “harmful” open letter signed by a number of north London rabbis and community figures.
Earlier this month a group called The Values Foundation published the letter – addressed to the Department of Education (DfE)– which urges ministers not to “compromise the internationally recognised rights of parents to educate their children according to their own religious or philosophical beliefs” in introducing new guidelines for the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE).
Signatories to the interfaith letter include controversial Golders Green Rabbi Aharon Bassous, who runs the Beth Hamedrash Knesset Yehezkel in Golders Green Road and who compared the Chief Rabbi to a Nazi in March, and rabbis Moishe Brandeis and Yaacav Benzequen from the Jewish Learning Exchange – also based in Golders Green.
Rabbi Asher Gratt, who led the successful battle last summer to force inner North London coroner Mary Hassell to ditch her “unlawful” cab-rank approach in his role as a spokesman for Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Burial Society, also signed the letter.
Religious groups Christian Concern – which backs widely condemned “conversion therapy” for LGBT+ individuals – and IslamicSRE also supported the letter.
It was also signed by local rabbinical judge Rabbi Dovid Cohn, and Bernard Iczkovits, who co-founded the Kehillas Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Leeside Crescent, Golders Green.
Late last week it emerged a number of rabbis from the United Synagogues (US) organisation – which is headed by the UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – had asked for their names to be removed.
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Dalia Fleming, the executive director of KeshetUK – an education and advocacy charity aimed at reconciling the Jewish faith and LGBT+ issues – told the Ham&High: “We have been encouraged by so many rabbis removing their names since they saw the full letter and the impact it was having. It was not the way to go to have a challenging and complicated conversation.
“Some of the wording in particular was just harmful – the idea that just talking about the existence LGBT+ people is ‘alien’ is an harmful one.
“We all know there are LGBT+ people in all of our communities, though of course these conversations can be harder to have in some parts of the Jewish community than others.”
But Rabbi Gratt defended adding his name to the letter. He told the Ham&High: “Just as we tolerate and respect other people’s way of life, our children should not be subjected for indoctrination against their faith and beliefs.”
He denied that this showed a lack of tolerance for any group, and said: “Participating with principally respected people to sign an open letter to the secretary of state for education is in my view the just and proper way how to seek justice.”
Bernard Iczkovits also stood by his signature, telling this newspaper he “might have to leave the country” if the RSE guidelines become law as “my children won’t be able to be part of the regular schooling system”.
He maintained that he did accept there were LGBT+ members of the Jewish community.
Dalia from KeshetUK – which is headquartered in West End Lane – said the organisation would be happy to meet publicly or privately those who have not removed their names. She said: “There are ways to talk about their concerns sensitively. If they ever want to talk about the issue and how to discuss it, we’d be happy to.”
One of the US rabbis to remove their name from the letter was Rabbi Wollenberg, of the Woodford Forest United Synagogue.
He said: “My colleagues and I fully support the principle that Jewish schools and families must be able to educate their children about relationships in an age-appropriate way.
“But it became clear that the tone of the campaign through the recent open letter and the extreme views held by a number of the signatories might compromise much of the recent progress in removing the stigma for LGBT+ pupils in Jewish schools. As soon as I became aware of this, I immediately retracted my signature.”
KeshetUK has been working with the Chief Rabbi to destigmatise the LGBT+ community and together they released guidance on this earlier this year.
Rabbis Cohn, Brandeis, Benzaquen and Bassous did not respond to requests for comment.
The Values Foundation (TVF) open letter was written in response to the Department for Education’s new guidelines for the teaching of relationships and sex education.
Set to come into force in 2020, these would make teaching about relationships compulsory for all primary schools, with sex education then compulsory at secondary level.
The DfE says it “expects t all pupils to
have been taught LGBT+ content at a timely point”.
This has triggered uproar in religious communities around the country.
Names included Christian and Muslim faith leaders along with their Jewish counterparts from around the UK.
In February, a number of protests took place outside schools in Birmingham where parents argued they were losing the ability to educate children as they decided.
But secular groups including Humanists UK wrote to national newspapers backing the changes, and it was in response to this that TVF wrote its own letter, which remained unpublished.
The new rules are currently before the House of Lords.