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February 27, 2009

Being Jewish and gay

TAG's program discusses youth homosexuality.

"There can be more conversation between me and God and I don't think that's going to stop," says Shulamit (Shula) Izen in the movie Hineini: Coming out in a Jewish High School. "It's about so many different things, all of which I'm confused about and I think that's good. But I want my community to be supportive and safe. And I think that if it isn't, then I'm always going to be questioning myself in more tangible ways that will hurt."

Hineini is about Izen's efforts during her high school years to create a safe space in her Jewish school for all students and staff to be open about their sexual orientation. The documentary screened in Vancouver on Feb. 16.

In the film, the viewer is introduced to Izen, a lesbian Jew who cares very much about both sides of who she is. The film follows Izen's struggles to get a gay-straight alliance off the ground at school.

Open to both students and adults, the screening of the movie at King David High School was an initiative of TAG, a Jewish community supplementary high school program for students in grades eight to 12 in the Greater Vancouver area.

According to TAG director Jordana Corenblum, 72 people attended the screening but only 25 of the 40 students enrolled in TAG showed up. Corenblum speculated that, "Perhaps many of our students felt they couldn't relate to the subject."

Rabbis from three of the synagogues that support TAG – Temple Sholom, Beth Israel and Or Shalom – were there but no Orthodox rabbis attended. Rabbi Stephen Berger, the Northwest NCSY regional director and director of Torah High, an after-school Jewish studies program for Jewish high school students, said that he did not believe he could speak in the name of Orthodox Judaism and he thought that, "This subject is a personal issue and requires a sensitivity which a public forum does not allow for."

Corenblum believes this is the first "youth-specific dialogue around homosexuality and the Jewish community" in Vancouver, at least since the eight years she has been a youth worker in the Vancouver Jewish community. It was Wendy Oberlander, an art teacher at King David High School, who first contacted Corenblum with the idea.

The screening was followed by a panel of six people who shared their views on the issues discussed in the movie. The first of the six to speak was Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, the rabbi of Or Shalom Synagogue, who spoke about the Jewish perspective on homosexuality.

Kaplan quoted the verse in Leviticus 18:22 that says: "And you shall not lay with a man the way you lay with a woman. It is a to'eva." To'eva is often translated as abomination or as "a practice of a foreign cult," explained Kaplan.

She said there were three different ways to approach this verse. First was the traditional understanding that a man should not be a lover with another man. The second approach is to go beyond the literal meaning. "It's entirely plausible," said Kaplan, "to understand the text as saying that you have to have in your consciousness that a man and man together is not exactly the same relationship as between a man and a woman." The last possibility is to say: "We don't really care what this verse says," since there are many verses from the Torah that are not practical to us.

Kaplan finished by saying that the key Jewish values that should be focused on while discussing homosexuality and Judaism are respect for all creatures, everyone is created in the image of God and it is not good for a human being to be alone.

The other people on the panel included two young adults who do community work for GAB Youth at the Centre, an organization supplying community resources for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Youth; Colette Mrazek, the new Jewish Family Services Agency youth and family outreach counsellor; Vicki Robinson, a longtime activist on social justice issues; and Jonathan Lerner, an honors philosophy major at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the vice-president of the UBC chapter of AEPi, the Jewish fraternity.

Shelley Rivkin, associate executive director of community affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, ran the panel and pre-empted it by saying, "I do want to commend TAG for taking this on as a program. I think it's a very important program to have and I think it's particularly important when you're working with youth, to be able to be open and out about this topic."

Deena Levenstein is a freelance writer from Toronto, Jerusalem and now Vancouver. You can read her blog at