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My letter to JFS in response to the JONAH article.

This is a cross post by Alma Smith

Here is the letter I have sent JFS. I encourage all alumni to write. I don’t want JFS’s defensiveness around the article to prevent the school from realising that this is a long-standing and wider issue. Homophobia exists in almost every school, but only some leave the students feeling they have no one to complain to. It’s time for a change.

Dear Mr Miller,

I was so proud to be the head girl in 2005 of a school I loved, and which gave me a huge amount. I have been happy to come back in to JFS and help students whenever asked. I feel lucky that this positive experience is not clouded, like it is for my LGBT friends, by dominant feelings of repression, homophobia and pain.

The article in the JC this weekend troubled me, but unfortunately, it did not surprise me. This week I’ve spoken with a number of hurt current students and alumni. I loved my time at JFS, but there was a culture of homophobia then, and through my work with young Jews, I know nothing has been done to address it. It is because I had such a good experience, that I am moved to write. When David Lerner visited Cambridge to speak to alumni and interview us for an article, about 12 people turned up, and we all agreed that homophobia was rife in JFS, and institutionalised, I asked him to feedback that we all hoped the school could do something to change this. That was three years ago.

The article:

The title of the JC article was sensationalised, but I was disappointed with the school’s response. When students in the past have complained or stated that they find JFS a homophobic environment, they have been laughed at, or, like in the school’s official response to the article, told that they are misunderstanding the situation. I think to tell someone in pain that they are just misunderstanding is belittling and defensive. When faced with someone we have caused pain, whether intended or not, I have been taught that the Jewish response is to recognise that pain, and reach out to do something positive in response.

This lesson discussed in the article did include a slide to the JONAH website. It was the final slide, and not presented alongside a multiplicity of approaches, as your response suggests. While the JC article was careful not to use the word promote, as far as I’m concerned, actually to include it without either saying that it is a terrible, hurtful organisation, or also including organisations like Gay Pride, Keshet – http://www.keshetuk.org/ and the It Gets Better Project; is as good as saying that JONAH is a good idea, even if those words aren’t used.

Furthermore some students have said to me that when they asked one teacher what they would do if they were gay, the teacher said that they would use the website. I’ve promised any student who was given my phone number as a sympathetic ear, that I will maintain their confidentiality, so I will not tell you who they are, but I can tell you that your students are hurting. We know that LGBT teens are at a higher risk of suicide, and I hope that responding supportively and actively will be a priority.

What I hope you will do:

  • I hope that the response to the article will not be limited to the defensive letter I have seen.
  • I hope the ‘action’ being considered will not be limited to defending JFS’s name, but will be concerned with caring for students who are questioning their sexuality,  struggling to come out in a hostile environment, or experiencing homophobia. If JFS puts its students first on this topic, the good name will follow.
  • I hope that Keshet will be invited in to run seminars for students throughout the school.
  • I hope there will be training put on for all staff on how to discuss sexuality within the classroom and how to respond to homophobia outside of it. Keshet could offer this.
  • I hope that students of all sexualities will start to feel truly safe and supported in JFS.

Please make me proud of the school again, by taking this as the opportunity to make LGBT students feel welcome and loved, rather than failing in your duty of care and making them feel unwanted,

I look forward to hearing from you soon. Yours hopefully,

Alma Smith