By Lee Chottiner
Jews of different sexual orientations and gender identities have existed, some say, since the days of the Bible. Now, a high school level course is teaching Jewish teens who those people were – and are.
The High School for Jewish Studies (HSJS) is offering a course titled “LGBTQ Judaism.” First offered last year, it will be taught again in January.
“I myself am bi,” said its instructor, Bonnie McCullagh, “and I think one of the easiest ways to combat homophobia and transphobia is to make information available to people.”
The course, offered as an elective, couldn’t be taught at a more important time, she said.
“Given the current political climate and a lot of laws happening all the time, and Jewish movements doing different things in the last few years that are related to the LGBTQ community, we’ll be talking about that.”
When it was first taught last year, McCullagh focused on relationships in the Tanakh (Bible) that have been interpreted through the years as possibly LGBTQ: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi.
Even the story of Joseph can be interpreted that way, McCullagh said. Joseph struggles to be accepted by his older brothers and is described in the text as “beautiful” – possibly a metaphor for the LGBTQ community.
This year, though, McCullagh will also address contemporary Jews who identify with the LGBTQ community: Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated by a colleague; Larry Kramer a gay playwright and AIDS activist who passed away earlier this year; Abby Stein, a transgender woman and activist – a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov – who had been ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before coming out; and Sandra Lawson, the first black openly lesbian rabbi.
“This is something that a lot of kids aren’t necessarily going to hear about,” McCullagh said. “My ultimate goal is that some of these kids will take this class, learn something, and it will help them be a better friend to someone who’s struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Having role models like the ones taught in her course would have helped her when she was teenager discovering who she was, McCullagh added.
HSJS Principal Sarah Harlan said felt confident that the course would be successful when McCullagh first proposed it.
“Bonnie pitched the idea to me and I thought it would be an important course,” she said. “My philosophy has always been to ask my teachers what they’d be most excited to teach. In my experience, that’s what makes for the most engaging and highly ranked courses.”
HSJS is a supplemental school where Jewish teens can continue to study Jewish history, ethics, religion and Israel.
McCullagh said she sees the course as a way to give something back.
“Though society has progressed since I was in high school, it’s still not as secure as I would hope.”
The material she teaches “is not something they’re going to hear about in secular school,” she added. “The High School for Jewish Studies is really inviting, in that they have the opportunity to do these different electives.”