Rabbi Segal calls for Orthodox schools to take action supporting LGBT students, including support groups on campus


Ezra Fax

FOCUSED: Rabbi Segal warned against “complacency” about challenges faced by LGBT students in Orthodox schools.

By Alec Fields and Maayan Waldman, Co-Editors-in-Chief

Calling it “the greatest challenge to emunah (faith) in our time,” Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal has published an article urging religious leaders, particularly in education, to take an active approach to the pressing conflict between Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality.

In a 1,868-word piece published this afternoon, he offered ideas as to how the Jewish community can move from an attitude of “mere tolerance” to a place of thoughtful engagement that will “bring our young people closer to Torah and Halacha –– not further away.”

“To put it plainly, ‘being nice’ cannot serve as the end goal,” said Rabbi Segal. “Basic kindness is but the starting point of human decency.”

While not stating any official game plan for conquering this issue, Rabbi Segal suggested establishing school LGBT support groups, celebrating Orthodox LGBT individuals, and encouraging support from their fellow students.

He also told readers to “stay tuned” for an announcement about what Shalhevet in particular would do, saying that a “process” was under way.

“Gay students deserve the same friendship and solidarity as anyone else,” Rabbi Segal wrote, “especially as Jews trying under the most challenging of circumstances to navigate the Torah and observe its commandments.”

As part of this initiative, Rabbi Segal encouraged community members to attend a Sept. 18 breakfast program on this topic in Westwood, sponsored by the organization Eshel.

Rabbi Segal’s article described a religious struggle not only among LGBT students, but among their friends and peers.

“As they go off to college, students invariably face the painful moral dilemma created by the seemingly intractable conflict: believing in the primacy and validity of the Torah on the one hand, and following their hearts’ sense of morality with regard to loving and accepting their gay friends – or perhaps “coming out” themselves—on the other,” Rabbi Segal wrote.

“All too often, this earnest challenge results in our children quietly losing faith in the Torah as a moral way of life.”

The Torah in Vayikra (Deuteronomy), Chapter 18, verse 22, says: “You shall not lie down with a male as with a woman:  this is an abomination,”  and Rabbi Segal acknowledged a religious dissonance that could occur.  He called on Gedolim — religious leaders — to find a solution.  He specifically mentioned the leaders of Yeshiva University, where he and most of Shalhevet’s Judaic Studies teachers studied or received ordination.

“I will leave the discussion of this massive theological question to the Gedolim of our generation,” he wrote. “But I beg the YU Roshei Yeshiva and the Gedolim of our community to take up the discussion now…. Our Gedolim rightly claim the mantle of Torah leadership for our community but they must assert themselves. They must fill the vacuum that exists right now.

“If not,” he said, “the difficult and vital issue will be addressed by those to their right and left.”

Meanwhile, schools and students should not only embrace LGBT people, but must confront the religious issue, Rabbi Segal wrote.

“Steering away from the issue might feel safe, but that avoidance is detrimental and dangerous,” he wrote. “Rather than avoid, we must actively and thoughtfully engage. Even just taking those initial steps, I believe, will alleviate the burden of this theological struggle, and will help prevent those tempted to throw in the theological towel to circumvent the tension altogether.”

Another school that has taken up this issue is Salanter Akiba Riverdale (SAR) Academy of Riverdale, N.Y.  Shortly after the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, SAR Principal Rabbi Tully Harcztark expressed solidarity with LGBT students at a school vigil and prayer service.  That was on June 14, after Shalhevet’s school year was over.

In an interview later with Tablet magazine, Rabbi Harcsztark said that it was a time for his community to “reflect, to ensure that our environment is a safe environment and we model that for others as well.”