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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Anti-bullying bill divides Winnipeg rabbis

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Rabbi Ari Ellis

WINNIPEG — A new government anti-bullying bill is dividing Orthodox rabbis in Winnipeg over its requirement that publicly funded schools must accommodate students who want to form “gay-straight alliance” clubs at their schools.

Bill 18, introduced last December, is committed to supporting student initiatives in schools that promote inclusivity and talks about providing “safe and caring learning environments for students where all students feel respected and can reach their full potential.”

The part of the bill that is causing controversy is the clause requiring all public schools and any private schools that get public funding to form a “gay-straight alliance” club if a student wants one.

The bill has been strongly criticized in other Manitoba faith communities, and a similar one that passed last year in Ontario sparked controversy among Catholic Church leaders and some Orthodox rabbis.

Winnipeg’s two leading Orthodox rabbis have jumped into the fray, but on opposite sides.

Rabbi Avrohom Altein, Winnipeg’s longtime Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, was the first to make his views known in a letter he wrote to Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger in mid-March.

In an interview with The CJN, Rabbi Altein said he applauds the government’s efforts to protect people who are being bullied, but the clause encouraging gay-straight alliances in schools must be modified.

“Many religious people do not accept homosexuality,” he said. “The Torah rejects homosexuality. You wouldn’t tolerate someone going into an Orthodox shul and demanding treif food. Similarly, religious schools should not be forced to accept a gay rights group.”

Rabbi Altein said he believes that everyone deserves respect and that he’s not calling for anyone to be persecuted for who they are or what they believe.

“As Jews, we have to be particularly sensitive to persecution,” he said. “But forcing religious institutions to accept homosexuality has nothing to do with teaching respect for individuals and combating bullying.”

Rabbi Ari Ellis, spiritual leader of the Herzlia Adas-Yeshurun congregation, Winnipeg’s largest Orthodox congregation, said he didn’t intend to get involved in the debate over Bill 18, since it has little relevance to the Jewish community as a whole.

“I felt that I had to respond, though, when I read Rabbi Altein’s letter and heard his comments on CBC,” Rabbi Ellis said. “I understand what he said and why he said it, but it bothered me that he presented his point of view in the name of Orthodox Judaism rather than as a personal view. It’s not a black-and-white issue.”  

Rabbi Ellis referred to the 2010 document Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community, signed by more than 200 leading Orthodox rabbis, educators, and community leaders, which affirmed that “it is critical to emphasize that Jewish law only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction and nothing in the Bible devalues the human beings who struggle with them. Heterosexual marriage is the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.”

Rabbi Ellis agreed with Rabbi Altein that, as a matter of faith, Orthodox Jews believe in the divinity of the Bible – both of the written and the oral law.

“Jewish law cannot change to reflect each and every latest fad or trend. I do not believe, however, that having a gay-straight alliance is similar to having a group for Jewish students who wish to promote the eating of pork,” he added.

“At our synagogue, we don’t judge individuals or ask someone whether they observe Shabbat or kashrut before welcoming them into our congregation. Everyone is welcome to attend and be a part of our community. But welcoming someone into our community doesn’t mean that we endorse all their personal choices.”

He added: “As an Orthodox rabbi and a Jewish educator, it is my belief that a gay-straight alliance could be a welcome institution in our schools and communities. In fact, I would want to encourage Jewish teenagers with a homosexual orientation to seek guidance from their rabbis and teachers in dealing with their struggles within a Jewish framework, instead of turning elsewhere for help.”

Rory Paul, head of school and CEO at Gray Academy of Jewish Education, Winnipeg’s only kindergarten to Grade 12 Jewish private school, said his institution has had a gay-straight alliance group for a couple of years.

“We are a community school. We are open to all students who wish to attend,” he said.

“From our perspective, from a bullying point of view, we have been working for years to ensure that our school is a safe and secure place for students,” he added “We deal with all negative situations as they arise.”

 Rabbi Ellis said the response to his comments on this issue from his congregation and the larger Jewish community has been mainly positive. “I’ve received only two negative responses,” he said.

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