What is the greatest crisis facing Jewish schools? Underfunding? Recruitment challenges? No, according to Brian Gordon in last week’s Jewish News it is the introduction of Sex and Relationship education, with its emphasis on positive relationships and consent. It will of course also address the reality that LGBTQ+ people exist. There will be no ‘promotion of lifestyles’, but in every community, students who don’t fit the heteronormative models they see around them, will be offered the radical idea that they are not a freak of nature but that God has also created them Betzelem Elohim (in God’s image) and that Judaism may even have space for them.
The introduction of SRE is to protect our children. According to Stonewall, half of LGBT people said they’ve experienced depression in the last year; 13 per cent aged 18-24 said they’ve attempted to take their own life in the last year. In the trans community 46% have considered suicide in the last year; 31% in the LGB community. 41% of non-binary people said they harmed themselves in the last year. The Mental Health Foundation has shown that these statistics directly correlate to the LGBTQ experience of discrimination and hate crimes. And the risks for our children and teens don’t end here.
In our fast changing world pornographic and sometimes disturbing images are easily accessible, particularly online, where the values of respect, consent and partnership are rarely present.
Cross communal and Progressive Jewish schools are already engaged in making sure that values of self-care, inclusion and sexual safety are available, at the right age, to their students, and many Orthodox schools also do. They comply with the law not just because it is the law, but because our values as a community are about caring for one another and creating loving homes. There are concerns that the government will force pupils to watch things of a sexual nature but these fears are baseless. SRE is about much more than sex and LGBTQ+ people; it will be age appropriate, covering consent, bodily autonomy, and healthy relationships.
Families can currently choose to exclude their children from the sex part of the curriculum until they are 15. For communities where this exclusion will be broadly applied to all students, the rejection of SRE becomes an objection to being taught about non-coercive relationships. Religion cannot be used as an excuse for abuse or sexual coercion.
There is much to celebrate about the SRE legislation. It will protect lives, and ensure that not only are different family models represented, but that children are aware of their agency, and the respect due to them and their bodies. Earlier this year the Chief Rabbi’s guidelines for LGBTQ+ inclusion, sent out in partnership with Keshet UK, were met with celebration, and condemnation. Yehudis Fletcher, Spokesperson for JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) UK, pointed out to me that currently the complaints are “within a marginal extremist section of the community. The wider community should not fall into the trap of enabling those who seek to keep children ignorant and submissive”. The majority of our wonderful Jewish schools will not be derailed by this particular government policy.
However, as Yehudis Goldsobel of Migdal Emunah, a charity supporting Jewish victims of sexual abuse said to me, “in 15-20 years these schools will be the majority so it needs to be addressed now.” Goldsobel and Fletcher are both concerned that a community that denies appropriate education leads to coercive marriages and facilitates a culture in which sexual abuse and violence thrives.
As a community, we should (and in most quarters do) welcome the government’s attempt to address issues that ultimately can be destructive, sometimes life threateningly so, to our young people. Ignorance is not protection, and in some cases is hugely damaging.