How inclusive can a Modern Orthodox school be while remaining true to its halachic standards?
That’s the question that has been raised after an Oakland couple claimed last week that their gender-fluid son was denied admission to Oakland Hebrew Day School, and posted about it on Instagram.
Oakland resident Meg Keene said that her 7-year-old son was denied a spot in the second grade because the K-8 school could not accommodate the boy, who sometimes expresses his personality by wearing sequined ball gowns and other feminine clothing.
“He is a boy that shows up in ball gowns every so often. He has the soul of a drag queen,” she said. “He just wants to be accepted, like every other little kid.”
In Keene’s post, which has been widely shared, she discusses how disappointed she is in the school’s decision — a decision the school sees differently.
“OHDS had not completed the admissions process when the family went to Instagram,” board president Jo-Ellen Zeitlin told J. “We were unable to fully explore this issue but are confident that we would have exhausted the possibilities for the child to enroll if the family and school agreed it would be a success.”
The family was looking to move their son from a public school where they say he was bullied. They are not Orthodox, and initially had not considered OHDS as an option, assuming that a Modern Orthodox school would frown upon the boy’s choices. But once Keene looked at the website and talked to the admissions director, she felt more confident. She’d also heard that the school welcomed interfaith and queer families.
“We currently have, and have in the past had, gay and interfaith families in our community,” Zeitlin confirmed. “We welcome families who are looking to provide their children with meaningful Jewish experiences and education.”
Keene, an author and wedding planner, said that when she and her husband, lawyer David Mishook, raised the matter of her son’s gender expression, they felt encouraged by the response. But at subsequent virtual meetings, she said, at least one staff member seemed openly uncomfortable.
“Ultimately they said that they felt like while they could support him this year, they weren’t sure about going forward,” Mishook said. “They said straight out, ‘We feel like we haven’t done the work to support him.’ That they wanted to do the work, and they were going to do the work … ‘Maybe you can come join us in the future once we feel able to support a gender-fluid child.’ That was sort of their message.”
While Title IX prohibits discriminating against LGBTQ students and ties it to federal funding, religious schools are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” It’s up to each school to decide what that means.
Miryam Kabakov, executive director of Eshel, an organization that supports LGBTQ participation in Orthodox Judaism, said the national conversation about gender diversity in Modern Orthodox schools is “very complicated,” involving issues of reputation, rabbinical opinion and community norms.
“There’s many layers to this question,” she said.
“Essentially the educational framework in Orthodox institutions is very gender-binary, and the tools and language have not yet been developed adequate to handle a nonbinary approach to gender,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of Torat Chayim, a rabbinic group for progressive Orthodox rabbis. “And so I think families and schools in the community don’t yet feel equipped to juggle that complexity while maintaining an authentic commitment to Torah, mitzvot and Orthodox norms.”
Keene said that Oakland Hebrew Day School staff told her they had consulted with a rabbi, who said it was not halachically acceptable for a boy to wear girls’ clothing. (The Torah has a prohibition against men and women wearing each other’s apparel.)
Rabbi Gershon Albert, who leads the Oakland shul Beth Jacob Congregation, is on the board of OHDS.
“All Orthodox day schools have halachic authorities with whom they discuss matters related to Jewish law, including areas of kashrut, Shabbat observance, how to educate and practice prayer in the school setting, etc.,” he told J. “In our school, where we are proud of our diverse student body from all segments of the Jewish community, these discussions are particularly nuanced and take place with great sensitivity.”
Zeitlin responded to Keene’s post, telling J., “Our relative silence on the details of this matter should not be taken as defensiveness. This family is at liberty to tell their story in a way that our institution is not. We respect confidentiality and regulations put into place to protect students and families. We will not disclose the content of our interactions with this family or any family.”
It’s not the first time that OHDS has faced the issue.
Berkeley resident Ofra Daniel, a native Israeli who runs a local Hebrew-language theater company, went to enroll her transgender daughter in the sixth grade for fall of 2019. She already had a son attending OHDS’ middle school.
Daniel said she loved the school for its great academics, its strong Hebrew program and its focus on Israel. “It was the first place for me as an immigrant that I found a community,” she said.
Because the school is Modern Orthodox, Daniel said she was surprised — and pleased — when she was encouraged to enroll her daughter, who is openly transgender.
After a few conversations, Daniel said, admission was only offered contingent on her daughter agreeing not to tell anyone she is trans. Daniel said she has always encouraged the girl to live openly.
“If she came to us as a [cisgender] girl, we’d take her,” she recalled an administrator at the school saying. “But we don’t want to expose other kids to transgender.”
They said, we know for sure that if we accept her, we’re going to lose families.
Kabakov said not accepting transgender students is common. “Most Orthodox communities don’t recognize that being transgender is halachically acceptable,” she said.
“They did not have the courage to make a move and accept a transgender kid,” Daniel said. “They said, we know for sure that if we accept her, we’re going to lose families.”
But Daniel believes that refusing to accept transgender students will push their families away from participation in religion, language and culture. “There are kids who want to be Jewish and want to learn Hebrew, and they’re not [learning that] at all,” she said. “Is this how we want to be as a Jewish community?”
OHDS’ Zeitlin responded to Daniel’s recounting of what happened, telling J. “Our engagement with the family was far more nuanced than presented.”
The school released a statement this week after Keene’s social media post, saying it was beginning the work of creating a policy on gender expression “consistent with our educational and religious philosophies” and that staff would be trained on LGBTQ issues in the Jewish community. Zeitlin clarified that it would include “diversity, equity and inclusion training building on prior efforts.”
Yanklowitz says he is seeing an increased willingness in the liberal Orthodox world to challenge long-held norms regarding gender identity.
“There are few issues where I have witnessed such a rapid evolution and thinking as in issues of gender fluidity, and thus I remain very hopeful that we will witness progress in our gender inclusion policies that still maintains our commitment to authentic traditional Judaism,” he said.
It’s unclear, though, how many schools have made such progress. Eshel is encouraging Orthodox schools to take a “pledge” to support LGBTQ students and to remove gender identity or sexual orientation as barriers to admissions. Kabakov said a dozen schools have signed the pledge among more than 750 Orthodox day schools nationwide, according to a 2014 Avi Chai census.
She thinks the matter is pressing. “If the Orthodox community doesn’t deal with it, they will lose not just the kids, but also their families,” Kabakov said. “And their friends and allies.”
That’s why Daniel is pressing on. While she praises OHDS on many fronts, she says she’s going public with her daughter’s story out of an obligation to promote acceptance of trans people in the Jewish community, just as others have paved the way for transgender rights in the larger society.
“I cannot neglect that,” she said. “This is something we need to do: shout for people who have no voice. That, for me, is what it is to be Jewish.”