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Queer Club Controversy

LGBTQ+ Alliance Becomes B’yachad

A day after submitting a club proposal form for an LGBTQ+ Alliance Club, juniors Eliana Flusberg and Noa Geller and senior Hannah Freedman learned that Head of School Rabbi Avi Levitt had not approved their club. They were surprised. They felt that the club was “needed in the school for people to feel accepted,” in Noa’s words, and they met with Rabbi Levitt the next day (August 30th) to discuss his decision. 

Ensuing conversations about their club changed its fate. Although it has yet to meet, Rabbi Levitt approved their club before Labor Day, September 4, under the new name of the “B’yachad Club.” 

Rabbi Levitt initially opposed the LGBTQ+ Alliance Club because he knows clubs centered on queer issues can be controversial in modern-Orthodox spaces. Mentors in Orthodox spaces, who have written articles on the issue, advised for religious reasons not to introduce similar clubs in modern-Orthodox high schools. Furthermore, in his experience at other schools, counseling and consulting with individual queer students sufficed as support. Before the club proposal was on his radar, he had already solicited opinions from some faculty and staff about a plan of individual support for queer students, and believed, based on an absence of indicators otherwise, that this alone would be enough for AJA. 

“I accept the fact that that was not sufficient homework,” he said. After meeting with more students, faculty, and community members, he’s come to realize that “this club is what this school needs right now.”

According to Rabbi Levitt the name of the club was changed to avoid “triggering” people in the community politically or religiously. Its name might have led people to “infer the wrong things about the club,” he said.

Although the B’yachad Club has been approved, its initial rejection has changed more than its name. 

The lengthy discussion over the club’s existence made it impossible for its founders to present it at the school club fair, scheduled for three days after its proposal. As a result, the club was announced over email on September 21. Club leaders felt the email insufficiently explained the club’s purpose, but their slow organization and some email communication problems meant that a new email was only sent on December 6. This email describes the club as a monthly meeting “gay-straight alliance,” and links to an interest form to help the club build a roster.

Initial administrative opposition to the club has also impacted the attitudes of its leaders. “The club has a new meaning and relevance because we saw that it wasn’t embraced,” Eliana said. Noa agreed. “We didn’t think it would be this big of a deal, but now that it’s this big of a deal, it has to actually do something,” she said. 

Club leaders aren’t sure what that “something” will be. In Eliana’s words, they hope “to make a safe and inclusive space for everyone at AJA, regardless of how they identify,” but specific steps to accomplish this goal remain unclear. In the 2021-2022 school year, a previous LGBTQ+ Alliance Club focused on education, but this didn’t speak to Eliana or Noa, who attended the club as Freshmen. They want something more “interactive,” possibly featuring discussions centered around the challenges faced by students at AJA and projects for self expression. They also initially hoped to raise money for the Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ teens, but they felt this was discouraged in the meetings surrounding the club’s creation. Rabbi Levitt clarified that students are always welcome to fundraise for causes they believe in, but as a policy, the school does not solicit donations for outside organizations. (An exception to this policy was recently made for Israel’s emergency service, Magen David Adom, which the school solicited money for in light of the war that broke out in Israel on October 7).

The B’yachad club has been approved, but its founders feel frustrated by the process of its creation. Even though Rabbi Levitt has changed his position, Noa feels that in initial meetings “he wasn’t fully listening to us.” 

Rabbi Levitt accepts fault for making a rushed and incorrect initial decision to reject the club, but he has reservations of his own about the process of its creation. He now supports the club, but he also worries that in focusing on the club, students may lose sight of the importance of other kinds of support. “Students view the club as the evidence of acceptance on the part of AJA’s administration, and the absence of the club definitionally as the lack of acceptance,” he said. “My challenge question for the group (and I invited people to come back and have more conversations with me) is could acceptance look like something else?”

No meetings are currently scheduled to further discuss the issue, but the creation of the B’yachad Club may not be the last of AJA’s conversations about supporting its queer students.

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