After JQY presented to the study body, Palette co-Editor-in-Chief Eliana Goldin decided to sit down with Rabbi Leubitz to address many of the concerns that had been raised by members of the student body.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eliana Goldin: There are allegations that JQY doesn’t align with modern Orthodoxy. What do you have to say about this?
Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz: What does one have to do with the other? That an organization needs to be Orthodox to come talk about a social-emotional issue — I reject that notion. When we have people who come in and talk about any number of social-emotional issues in our school, they need not be Orthodox. I think that what is maybe a little bit unique here is that someone has to have a context for how our culture is different than the average school and to the extent that they understand some of our challenges and understand that some people may make this about a religious issue or theological issue…but I don’t really know or believe that an institution has to be Orthodox. So whether they are or they aren’t Orthodox, to me, is irrelevant. The questions I would ask are: Do they know their material? Are they good, fair, and honest presenters? Are they balanced? And are they talking about something that we share in their approach?
EG: What part of their approach do we share?
RAL: This is not a political issue for me. There are people who want to have a theological or halachic conversation, and that’s not what we’re dealing with here. This is purely an issue of the statistics, which show that having people who identify as LGBT and do not feel safe in an institution is bad for the institution, bad for the families, bad for the kids….There are children, students in our building, who have either identified themselves as LGBT or have not, and they have to feel safe and cannot be bullied…I’m here to protect students and children in our building. This organization did not come here to promote “we must do this” or “we must do that.”… Finding someone…who was really dealing with this from a social-emotional, mental health, non-bullying perspective was what I was looking for, and that’s where we aligned.
” That an organization needs to be Orthodox to come talk about a social-emotional issue — I reject that notion.” – Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz
EG: Many people found it difficult that they were expecting the focus to be on sensitivity and prevention of bullying, but the organization presented many claims that people either disagreed with politically, halachically, or scientifically. That’s where there seems to be a lot of tension: between what was presented and the goal of them coming.
RAL: From a philosophical standpoint, I stand by what I said before. But that doesn’t mean that execution was perfect. That doesn’t mean that people are going to be able to bracket the political frame or the emotional frame that they have toward this issue.
EG: Why should AJA be more accepting towards people who identify as LGBTQ? After all, I’d assume, just with my Jewish education, that we wouldn’t go around accepting someone’s “mechallel (breaking) Shabbos” identity. This example has been used a lot among students as a way of comparing how they feel about JQY coming.
RAL: Again, the “acceptance” language is, I think, not the best choice of words. If we want to compare apples to apples, can we walk around this school and defame people who are mechalel Shabbos and say they are going to Gehenom and that they’re not even Jews? We’d never speak in such a way…I’m not asking anyone to accept…they don’t have to accept. But to be in this school, you cannot bully, you cannot call people names, you cannot make students feel unsafe, and I would say that is true for any other mitzvah or aveira (transgression) that someone does in this building, that’s between them and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
EG: JQY Presenter Mordechai Levovits said that LGBTQ identity is something we should be talking about because if we talk about it then we kind of take away the stigma and make it more safe for said people. But how is somebody supposed to talk about it who doesn’t believe in it or who doesn’t support it?
RAL: In a non-derogatory, non-offensive, non-chutzpatic kind of way. And if you find this to be an abhorrent, deviant, and psychologically-flawed…you’re entitled to your beliefs, but keep the judgement to yourself.
” There are people who want to have a theological or halachic conversation, and that’s not what we’re dealing with here.” – Rabbi Leubitz
EG: Most of my questions are about what JQY said, even though JQY’s message was supposed to be about bullying and sensitivity.
RAL: I spent two years trying to find the most balanced organization that I could. Was their presentation perfect? No, it wasn’t…They’re an agency that we thoroughly vetted, brought into our school, and we believe did a pretty good job, though not a perfect job.
EG: How should students know how to differentiate between some of what’s being said but not all of what’s being said? What messages should they be taking and what messages should they think it’s okay to not agree with or follow.
RAL: I think that anything students hear that has to deal with a possible new school policy, they should disregard as inaccurate or false. As a result of this presentation, we’re not making any policy changes and we’re not making any decrees. So anything that would lead someone to think, “Ah, the school is going to–”, it’s just not true.
EG: Can I give an example?
RAL: Of course.
EG: One of the contentions made was that your gender identity is basically a doctor’s best guess at your sex and therefore we need to respect everyone’s gender identity. How does a student know if they should accept all of that claim? Just the first part, just the second part? How do they know where to differentiate between what they should take with them, that the school believes in, and what they should leave?
RAL: So I think we go back to my philosophy on this. I’m not a doctor. What I do know is that nobody can be treated less than an equal…The reality on the ground is really simple for me. I have a human being in front of me that needs to be cared for…Let the doctors figure it out. Let the medical industry figure out their part. Let the rabbis figure out their part. We just need to make sure that everyone is cared for, loved, and feels a part of our diverse community.
EG: In school at AJA, students are taught that the Torah is God’s word and thus Truth. How are students supposed to reconcile their AJA education with some of JQY’s messages?
RAL: I think that the question, the notion of the question, means they don’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish. I’m not questioning when the Torah is Hashem’s word, and thus Truth. Period. There is no discussion about it not being the Truth. The Torah’s word also is to treat human beings like human beings.
EG: A number of students expressed uncertainty about AJA’s intentions regarding LGBTQ students. So I just have a number of scenarios about which people have expressed interest in your answer, and the same will apply for vise versa in each case. So if a biologically female student identified as a male, would that person be allowed to pray on the male side of the mechitza?…Would that person be allowed to wear pants, and would that person be allowed to attend male Judaic Studies classes?
RAL: So all those questions need a whole separate meeting because they’re really complicated and I think beyond the scope of this piece. Those are policy questions and less about JQY, and that’s a whole separate discussion.
EG: I do think that when you’re working with high school students and you present something as controversial as JQY is, then you can’t not expect students to start thinking about “How does this apply in my life? Where does this take us in terms of school policy?”
RAL: I’m happy for students that think about it, I’m happy that students debate it, but…I need to be honest, and say this is about everything I said over the last 15 minutes. This is not about policy, this is not about what-ifs — this is about taking care of human beings on the ground, and moving into a policy conversation is going to take the eye off the prize, which is: Let’s continue the conversation about what needs to be true to make everyone feel safe in our school. And the policy conversation is a separate conversation.
EG: If you have somebody say, “I identify as an astronaut” — like a little kid — I would assume that you would think it is appropriate to tell them “No, you’re not an astronaut. You’re a little kid. You’re a kindergartener.” But why is it that–
RAL: I wouldn’t.
EG: You would let the kid believe they’re an astronaut?
RAL: I’m an astronaut. I close my eyes and I go to space and I feel like I’m one with the clouds. Why is it my business to say, “No you’re not.” What does it mean? The astronaut– which Armstrong was– the day before he went into the spaceship, was he not an astronaut? Or the day before he got accepted?
EG: So if right now I said I was a boy. You’re going to say, “How do I know? Where is it coming from?” Like, “I think you’re a girl.”
RAL: I would say, “Tell me more about that. Why do you think that?”
“To be in this school, you cannot bully, you cannot call people names, you cannot make students feel unsafe.” – Rabbi Leubitz
EG: The biggest issue I think is when it now comes to policy for school. Maybe that’s when it becomes a bigger issue, when it becomes part of education and what we’re teaching. But you said you don’t want to get into that conversation.
RAL: Think about how theologically, it’s all tied to my philosophy class that I teach in the High School. So if I say to you, “Do you think Hashem could lift this apple off my head right now?” and if you said, “Yes” or, “No,” am I going to judge that? Because tomorrow you’re going to say no, and the next day you’re going to say yes. My relationship with Hashem when I’m upset is different than when I’m happy…The first thing I tell my kids in the theology classes: I can’t judge your relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu because it changes. Day by day, if not year by year, or decade by decade. So in the moment, this is what you think.
EG: I think it affects action and the person themselves…The person now [says], “I don’t believe in God, [so] I am not required to follow Jewish law.”…It’s not part of our school policy, but that does affect the person’s actions. And then if one day you believe in God, then it’s okay for [you] to not pray to God the next day?
RAL: So I think it’s fair to say, “Hey, Eliana, I hear you. Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Let’s have a conversation, and if you’re going to go eat treyf tomorrow…let’s understand the outcome of your decision. I don’t want you to come back and regret eating treyf tomorrow. You should know people believe and don’t believe; that’s normal, we all have our doubts. Let’s have a conversation and make the most intelligent decision because I want you to not be sad about what you did.” That’s a different conversation than saying, “Yeah, you must believe in God,” or “You better not.”
EG: So I follow that line of thinking. And I also think that if I now said, “I don’t believe in God; therefore, I don’t need to keep kosher when I’m in school,” then I’m assuming your response would be, “Well, that’s a school rule.” Why is that different with gender? Assuming that, by your line of reasoning, do you get where I’m going?
RAL: You’re turning back to policy.
EG: Exactly. If the school then said, “Okay, this person can go to the other side of the mechitza.” If you had a conversation with them, sincere, it’s not like a little kid who thinks they are an astronaut, and by that logic–
RAL: Well, you’re referring to judgements and assessments, which is not, you know, where I’m willing to go. Because I think the first level has to be mutual respect, love each other, and safety…I want to kind of have that conversation. Why do I have to go to the Az Mah? Like, why does the conversation have to end up in a policy? Why can’t we just be respectful?
EG: Because someone will find it disrespectful that when the policy contradicts their identity or invalidates them, I think someone would be — someone would feel bad if — a boy identifies as a girl and the school did not allow that person to wear a skirt…That would be disrespectful to that person.
RAL: I’m sure they would feel disrespected and I’m sure they would feel even more disrespected and hurt if you use inappropriate language or bullying, etc. So let’s deal with the fundamental issue about kavod and respect and love for each other… I don’t think we’ve gone far enough yet in terms of respect for each other, and I want to keep that conversation alive.
The Palette staff would like Rabbi Leubitz to know how grateful we are for his willingness to be interviewed and for being so candid and open with us, especially about such a controversial topic. We value your leadership in our community.