By Helen Chernikoff
Breaking old taboos.
First, Amram Altzman, 17, realized he was gay. His parents and three younger brothers “accepted and embraced” him, but he couldn’t really be his whole self at the prestigious Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, because almost none of his peers even knew what it meant to be gay.
“Nobody knew anybody who was out of the closet,” he said. “It was only after I came out of the closet that the silence really hit me.”
Then, while attending a summer arts program at Brandeis University between his sophomore and junior years with other young, LGBT Jews, he understood he could merge these two identities. When he returned to school, he decided with a friend to ask the administration for permission to create a discussion group.
Such a proposal had been shot down many times before, so Altzman and his friend thought their pitch through carefully on the phone with Idit Klein of the LGBT advocacy organization Keshet.
The idea was to create a club that would combat homophobia and be a general forum for sexuality and gender, and the administration signed off on it, calling it “The Sexuality, Identity and Society Club,” which Altzman says sounds more like an introduction to gender studies course at a college than a club. But it functions as the club he envisioned, with eight or nine students sitting in a classroom on Wednesdays and talking over such topics as coming out; transgender identity; the Defense of Marriage Act and whether bullying is a problem at Ramaz.
Next year, Altzman will attend the joint bachelor’s program at Columbia College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, with the aim of pursuing a social work career in the LGBT Jewish community. He’s gotten a head start working on Keshet’s teen initiatives and with Eshel, the community organization for traditional LGBT Jews.
The dean, who must, Altzman knows, tread a thin line between creating an open environment and adhering to what the school perceives are religious prohibitions against homosexuality, is very supportive.
“The club,” said Altzman, “has broken the silence.”
Old school: Altzman loves both the study of history and the holiday of Thanksgiving.