Coming out in high school: Film aims to help give voice to religious gay students

December 14, 2005

By Lisa Traiger

Washington Jewish Week: Serving the nation's capital and the greater Washington Jewish Community since 1930

When Shula Izen plaintively wondered if it’s possible to be Jewish and gay and remain holy in the film Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School, the moment rang true for many attending the sold-out Sunday afternoon screening at the Washington Jewish Film Festival at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

“It resonated with a lot of people here,” said District resident Stuart Kurlander, “because a lot of us grew up in Jewish households and went to Jewish schools. While everyone has their own story, there are pieces that are representative of everyone’s story,” in Shula’s courageous coming out as a religious Jewish lesbian at her high school, New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, now called Gann Academy.

Kurlander recently founded the DCJCC’s SSK (Kurlander’s initials) Program for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement (GLOE) with the objective of reaching out to Jewish members of the area’s gay and lesbian community.

“I want to have them become a more involved and active part  of the Jewish community,” says the lawyer, a partner at Latham & Watkins, LLP, who serves on the boards of the Washington DCJCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and is an active member of Bet Mishpachah, the District synagogue for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews and their friends.

Sunday’s screening of Hineini was the program’s coming out, its first public event in what Kurlander envisions will become a regular part of the Jewish community’s offerings.

“I’m an active member of the Jewish community and I’m openly gay. I see that there are a number of gay Jews in the community who are not involved in Jewish communal agencies and activities,” he said.

The SSK program hopes to change that in months to come, and expects to inaugurate the program formally next spring.

Hineni features a school assembly where Izen, as well as several students and teachers, come out as gay and lesbian. It also follows her efforts to create Open House, a support and educational group carrying the same name as a gay and lesbian organization in Israel.

Following Sunday’s screening, a brief panel discussion addressed issues related to Izen’s coming out story. Two member of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School community joined film director Irena Fayngold and producer Andrea Jacobs, associate director of Keshet, a Boston-based GLBT support and activist group.

JDS history teacher Miriam Szubin advises the Rockville- based community day school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which was founded in 2001 and this year has about 15 to 20 active members who meet regularly.

A JDS senior, Bethesda’s Jake Pollin pointed out that forming the GSA at his school was never a contentious issue. While when asked, Pollin couldn’t name openly gay or lesbian faculty members, he said, “There was never an issue in the administration of JDS for the GSA to exist so we never needed role models” to come out publicly as several faculty members did at the Gann Academy, as depicted in the film.

Szubin, who became the JDS GSA’s faculty adviser last year, said, “I think it’s a really important forum to have in a high school. The group was founded by a former student who was out to family and friends, but felt there needed to be a safe public forum for straight and gay kids.”

Though not present at the time the GSA formed, Szubin reported that at the first JDS GSA meeting, every 11th-grader attended to support the founding pupil.

“That doesn’t mean that some students don’t have personal, moral or religious problems,” with homosexuality, Szubin noted. But it’s indicative, she said, of the community school’s commitment to pluralism in its many forms.

Chany Wieder-Blank, a former Silver Spring resident and student at American University, detailed a different experience during the panel’s question and answer period.

Wieder-Blank said she attended the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville until 10th grade. She said that when she approached the school administration to create a gay-straight student alliance, she was shunned and then received hate mail from students.

(Asked on Tuesday to respond, the Hebrew Academy’s head of school, Rabbi William Altshul, had no comment on Wieder- Blank’s charges, saying, “there’s no one here who was in the administration at the time.”)

“Now I’m very active in the queer community at A.U.,” Wieder- Blank stated after the panel. “I’m not religious anymore. Š I haven’t found the way to be Jewish and gay, so my experience is Š probably the main reason that I felt like I couldn’t be Jewish and gay,” Wieder-Blank added. “Only one community accepts me, so I go with the one that does.”

Pollin reported that his junior high years included some teasing and bullying at JDS. “But,” he said, “I know the kids that teased me have changed a lot, and I think some of that has to do with the presence of the GSA at school.”

The film’s director, Fayngold, who works as an associate producer at Boston public television station WGBH, hopes to produce a curriculum guide and Web site as companion pieces for the film.

“What’s most exciting,” she said, “is that communities are using the film screening to discuss what happens in their own communities. We want to create a Jewish network of GSAs and give them a chance to discuss those issues particular to them and help [Jewish GSAs] connect with each other and share information and resources.”

Hineini will continue to tour Jewish film festivals around the country, sparking debate and examination of communal and pluralistic values.

“It wasn’t a story about one girl,” Fayngold said. “It was a story of a community grappling with contemporary Jewish issues.” D=4521&SectionID=4&SubSectionID=4&S=1