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Brent Jewish leaders 'shouldn't have signed harmful LGBT+ letter' about sex education

PUBLISHED: 13:44 25 April 2019 | UPDATED: 14:15 25 April 2019

A protest against lessons about LGBT rights and relationships at Birmingham's Anderton Park Primary School. The letter signed by a number of north London community leaders came in the wake of these demonstrations. Picture: AARON CHOWN/PA WIRE

A protest against lessons about LGBT rights and relationships at Birmingham's Anderton Park Primary School. The letter signed by a number of north London community leaders came in the wake of these demonstrations. Picture: AARON CHOWN/PA WIRE

PA Wire/PA Images

A Jewish LGBT charity has joined voices criticising a "harmful" open letter signed by a number of north London faith leaders - including the founder of a Dollis Hill primary school.

A protest against lessons about LGBT rights and relationships at Birmingham's Anderton Park Primary School. The letter signed by a number of north London community leaders came in the wake of these demonstrations. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA WireA protest against lessons about LGBT rights and relationships at Birmingham's Anderton Park Primary School. The letter signed by a number of north London community leaders came in the wake of these demonstrations. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Earlier this month a group called The Values Foundation published the letter – addressed to the Department of Education (DfE) – which urges ministers not to “compromise the internationally recognised rights of parents to educate their children according to their own religious or philosophical beliefs” in introducing new guidelines for the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE).

Signatories to the interfaith letter include Rabbi Shimon Winegarten – who founded the Torah Temimah Primary School, which is based in the old Dollis Hill Synagogue – and Sheikh Muhammad Bahmanpour of the Kilburn-based Islamic Centre of England.

Their names appear alongside those of controversial Golders Green Rabbi Aharon Bassous, who runs the Beth Hamedrash Knesset Yehezkel in Golders Green Road and who compared the Chief Rabbi with a Nazi in March. Religious groups Christian Concern – which backs widely condemned “conversion therapy” for LGBT+ individuals – and IslamicSRE also supported the letter.

A fortnight ago it emerged that a number of rabbis from the United Synagogues (US) organisation – which is headed by the UK's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – had asked for their names to be removed.

Dalia Fleming, the executive director of KeshetUK – a West Hampstead education and advocacy charity aimed at reconciling the Jewish faith and LGBT+ issues – told the Kilburn Times: “We have been encouraged by so many rabbis removing their names since they saw the full letter and the impact it was having. It was not the way to go to have a challenging and complicated conversation.

“Some of the wording in particular was just harmful – the idea that just talking about the existence of LGBT+ people is 'alien' is an harmful one.

“We all know there are LGBT+ people in all of our communities, though of course these conversations can be harder to have in some parts of the Jewish community than others.”

Neither Rabbi Winegarten, who signed the letter as “Rabbinical Authority, Torah Temimah Primary School”, or Sheikh Bahmanpour has yet responded to this paper's requests for comment, and we have been unable to reach representatives of the primary school.

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Dalia from KeshetUK – which is headquartered in West End Lane – said the organisation would be happy to meet publicly or privately those who have not removed their names.

She said: “There are ways to talk about their concerns sensitively. If they ever want to talk about the issue and how to discuss it, we'd be happy to.”

One of the US rabbis to remove their name from the letter was Rabbi Wollenberg of the Woodford Forest United Synagogue.

He said: “My colleagues and I fully support the principle that Jewish schools and families must be able to educate their children about relationships in an age-appropriate way.

“But it became clear that the tone of the campaign through the recent open letter and the extreme views held by a number of the signatories might compromise much of the recent progress in removing the stigma for LGBT+ pupils in Jewish schools. As soon as I became aware of this, I immediately retracted my signature.”

KeshetUK has been working with the Chief Rabbi to destigmatise the LGBT+ community and together they released guidance on this earlier in 2019.

The Values Foundation (TVF) open letter was written in response to the Department for Education's new guidelines for the teaching of relationships and sex education.

Set to come into force in 2020, these would make teaching about relationships compulsory for all primary schools, with sex education then compulsory at secondary level.

The DfE says it “expects all pupils to have been taught LGBT+ content at a timely point” but this has triggered uproar in religious communities around the country.

In February, a number of protests took place outside schools in Birmingham where parents argued they were losing the ability to educate children as they decided. But secular groups including Humanists UK wrote to national newspapers backing the changes, and it was in response to this that TVF wrote its own letter, which remained unpublished except for on their own website.

The new rules are currently before the Lords.

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