Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School was honored at Keshet’s annual OUTstanding! awards gala. Along with Rebekah Farber and Dr. Marc Kramer, Dr. Tanchel received the Hachmei Lev Award for modeling Jewish LGBTQ inclusion and equality in the Jewish Day School movement. Dr. Tanchel was, until recently, the only out head of a Jewish day school in the country. Serving as a role model through her own journey of coming out, she played a crucial role in creating a space for LGBTQ students, faculty, and parents to be able to be themselves in the Jewish Day School world.
Mazal Tov to Dr. Tanchel on receiving on this incredible honor. Below are her remarks from the evening.
I remember it vividly. Around a decade ago, this spirited, intelligent, Jewishly committed, 16 year old, sitting in my office at Gann Academy with tears rolling down her face. She could barely get the words out, as she poignantly asked, “Ms. Tanchel, can I be gay and Jewish?” I remembered wondering that very same thing, years before, along my own coming out journey. I remember feeling terrified that I would lose a job I loved and cause a controversy for a school I cared so much about. Remember this was 1998 – it was a different world for LGBTQ Jews back then.
Thank you, Keshet, for this award; it means a great deal to me. You play a critical role in transforming the national landscape for LGBTQ Jews. Special thanks to Idit Klein, who I had the good fortune to befriend many years ago, to James Cohen, who we are blessed to have in our JCDS community and to Arnee and Walt Winshall, for your tremendous leadership on so many issues. Thank you to all of you who are here to support me tonight: so many from the JCDS community, my parents, and friends, including former Gann students, your presence here means so much.
Tonight is a celebration of the positive movement toward inclusivity and that LGBT kids and families are far more integrated in the day school community.
Before: we were invisible at day school conferences
Now: there are sessions dedicated to LGBT issues
Before: there were no GSAs at day schools
Now: not only are there many GSAs, even, some Orthodox day schools have support group for their LGBTQ kids.
Before: there were no out heads of Jewish day schools in this country
Now: here I am and I am not the only one
Many are responsible for these leaps forward and I am deeply proud to be among them. My desire to be a better role model for students thrust me out of the closet. I distinctly remember the first time a student came out to me, though sitting calmly, I was inwardly thinking holy cow what on earth am I going to say now. The words that came out, “mazal tov,” expressed the celebration of greater truth. Later this same person, would be my central teacher introducing me to the concerns, challenges, and blessings of transpeople. When you are very fortunate, as I have been, your students are also your teachers.
These advances are wonderful, but we are not done. I know this because last year a Jewish educator called me, someone whom he actually doesn’t know that well. He had to call me because each day, all day, he hides that he has fallen in love with a man. He wanted someone in our field to bear witness to his truth. As I voiced my excitement for him, I privately wished he could enjoy the freedom I do every time I acknowledge my wife’s support at large school events. No big deal for straight people, but a hard-won victory for us.
More change is required because an excellent Jewish Studies teacher at a different school recently quit her job. As we talked it through, it was evident her prominent school was not yet in a place to accept her because she wanted to be out. This was a loss for all involved because, believe me, excellent Jewish Studies teachers are not so easily found.
I remember coming out – scared at first, I quickly found it exhilarating. Schools contexts matter so much in this process. I am indebted to Rabbi Danny Lehmann and Arnee Winshall for each creating school communities that courageously grapple with complex issues and celebrate differences. If we seek a more just world in which our civil discourse does not denigrate difference, but upholds the dignity of each person, we need to prioritize teaching our children how to engage with people different from themselves. At JCDS, we begin this work, when we instruct our kindergartners to explore their differences as a critical part of friendship. Differences strengthen communities. We cannot underestimate the power of teachers normalizing differences by, for example, showing kids exemplars of all different kinds of families, or by not assuming, in word and in deed, that every kid is straight. It is essential for Jewish day schools to be inclusive and accepting, for they are formative communities in our children’s lives. It is here where our future Jewish adults develop their life-long templates for how to treat others.
I’m very proud that one of the hallmarks of JCDS is being a warm, accepting community. Thus, our children have the gift of being loved and appreciated for exactly who they are. This is evident when a girl, comes up to me and says, “Dr. T, my mom finally bought me these cool Spiderman boxers” or a young boy proudly wears his princess or Frozen t-shirts and his pink sneakers to school. Perhaps it is not surprise that it was this kind of a school that was the first to take the courageous step of hiring an out lesbian as their Head of School. As we do for our children, so we do for all members of our community.
Within this supportive context, we also have more work to do. Currently, we have a bathroom challenge. Last year I learned about a child who was suffering on my watch because they didn’t feel comfortable going to gender assigned bathroom. We came up with a temporary, less than ideal, solution. As we struggle to come up with a better one, I have talked to many people. Some ask, “why do we have to make drastic changes for so few kids,” but recently a friend to JCDS offered these words that made a lasting impression: “Susie, even if you didn’t have any, not even one, trans kid in your community, you would want to do this. You school wants to communicate we are an inclusive, welcoming community regardless of who is at the school at any given moment.” Yes we do! Our Jewish values and human decency demand it.
The work continues. With the support of many, we will continue to make the Jewish world a more just and inclusive place. This will of course benefit LGBTQ Jews, but it will likewise be a benefit to entire the community. Not only because we all want to be our better selves, and to embody our Jewish values, but because, as we all know, we are stronger together.