An Interview with Dr. Susie Tanchel: The First Out Head of a Jewish Day School

Tanchel was, until recently, the only out head of a Jewish day school in the country.

This April, Keshet will be celebrating the work of three incredible Jewish leaders who have advocated for and modeled LGBTQ inclusion and equality in the Jewish day school movement, by awarding them with the Hachmei Lev Award at our annual at OUTstanding! awards gala.

One of these leaders is Dr. Susie Tanchel, Head of School at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. 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. Dr. Tanchel was a faculty member at Gann Academy, the school featured in Keshet’s 2005 documentary, “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” which chronicles the story of one girl’s fight to establish a gay-straight alliance at her Jewish high school.

What made you interested in becoming an educator, and a Jewish educator specifically?

I am a graduate of a Jewish day school, loved my experience and have had a long interest in Jewishly related things. When I was in graduate school for a PhD program in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, a new school, The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston (later to become Gann Academy) was starting, and my adviser thought teaching would be a good match for me. I fell in love with it quite quickly. I loved the kids and their questions, and I loved the opportunity to share the Tanakh (Bible) with them and connect them with the Jewish people. It’s sacred work that I continue to feel deeply passionate about.

Would you be willing to share your coming out story?

I don’t think I carefully crafted a plan, but I ended up coming out to different circles of friends, coworkers, and family in fairly rapid succession. First, I came out to close friends of mine. I would say that one of the scariest parts was coming out at work; I thought that I was going to lose my job. I was chair of the Bible Department when I was coming out, and I didn’t know anybody who was in a position like mine at a community Jewish high school, who was out. Still I was very motivated by the I realization that I couldn’t be the role model I wanted to be if I wasn’t living my life proudly, in essence. With Keshet’s help, I developed a community organizing lens of sorts, where I came out to certain people on the faculty, thinking about a coalition that would help me should I need it to keep my job. At the same time, I felt very cautious because I didn’t want to do anything to damage the school, which I loved very much. I wasn’t certain what the effect would be.

The joy and freedom of being out was exhilarating. So, once I started coming out, I just came out everywhere, because I just wanted to be who I was, and I didn’t want to waste time and energy hiding. Very quickly, my office became a place where LGBTQ kids came for support and guidance. I’m also proud to have contributed to our field by being a resource to other Jewish educators from across the country who are in different places themselves and different educational contexts vis-à-vis coming out.

Looking broadly at US Jewish day schools, what is the state of LGBTQ inclusion today?

From my perspective, in most community pluralistic schools, there’s a great deal of acceptance. In more traditional and Orthodox day schools, there is more of an active struggle, but there is a growing movement there too. This is a result of the tremendous progress in the last decade around gay/ lesbian issues, which is reflective of our society at large. Ten-fifteen years ago, people got fired (or were not hired) for being gay and teaching Jewish studies. And now, in many places, people don’t think twice about it. When I became a Head of School in 2011, I was the only out Head in the country. Now, there are three of us.

In community schools, the fight for inclusion is more around transgender issues now. Now people are grappling with, “How do you tackle gender neutral bathrooms in schools?” And I don’t mean simply converting a faculty stall into one for kids. I mean, what does it look like beyond that? How does it become a normative matter in our schools? That’s where one of the challenges is right now. We still need to be uncovering the areas in our schools that make them tough places for LGBTQ kids to be. For example, if kids are spending too much time thinking about when and how they are going to find a safe bathroom or if they are terrified they are going to be harassed for wearing certain clothes to school, they are not learning. We know well that kids can only learn when there basic needs are responded to.

What are some examples of how things have changed since Hineini premiered?

Oh my gosh, since the film it’s a completely different world. Kids come out more in schools, Keshet’s work with parents of kids and around making day schools and camps safer places for kids has had an impact. At the biannual Jewish day school conference, there are now sessions on LGBTQ issues in day school. That would never have happened 10 years ago.

What are the boundaries of pluralism, and how do you really take that stand?

At JCDS, we grapple with that often. It is a tough balance. With the financial support we obtained from a grant, we have a pluralism task force that is navigating these types of issues. We have determined that certain values supersede pluralism, including a person’s fundamental dignity. At the same time, there needs to be a place where people can hold different religious ideals on any number of topics, and that includes LGBT issues. Having people with whom we disagree feel defensive and attacked is not going to further our goals. It’s about getting people to understand the humanity of others, and people’s stories, and what their lives are like. Our Jewish community is stronger when we are all included and this includes people with whom we initially might disagree. I think it behooves those of us who care about both LGBT issues and about the continuity of Judaism to figure this out, instead of saying, “This is on you. We’re moving forward, we’re about equality and you know what, if you don’t get it, then forget you.”

There is so much that Judaism has to offer us, and this is primary among them: how do you navigate complexity? Jews are people who have both an intellectual and spiritual history that includes struggle, disagreement, and challenge.

What are some best practices to help foster more inclusion?

We moved a while ago to have our administrative forms be more inclusive and allow for different kinds of families: parent one, parent two. In addition, our curricular materials include examples of different kinds of families, including LGBT families, so that children can see their own families reflected in their classrooms. Also, having LBGT folks as part of our faculty and staff, so that there are simple examples in our schools of people living engaged Jewish lives.

Why aren’t there more LGBTQ families in Jewish day schools?

Well, you could ask that question to me about any segment of the Jewish community in greater Boston. I wish more children were in Jewish day schools. In that regard, issues like interest and affordability are factors here too. Outside of that, I would say, part of the reason is that historically the Jewish community was slow to become publicly inclusive, and day schools are not traditionally viewed as opening their doors to diverse groups of people. There’s a reason that my school was the first in the country to hire an openly LGBTQ Head of School. It’s a very public role, and no school, at that time, had been willing to do it. It was a risk. LGBTQ families want to know that they will be accepted members of the community. It’s hard to send your kids to a school that doesn’t see you as a family and we don’t want to be the only ones there. There are any number of ways that they can be excluded. The question is, do kids see reflections of their own experience in what the teachers are talking about? Do they see that their family has a place? It’s one thing to have a Harvey Milk poster on the wall, yes that’s nice, and shouldn’t go away. But it’s different when you’re talking about Shabbat, and you bring a picture of two moms, one saying Kiddush (prayer for the wine) and one lighting the candles. It says to that kid: “You are validated in your Jewish living.” It’s on Jewish day schools to do a better job of reaching out to LGBT families, to say: “We would love to have you in our school.”  JCDS in Boston certainly would.

How do you think the experiences of LGBTQ day school teachers and administrators have changed over the years?

More of us are out, which wasn’t the case before. I have friends who got fired, or didn’t get hired because they were gay or lesbian. I think that more traditional schools that’s still somewhat of an issue. There are more LGBT teachers than administrators and that is of course in part because there are more teachers than administrators in the field, but my guess would be because administrators have more of an outward facing, public role, and perhaps this is still seen as riskier…. otherwise, why would there only be three in the country?

Until recently, you were the only out head of a Jewish day school in the entire country. How did that impact you? To what extent did you, and do you continue to feel, called upon to speak for the LGBTQ community?

Before I was offered this job, I wasn’t sure whether my sexual orientation was going to be a barrier to getting the offer. However, the more I learned about JCDS, the more I loved the school and so I spoke with some people on the committee about it. To their credit, I believe that the Board and the school made a courageous choice at the time.  I think for them it was an extension of accepting people for who they are and having them be their best selves.

Once in the role, I was conscious of being the only one. I felt that somehow my actions were representative of more than just me.  I don’t know whether any other schools were watching what was happening, but I imagine that if things were to not have gone smoothly, my sexual orientation might well have been part of the conversation. That might have had a negative influence on LGBT inclusin elsewhere in the country. In the end, I am delighted that all went well and other schools have followed JCDS’s path. It is not so much that I feel called upon to speak for our community, as much as people call and ask me for help and just want to learn about my experiences. I am always honored to do that and I hope I will continue to be effective in that role.

What role did Keshet play in your process coming out in the Jewish community?

I met Idit Klein, Keshet’s Executive Director, when I was in the early stages of coming out. She was supportive when I needed someone to hear my experience and strengthen my resolve and was instructive as I navigated the complexities of coming out as a teacher, both at my school and as a Bible teacher in the greater Boston Jewish community. Idit and Keshet helped me again as were working on the formation of the Gay Straight Alliance at what was then called New Jew. Keshet was a critical support in my journey, as I know it continues to be for so many others.

How would you describe Keshet’s impact on Jewish day schools and/or the Jewish community more broadly?

Keshet has had a profound impact in terms of working with teachers and administrators and with leadership teams. They have been essential partners in making schools, synagogues, and camps safe places for kids. Keshet teaches organizations how to make systemic change and they give them the tools (and sometimes the knowledge) of how to do this work within a Jewish framework and in concert with the expression of core Jewish values. This means that kids are able to come out and to be accepted for who they are. It also has meant that LGBTQ parents have a place within the mainstream Jewish community to send their children. This is a tremendous contribution. We are no longer losing committed LGBTQ Jews from the Jewish community like we did just a short two decades ago.

What do you see as the most important role Keshet needs to play today?

From my perspective, Keshet should continue to challenge Jewish organizations to do their utmost in ensuring that they really are welcoming, inclusive places for LGBTQ kids and families and then do all they can to assist the efforts of these organizations. We need to continue to expand the number and kinds of places and spaces that are safe for us. Some of this involve public strong stands, while other moments require one-on-one conversations. We are fortunate that Keshet has the capacity to offer different ways to help others make changes that support our shared goals. If you believe, as I do, that a broader, more inclusive Jewish community makes for a stronger Jewish community, then it follows that Jewish day schools, which are fundamentally important institutions for Jewish community and for the future of the Jewish people, are the places to do this holy, sacred work. I am so grateful for all that Keshet has already accomplished and look forward to celebrating the next stage of their work.

Why is inclusion in Jewish day schools so important?

Research shows that the majority of leaders of the Jewish community come from Jewish day schools, and so if we are not teaching kids from a very young age how to be inclusive, where are they ever going to learn it? What is that going to mean for the Jewish community in the future? Moreover, in the present, we want our students to be steeped in the Jewish values and that includes teaching how to be part of a caring, kind community.  This includes being inclusive of all kinds of differences and learning how to engage with the differences (even when it is difficult).  It is critical that children learn these skills, grow these capacities, and develop these dispositions when they are young.  Finally, if schools are not inclusive places we will continue to diminish the power of what our schools could be.  Not only would the excluded people lose out on an outstanding education, but it would be our loss and that cannot be underestimated.

Could you share any stories about LGBTQ inclusion in day schools that break your heart? Stories that warm your heart?

There’s a family that I care about who was living in a different state a few years ago and the son was enrolled in a Jewish day school. When it came time for the child’s birthday party, no one attended.  Not one kid.  Do you know why?  It was because the other parents in the class had organized a boycott of the party because the dad was gay. That is so incredibly hurtful.  I can’t imagine that a Jewish school that espouses Jewish values could let that happen and do nothing in response.  I also know of Jewish day schools, fewer and fewer thankfully, that will not even open the application of (straight) kids who are traditionally observant because they have LGBT parents. There’s a family I know of who applied to a Jewish day school: the kid was straight and had two gay dads, and the school wouldn’t open the application from the family, even though the kid is shomrei mizvot, traditionally observant. Heartbreaking!

At JCDS, we celebrate weddings, other simchas (happy events), deaths, and all life cycle events exactly the same way regardless of the kind of family you come from. Before I came to JCDS, when I got married in 2005, my students at Gann Academy treated the event exactly as they would have when a straight teacher got married, and that meant something to me. I didn’t assume that that was going to be the case, but it was. The thing about JCDS is that being inclusive is so much a part of things that it’s a nonissue. I went to an admissions event on Sunday night, and one of our families was talking about the fact that we have kids at JCDS who don’t conform to gender stereotypes: girls who dress in clothes more generally worn by boys and vice-versa. This is a school that just accepts kids for who they are. And that means a kid on the autism spectrum, transgender kids, a kid who’s being raised by their grandparents. That’s what we’re going for here. I can’t mark a particular heartwarming situation, because every day is heartwarming.



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