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Hackney faith leaders 'shouldn't have signed harmful LGBT+ letter'

PUBLISHED: 13:42 25 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:28 26 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 pair of prominent figures in Hackney's ultra-orthodox Jewish community have defended signing a controversial open letter amidst criticism from an LGBT+ Jewish group.

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

Charity KeshetUK has called the letter – published by a group called The Values Foumdation (TVF) – “harmful”.

The letter appeared on TVF's website signed by a number of north London rabbis, other faith leaders, and community figures.

Addressed to the Department of Education (DfE), it 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 Stamford Hill's Rabbi Asher Gratt and activist Shraga Stern.

Rabbi Asher Gratt. Picture: Polly HancockRabbi Asher Gratt. Picture: Polly Hancock

Their names appear alongside controversial Golders Green Rabbi Aharon Bassous, who runs the Beth Hamedrash Knesset Yehezkel where he compared the Chief Rabbi to a Nazi in March.

Religious groups Christian Concern – which backs widely condemned “conversion therapy” for LGBT+ individuals – and IslamicSRE also supported the letter.

Rabbi Gratt, who led the successful battle last summer to force inner north London coroner Mary Hassell to ditch her “unlawful” cab-rank approach in his role as a spokesman for Stamford Hill's Adath Yisroel Burial Society, and Mr Stern both defended their signatures.

Earlier this month, it emerged 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 – an education and advocacy charity aimed at reconciling the Jewish faith and LGBT+ issues – told the Gazette: “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.”

The charity is headquartered in Camden but works across the UK.

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“Some of the wording in particular was just harmful,” added Dalia.

“The idea that just talking about the existence of LGBT+ people is 'alien' is a 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.”

But Rabbi Gratt defended adding his name, saying: “Just as we tolerate and respect other people's way of life, our children should not be subjected for indoctrination against their faith and beliefs.”

He denied that this showed a lack of tolerance for any group, and said: “Participating with principally respected people to sign an open letter to the secretary of state for education is in my view the just and proper way how to seek justice.”

Shraga Stern, who threatened the DfE with legal action over this issue in January, added: “No sex education should be taught in schools.

“This is what's threatened by this act. It's calling sex education 'relationships education'.

“We don't discriminate. We just feel there's agenda here against religious education.”

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 this year.

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