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Schools taking ‘a proactive look’
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Schools taking ‘a proactive look’

There will be a big change in the dress code at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph this fall: a single code will apply to all students. Gone, with references to gender, is the requirement that girls wear dresses or skirts on Fridays and boys wear khakis with shirts tucked in. A single list of appropriate attire will be issued.

Transgender issues have been part of the national conversation in the secular world, in part due to legislation regarding public bathrooms for transgender people, as well as in the Jewish world, with the Reform and Conservative movements each issuing statements embracing transgender members, in the fall and spring, respectively. 

Jewish day schools are also grappling with the issue.

“Our approach centers around taking a proactive look at gender policies and practices,” said Dr. Cheryl Behar, dean of general studies at Gottesman RTW, a community day school. “We are looking at how we need to refine our practices so we have gender-neutral criteria.” 

In addition to examining its dress code, the school, which runs from preschool through eighth grade, is also changing the way teachers use language to make the classroom more inclusive, said Behar. “It’s just a mindset shift; we refer to ‘students’ rather than ‘he/she’ or ‘boys/girls.’” She called using the former terms “innocent things people do by habit.”

Although bathrooms have garnered plenty of media attention, they are almost a nonissue at Gottesman, according to Behar. Because the school was built for a younger population, all of the restrooms are unisex and gender neutral. 

Many of the changes, Behar pointed out, “have zero effect on most of the population but can be really impactful on those that have gender identity issues. It promotes better mental health for this population, whether they are out or not.”

Similar changes are taking place at Golda Och Academy, the Conservative day school in West Orange. During the 2015-16 academic year, the school has sent a cross-section of faculty, guidance counselors, and administrators to training with Keshet, a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. “We’re working hard to create safe spaces in our building,” said head of school Adam Shapiro. “We want everyone to feel comfortable expressing themselves. We are striving to be as supportive as we can for any student on a journey, going through transition or questioning identity; our goal is to be supportive.”

To that end, the school is rethinking the language it uses, both in English and in Hebrew. Because Hebrew is so gendered, students will choose whether they want masculine or feminine pronouns to refer to themselves. “We will help the students determine what’s proper for them,” said Shapiro. It’s an issue that, though present, is less prevalent in English. In terms of bathrooms, Shapiro said, though six are gendered — three for boys, three for girls — the upper-school building has one that is single-use and gender-neutral, which students may use. 

Dress-code language has also been tweaked to be more gender neutral, although Shapiro points out that was done to meet contemporary standards. So, for example, when it comes to issues of tzniut, or modesty, he said, there is one standard for all. Since he doesn’t want to see either “a student’s bra or boxer shorts,” the code simply refers to “undergarments,” as in, seeing them is inappropriate.

But as Behar acknowledged, there is plenty of learning still to come and challenges ahead, whether meeting the needs of prospective families or of students in the classroom. 

(A simple example is the kipa, which remains gendered at Gottesman. Boys are still required to wear them, while girls are not.)

Both Behar and Shapiro put the emphasis on starting the discussion. As Behar said, “This is an important conversation to have. Whatever way we go with our policies, the conversation is happening, and that’s a good thing.” 

The two area Orthodox day schools declined to comment for this story.

 — JOHANNA GINSBERG

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