Valley Voices

Fresno rabbi counsels Ashjian to make amends

The Fresno Unified School Board meeting is watched outside the board chambers as people spoke for and against school board president Brooke Ashjian last Wednesday in Fresno.
The Fresno Unified School Board meeting is watched outside the board chambers as people spoke for and against school board president Brooke Ashjian last Wednesday in Fresno.

The pros and cons of attending a Fresno Unified School District Board of Education meeting:

Pro: The Board generally allocates about 30 minutes for what it calls “Unscheduled Oral Communications” in which individuals who wish to address the Board on an issue not listed in the agenda may do so. Each speaker is given a maximum of three minutes to speak.

Pro: The Fresno community cares about the education of its children, about the work of this Board. People show up to comment on agenda items and to share their positions and reactions during this time for “Unscheduled Oral Communications.”

Con: When an abundant number of people want to make public comments during this time, the board has the discretion to determine who will speak, the order in which they will speak, and the amount of time allocated to each individual to speak.

Con: It is very hard to cut a three-minute statement down to one minute without much more than five minutes notice.

So, last Wednesday night, when called up to the podium to make my comments, with only one minute allocated to me to speak, I knew my full communication would not be heard. Yet, I feel so strongly about the recent conversations taking place in our community around sex education and LGBTQ rights, that I could not let my views go unshared.

My 25-plus year career as a rabbi and Jewish educator focuses on education of our youth and children.

For much of the last 15 of these years I have been at the forefront of work on educating youth to develop a sense of sexual ethics and healthy, age-appropriate relationships with their peers, as well as on equipping parents and faith leaders with the tools they need to teach their children, congregants and parishioners to have these conversations with their children through the lenses of their faith.

I believe that there is a time and a place for sexuality education in the home, in our places of worship and in the public school. As adults committed to providing public education for all of our children we hold a collective responsibility to provide for the intellectual, social-emotional and physical growth of our children.

It is with this standpoint that I went to the school board meeting to comment about Brooke Ashjian’s leadership as the president of board. I appreciate that Ashjian has a clean voting record. Yes, he follows the laws of this state regarding what types of education we are required to provide our children.

Yet, just as important are the words Ashjian speaks in his presidential capacity. As the president of this board, he has a duty to represent the needs and interests of the greater Fresno Unified School District in both deed and in word. He represents its mission, its values and its goals.

Of course, Ashjian has his own personal opinions about how, when and where sex education should take place. I do not deny him those opinions. But, when he sits in the Board of Education chambers, on the dais, and behind the president’s microphone, and when he speaks in his capacity as the president of this board, he is supposed to represent this district.

Ashjian’s words in recent weeks have been hurtful to many in our community. As a Jew, I was personally and deeply offended by his comparison of the LGBTQ community and its allies to the Ottoman Turks. As a Jew, I understand . Ashjian’s familial history. Yet his analogy is flawed! The LGBTQ community – like his family and mine were – are the unjustly disempowered.

The LGBTQ community were hated by the Turks and the Nazis just like our families were.

Today, the LGBTQ community and its allies speak out in an effort to attain rights and acceptance, rather than deny those rights from others. As a mother, a rabbi, an educator, and a member of the Fresno community, I was deeply offended by Ashjian’s comments to The Bee about his perceived dangers of comprehensive sexuality education.

Ashjian spoke hateful and hurtful words, which cannot be taken back. The impossibility of undoing damage done by harmful words is underscored in a tale about a man who went through his community slandering his neighbors:

One day, feeling remorseful, he begged his rabbi for forgiveness and said he was willing to do penance. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, but when he returned to tell the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request, he was told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”

The man protested, “But that is impossible.”

“Of course, it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

I adjure Ashjian, as the president of the school board, to consider what kind of leader he intends to be for our district. I hope that he will be one who find a way to heal the wounds that he wrought upon our LGBTQ youth and their families.

I hope Ashjian will find a way to make amends to those who have been hurt, not by his voting record, but by the words he voices as president.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer is the Director of Clinical Education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is married to Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel in Fresno. She can be reached at