Gay Ban’s Human Toll
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen - Staff Writer
When Kate O’Brien started rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 2001, she envisioned a career as a rabbi in which she would communicate her passion for Judaism by leading others to greater engagement with the text and tradition.
At the time, the Long Island native had been married for a year and had been Jewish since 1998, when she converted after a co-worker introduced her to Judaism.
She quickly became one of JTS’ stars, buckling down to master Jewish texts, joining five student committees and winning a competitive Crown Family Foundation fellowship. JTS leaders asked her to travel to Conservative synagogues around the country to speak for fundraising purposes, and she was the focus of a JTS publicity brochure (which is still available on its Web site).
Just three years later, though, O’Brien had come to the realization that she was a lesbian, and she began the difficult process of coming out to her Roman Catholic family. She separated, and then divorced her husband.
But she still had to confront the question of what to do about preparing for the rabbinate at JTS, the flagship institution of a movement that prohibits the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis. She loved her studies, the faculty and her friends. But she also knew that the policy was clear. She wasn’t sure if she was interested in living in hiding long enough to be ordained and in fear of being outed, as some of her classmates were.
The interpretation of Jewish law that undergirds the Conservative movement’s policy about homosexual clergy will be reconsidered at the December meeting of the denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which determines the movement’s policies.
While much has been written about this contentious and divisive issue, playing out in the struggling religious movement for close to 15 years, O’Brien’s story offers a case study in how an abstract legal theory has concrete repercussions for individuals.
And she is not alone. While she was in rabbinical school, O’Brien says, three other students withdrew because they realized they were gay or lesbian, while others decided to remain closeted in order to be ordained.
“I’d gone into rabbinical school not ever expecting this would happen, so when I applied I didn’t take much notice of the policy” forbidding homosexual rabbis, O’Brien, 33, said in an interview with The Jewish Week, the first she has given about her ordeal.
“When I started coming out I realized that I would eventually have to make a choice, which wasn’t much of a choice because I knew where the seminary stood,” she said. “I passed the semester in a tremendous amount of pain and turmoil.”
O’Brien decided to take a leave of absence to figure out what to do, and began a chaplaincy internship at a Philadelphia hospital. She also considered switching to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is in a Philadelphia suburb and accepts openly gay and lesbian students. But she decided that it wouldn’t be the right fit. Nevertheless, she realized that she couldn’t return to JTS’ rabbinical school.
“About halfway through the year I knew there was just no way I could go back. The policy is what it is,” she said. “When you don’t have another option except hiding and not being true to yourself or the way you live out your Judaism, that really isn’t a choice.”
“A lot of people said, ‘Put your head down and keep your mouth shut and it will be OK, and once you graduate you can come out.’ That to me was not only a preposterous suggestion, it was painful.”
She also “didn’t want to come back [to rabbinical school] with a rainbow flag plastered on my forehead. That isn’t my agenda,” she said.
She had to withdraw, she says, because “it was too painful to do it any other way.”
In January 2005 O’Brien met with Rabbi Bill Lebeau, the rabbinical school dean. “He was genuinely sorry to see how torn I was about needing to leave the program, but I don’t think he saw any other choice,” she said. Rabbi Lebeau declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a busy schedule during the first week of school. JTS spokesperson Sherry Kirschenbaum said that no one else was available to speak.
Although JTS rabbinical school leaders were not available, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which houses the country’s other Conservative movement seminary, said: “What happens is that we put them in this unconscionable situation in which they have to lie to us as rabbinical students. That’s one of the real tragedies of the current policy and one of the reasons I really hope things change as of December. It creates an atmosphere of deception and distrust.”
Dorff, who co-authored one of the papers in support of gay ordination that will be up for a vote later this year, said the gay ban was costing the movement leaders, gay and straight alike.
“If we continue to have this policy we are definitely losing out on some very talented people, including straight people who are not willing to go to an institution with this kind of policy,” he said.
O’Brien, meanwhile, decided to remain at JTS and enroll in its William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, to complete the master’s degree in Bible she began in rabbinical school and another in Jewish Education.
She looked forward to seeing her colleagues when she returned to campus last September, but she says the culture of discomfort around gay issues resulted in what felt like “a wall of silence,” she says. “I was grossly disappointed in the reception I received from people who had formerly been friends and colleagues in the rabbinical school. The silence was deafening.
“I’d spent three years and 24 hours a day studying with folks and just felt as if I didn’t exist for them anymore. I felt abandoned, and to be put on the outside was difficult. I was surprised and very saddened by it.
“Having been nurtured by Judaism and done almost all of my learning in a Conservative environment, to then be told, ‘We’re glad you converted, we thought you were fully qualified to enter into rabbinical school but now that we’re aware of who you are as a full person we are going to reject you,’ was very painful,” O’Brien says.
“They are saying we would rather train and graduate rabbis who are willing to lie about who they are, who are willing to deceive their colleagues, professors and administrators. They are not saying that they prefer a person who is integrated and knows himself or herself and can bring their whole self to bear on this incredibly important office in the Jewish community.”
If JTS changes its policy would she consider going back to its rabbinical school there?
No, says O’Brien, who is now planning a career in adult Jewish education.
Her experience “completely changed for me my perspective and respect for the rabbinical school and the Conservative movement.” And though she is in a Conservative-affiliated graduate school, she no longer identifies in any way with the movement.
She most often attends a Reform temple in Nyack, N.Y., where she lives with her partner.
The current prohibition on gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors “costs the movement some incredibly talented, dedicated people,” O’Brien said. “It shows how it often places halacha above the best interests of individuals and communities who are looking to live their lives fully as Jews who are made in the image of God and who are denied the opportunity to live their lives as fully as they might.”
O’Brien was surprised to learn that movement leaders are predicting that the Law Committee will adopt a position in December that would permit the rabbinical schools to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis.
“It will eventually, but it will probably change later rather than sooner,” said O’Brien, who these days likes to wear a T-shirt that she had made up which says “ReConFormaDox.”
“But whenever it changes,” she said, “it’s too late for me.”
The Jewish Week