Israel-Diaspora Gay Rift
Schechter Dean Rabbi Einat Ramon: Put gag order on Israeli and American students.
By Michele Chabin
When the Rabbinical Assembly of the New York-based Conservative movement decided a year ago to permit openly gay and lesbian men and women to enter the rabbinate, Israeli members of the Masorti/Conservative movement - whose Rabbinical Assembly does not permit ordination of professed homosexuals - knew it was only a matter of time before the two branches clashed over the issue.
That clash, or at least an unpleasant disagreement, occurred last week, when a group of visiting rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary, currently studying at the Masorti Schechter Rabbinical Seminary (SRS) during their mandatory year in Israel, requested permission to celebrate on the Schechter campus the first anniversary of the JTS decision.
That Schechter required the event to be held at a park off-campus could be a harbinger of larger problems between the two branches, some observers warn. They wonder, for example, how the first JTS class with openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students will fare during its scheduled year at Schechter two years from now.
Approximately 35 people attended the 40-minute American-inspired program, including the majority of American rabbinical students studying at SRS, almost half of the Israeli SRS students and other community members, according to an April 1 press statement from the event’s organizers.
The Jerusalem event, which featured personal reminiscences by Yonatan Gher, a gay activist who grew up in the Masorti movement in Israel, “paralleled an official JTS day of learning entitled ‘Hazak Hazak V’nithazek’ that centered on the issue of inclusion within the Conservative movement,” the organizers said. The gathering, they insisted, “was not about SRS internal policies, gay ordination, or any halachic [legal] ruling. Mr. Gher mentioned none of these topics. Mr. Gher spoke only about his personal story as a gay man living in Israel.”
While the group may have been well-intentioned, say Schechter administrators, the seminary could not accede to their request for an on-campus event unless the students also presented the Israeli movement’s ruling on homosexual rabbis: that only rabbis “who are committed ... to marriage between a man and a woman ... should be ordained,” according to a March 25 press release issued by Schechter. The American students, said the statement, “stressed that they were interested only in their own personal celebration with their friends, and that they had no interest in noting the second (Israeli) Halakhic ruling. Therefore, in joint consultation between Rabbi Einat Ramon [Schechter’s dean], Rabbi Danny Nevins (Dean of the JTS rabbinical school), and the students themselves, it was decided that the appropriate venue for such a celebration would be at the park near the SRS campus. Rabbi Ramon offered assurances that no rival event would be held at that hour at SRS.”
While SRS “strives to the utmost to grant a warm welcome to students who come to study within its walls,” the statement said, “it remains true to the moral-halachic principle of ‘A person should not deviate from the set ways of a place because of argument’ (Mishna Pesachim 4:1). That is to say, each person must respect the religious customs of the place he or she is in, in order to preserve peace.”
Whether peace was maintained remains a matter of conjecture, since Rabbi Ramon instructed both the American and Israeli rabbinical students not to comment on the matter.
The Jerusalem Post did manage to interview one student, Dubi Haiyun, described as “an Israeli studying at Schechter,” who said he was upset by the Americans’ ceremony.
“They did not respect the customs of my home ... The Americans refused to stage a discussion that would express both sides. It was as if they were saying, “In the name of pluralism I force my opinion on you.’” Rabbi Ramon asked journalists not to attempt to contact the American students, and the students themselves declined to be interviewed.
Rabbi Ramon told The Jewish Week that “it is very unfortunate that some anonymous source leaked this [incident] to the press without taking responsibility for what he or she is saying. Schechter is being attacked, and I know it wasn’t the American or Israeli students since we had an agreement not to go to the press. The American students held their event near Schechter and it all went well.”
While even those who support gay and lesbian ordination in Israel do not dispute Schechter’s right to abide by a certain set of halachic standards, “I can’t imagine that this incident bodes well for the future,” said Rabbi David Lazar, spiritual leader of Congregation Tiferet Shalom in Tel Aviv and an advocate for gay/lesbian ordination.
“My hope is that the backlash from this unfortunate decision will lead to a rethinking of this issue in a way that it more reflects what’s happening in the Conservative movement worldwide.”
Though last week’s unpleasantness has reportedly passed, advocates for the gay community are worried about how JTS’s first class of openly gay and lesbians students will cope with Schechter’s halachic stand on their lifestyle.
“If I was a gay or lesbian student studying at Schechter for the year, I would feel very uncomfortable being in an academic institution that is less than intellectually open,” Rabbi Lazar said.
Gher, the event’s main speaker and the executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, an advocacy center and meeting place for gays, lesbians and transgendered people, thinks it will be worthwhile for JTS and the American Jewish University (University of Judaism) to start thinking about allowing some of its third-year students to attend other schools during their required year of Israel study.
“I could see how it could be a problem for all GLBTQ students and for students who do not want to study at a place that doesn’t accept the notion of GLBTQ ordination. I would hope that the Conservative institutions in the U.S. will allow anyone who has a conflict of conscience with Schechter’s policy to choose to spend their year studying at an alternative institution,” Gher said.
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