Israeli-U.S. Conservatives Still Split On Gays

Departure of two openly gay rabbinical students and three straight friends
from Machon Schechter highlights lingering differences.

05/11/10
Israel Correspondent
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Jerusalem — When, in 2007, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit openly gay students for the first time, the decision presented these students with a dilemma: where to study during their mandatory third year in Israel.

Traditionally, JTS rabbinical students have spent their Israel year at Machon Schechter, the Israeli Masorti movement’s rabbinical seminary, which does not ordain openly gay students.

This worried Ian Chesir-Teran and Aaron Weininger, JTS’ first two openly gay JTS students.

At the urging of JTS administrators, Chesir-Teran and Weininger began their Israeli studies at Schechter in September 2009. But they and three heterosexual students opted out of the program for the spring semester for “reasons of conscience,” The Jewish Week has learned.

Their exit highlights the differences between American and Israeli Conservative rabbinical schools — the former, which does ordain openly gay rabbinical students, the latter, which does not — and the students caught between them.

“One of the main reasons I left Schechter is because it discriminates against openly gay and lesbian Masorti Jews by not ordaining them,” explained Chesir-Teran, a 39-year-old father of three from East Meadow, L.I.

Though fully aware of Schechter’s policy ahead of time, Chesir-Teran decided to “give them a chance” because “JTS didn’t give us another option.”

Soon after arriving in Israel, the former lawyer met Masorti-affiliated gays and lesbians who aspired to become rabbis.

“One person told me he intended to move to America to study at JTS in order to receive rabbinic ordination, because he can’t do it here,” Chesir-Teran recalled. “At the time I said to myself, ‘The only reason I’m being allowed in the rabbinic program is because I’m a foreign exchange student here for the year. If I was Israeli, I’d be refused ordination.’”

Ironically, Chesir-Teran now finds himself in this exact position because he and his family have decided to make aliyah. He’s hoping that JTS will find a way to ordain him, despite the distance.

Although Machon Schechter permitted the openly gay students to receive aliyot to the Torah and to perform all other rituals, Chesir-Teran and Weininger said they could never forget Schechter’s official policy on homosexuality.

The policy, as outlined by Rabbi Einat Ramon, Machon Schechter’s former dean in a 2007 essay in the Washington Jewish Week, is to accept “only students who believe in the importance of the intimate relationships between a man and a woman in the confines of the Jewish institution of marriage and to serve, to the best of their ability, as role models in that regard.”

The former dean, who also served as the school’s “posek,” or decisor of Jewish law, made her ruling after the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted 13 to 12 to accept gay rabbis. The committee’s ruling empowered the movement’s rabbinical schools to decide for themselves whether to accept homosexual rabbinical candidates.

“Ramon’s ruling speaks of how gay and lesbian Jews are causing the destruction of traditional family values, and refers to [the need for] reparative therapy,” Weininger said.

Weininger recalled how, two years ago, Ramon refused to permit a gay student event to take place on campus, an incident that made international headlines.  

Although Weininger said Schechter’s new dean, Rabbi Moshe Silberschein, and incoming Assistant Dean Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, “are wonderful and have a really positive attitude toward the inclusion” of gays and lesbians, he recalled the time Siberschein failed to send out an e-mail to the Israeli students about an event related to the Jerusalem Open House, a local LGBT center.

“Everyone thought I’d censored the letter, but actually, I just didn’t know how to use list files on my computer,” Silberschein said. “Things are misinterpreted; there’s baggage.”

Yosef Goldman, one of the three straight students who left Schechter, said he and his fiancée, Annie Lewis, believed staying would betray their “core values” of equality for all people.

Unlike Chesir-Teran and Weininger, whose alternative studies this semester (at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Yeshiva) are being paid for by JTS, the three other students said they have been forced to pay for non-Schechter courses from their own pockets.

In a letter to JTS Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins obtained by The Jewish Week, the couple said limiting tuition refunds only to openly-identified gay students “could create a situation in which gay, lesbian or bisexual students who do not want their sexual orientation known are forced to choose between an unhealthy emotional environment at Schechter, studying elsewhere while bearing an unreasonable financial burden or revealing their sexuality to the administration of their rabbinical school in order to justify financial assistance.”

The couple also expressed the hope that next school year, students will have the “official option” to study in settings other than Machon Schechter.

In an interview from New York, Rabbi Nevins said that while Machon Schechter will continue to be the main address for future visiting JTS students, other courses will be offered, for the first time, at the Schocken Library in Jerusalem.  

Rabbi Nevins made a point of saying that “not all of our gay students chose to leave Schechter,” but added that JTS has tried to accommodate the students who did.

Rabbi Nevins said that JTS “is proud” of Chesir-Teran’s decision to make aliyah and that it is “working with him [to help] him complete his course requirements for JTS.”

The dean was more circumspect with regard to the non-gay/lesbian students’ financial outlays.

“The finances of our students are not a matter of public record,” he said.

While Rabbi Nevins acknowledged the discomfort some of his students feel at Schechter, he himself called the year there “an opportunity.”

“I think studying together with people with a different point of view is a fundamentally healthy situation. I think it’s good for the Israelis and the Americans to study together, despite different points of view. If you look at the Talmud, there are different points of view on every page.”

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, said all Jewish streams have had to contend with the generally conservative nature of Israeli culture.

“I was the first woman ordained by the Reform movement in Israel — 20 years after my movement ordained the first woman rabbi in America. There’s a time lag.”

Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, agrees.

“JTS started ordaining women in the mid-1980s, but it took eight or nine years before Schechter began to do the same here in Israel.”

Asked whether Schechter could be on the same trajectory with regard to gay ordination, Rabbi Golinkin replied, “I’m not a prophet.”

Silberschein said change, when it comes, will have to come from Israel.

“Change has to come from within, and the students, however well-intentioned, won’t change Israeli society overnight. If Israel isn’t where they’re at right now, it doesn’t mean Israel is right or wrong. It’s just different.”

Weininger doesn’t disagree.

“It’s important for me to respect and allow Israelis to create that change,” Weininger said, “but at the same time, as I pour my soul into my rabbinical training and deepen my passion for Israel and Torah, I need to be in a place that respects diversity of thought.”

 

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Last Update:

02/25/2012 - 20:19

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This its a message for all the one who respect the torah and the Halaha, Gays and Lezbian can not be Rabbi. please don´t insit. And the one who studied togheter with them must quick, I will recomend them yo go to UTJ. Regds. Avi
I'm proud of Ian and Aaron, and I'm proud of their straight colleagues, that so much contributed to the rabbinical studies at HUC, with their compromise to be truely ethical religious leaders to Am Israel, to all the people of Israel, no matter is the sexual orientation. Who know them knows how conservative (in the meaning of the Jewish conservative movement values) they are, and also how great they are to study and to recognize their Reform brethren as their partners to a more egalitarian and inclusive jewish life. They also proved that Reform and Conservative can study together, work together, pray together and live together as one single people, regardless the poor political divisions that some people still carry on into the conservative movement - far from turning it stronger, making it weaker, more and more. It's time to rethink the conservative seminaries worldwide - not only in the US, but also and particularly in Latin America - where they also do not receive gay students - and in Israel. Thank you so much Ian, Aaron and the other "JTSerim", for your partnership Leshem Shamaim and for your dignity. It is an honour to know you guys! And Ian, bruchim habaim leMedinat Israel.
There is nothing conservative about the Masorti movement. Typical of Liberals and leftists, it has hijacked the word (Masorti) as a means to blur its true nature. “Gay Rights” is an invention of the radical left, envisioned in the late 1930’s as one means to destroy the traditional family, thus undermining a key foundation of Judeo-Christian societies. Why? To replace it with a “socially just” society. What, Jewish social justice is not good enough for you?!? Who gives a damn about what their sexual orientation is. Why should they be "open" in the first place? It is not a sin to be homosexual. It is a sin to practice it, or portray it as a positive trait. It is an abomination according to the Tanakh. Is there anything "conservative" (masorti) about pushing this foreign gay agenda to our world? gurnisht mit gurnisht. BTW - I am a secular Israeli who happened to stumble on this web page, with no intentions to return here.
This article accurately reflects some of the tension that exists in the Conservative world owing to our broad tent. I wish to say up front that I respect the right of each seminary to make a decision on policy regarding the ordination of Gays - even as I would argue that I feel that full inclusiveness is the right direction. Schechter has made strides towards greater inclusion. This must be applauded. The new deans are well respected and are ready to reach out to all. JTS too has made an effort to work with all students even where there may be a perceived clash of values. Yet I wish to correct one notion. The idea that Israel must move at its own pace, which may often be different from the States, is misleading. Yes, there are realities that are quite different here in Israel. But long ago Israel fully integrated Gays into the army. We have seen openly Gay MKs and other political officials. There is a Gay davening community in Tel Aviv. There are several Gay Orthodox groups in Israel, including Hevruta which has a few hundred members. Masorti rabbis have the freedom of conscience to perform commitment ceremonies. Our Noam youth know that they need not remain closeted. I am saddened that Gay Israelis must either travel abroad to study for the Rabbinate, or, as three extraordinary Masorti affiliated Israelis shall do next year, study at HUC. This is an absurd reality. We have a shortage of qualified candidates for the rabbinate in Israel and we lose our best and brightest to the Reform Rabbinical schools. I can understand the concept that there is value to spending a year in an institution that holds to different halachic standards. But imagine if Israeli students were asked to study for a year at an institution that would not grant a degree to Afro-Americans. No matter how welcoming - many would feel unable to study in such a place. In addition, we have no idea how many of our students are of what sexual orientation. No longer can we think in binaries. We may have closeted Gay students, Queer students, students struggling with their orientation. They must be able to study in places that do not pressure them in a specific direction. I am hopeful that this is the direction in which SRS moves as I want to see full inclusion and acceptance of all Jews regardless of sexual orientation. I am proud that the Masorti Movement is open and respectful and I, with love for our partner institutions, hope for the day that all who are qualified will be accepted for ordination - thus leaving the individual congregations to choose who they wish to appoint as rabbi. These opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent that Rabbinical Assembly or the Masorti Movement.
From anonymous #1 to anonymous #3: The sad fact of the matter is that the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary is so far removed from the Masorti Movement that many are now talking about setting up an alternative. The Movement in Israel has almost no say in the running of the seminary - in fact in a recent organizational coup by the Schechter authorities, Masorti Movement representation in the School was greatly diminished. In addition, Schechter chooses its new students in such a way that they only represent the right wing of the Masorti world. More and more Masorti/Conservative prospective rabbis are now looking elsewhere for their studies, such as HUC in Jerusalem or JTS in New York. Due to the dearth of applicants, Schechter has now changed its rabbinical program so that the first two years are for anybody and the last two are for those deemed fit to continue. I doubt that this will help attract anyone. In conclusion, the headline does not accurately reflect the situation between Israel and the US, and the content does not talk to the claim made in the headline, but only talks about one small part of the Israeli Masorti world, which is daily making itself more irrelevant to Masorti Judaism in Israel.
I am appalled at the increasing influence of homosexual politics in the Conservative Movement. As someone who was molested by a man when I was a young boy, I have been very sensitive to these matters as an Adult. I do not believe it should be normative to politicize homosexuality in the context of training Jewish Clergy. It is absolutely harmful to the children that these men seek to serve as Rabbis in positions of trust and respect. A person who defines himself in terms of his sexuality is a weak personality. In my opinion, such a person seeks to project their feelings and point of view on those they interact with. That has been my experience. I do not believe it is healthy. Time has shown that young boys do not respond in a healthy manner to exposure to homosexual men in positions of authority in any environment. It is proper to reject such homosexuals from the Conservative Seminaries.

Someone who molests children is not homosexual, thats pedophilia. There is a major difference and to confuse the two is plain ignorance. There are adults from both genders who molest children of both genders, do try and get your facts straight.

First, I would like to say I am sorry to hear that you were sexually abused. I too share this history. My abuser was of the opposite sex. But my pain is no less because of this situation. It is important for us to tell our stories and to make the world aware of sexual abuse. In my recovery from this violent crime against my body I have learned that sexuality and rape are not the same. Rape is about power, not about sex. Since sexual abuse occurs in both same-sex and opposite sex situations, those who are gay should not be categorized as pedophiles or rapists. It is a disservice, not just to them, but to all people.
Anonymous - That's all true, but belongs in a different article. Nowhere does it say that the students have had a hard time with the Masorti movement; just with the school. And perhaps this should be taken as a challenge by all of those wonderful, accepting people in the Masorti movement, to encourage their rabbincal school to line up with their values.
The challenge at Schechter is not just that the school's leadership decided to not allow openly-gay rabbinical students to be ordained. It is that Rabbi Ramon's statements supporting that decision were so deeply disrespectful of gay and lesbian people that it has created a hostile environment. Rabbi Ramon is no longer Schechter's dean, but her hurtful words live on. She could have said that she simply didn't see a halachic alternative and therefore must refuse to ordain gay students, while respecting them as people and as Jews (a position publicly held by many Masorti and Modern Orthodox rabbis). Instead, she delivered a diatribe about gays as people who have actively chosen to destroy "family values," who willfully chose to be gay (and therefore willfully chose to violate mitzvot), and who are a grave threat to "normal" Jews. Her comments feel as if they are lifted directly out of an anti-gay polemic from the 1960s. Today, even Orthodox leaders rarely attack gay and lesbian people with such outlandish venom, at least publicly. Schechter should do teshuvah for allowing such painful things to be said in it's name, even if the new leadership chooses to continue the ban on openly-gay students. Although I hope for the day when that ban is lifted, the extremism of Rabbi Ramon's ruling is what pains, not the ban itself.
This article is not representative of the the Masorti Movement - Israel's Conservative movement - as it only talks about the Schechter Institute, which is known for its anti-gay and lesbian policies. The Movement, with its almost 60 congregations and havurot, is in general very accepting of gays and lesbians. There are a number of gays and lesbians holding managerial positions in the Movement and its youth organization, NOAM. In addition, a large majority of pulpit rabbis are prepared to perform gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. In fact, the Masorti's Office of Weddings will be more than happy to facilitate such ceremonies and also provides an official certificate for the happy couple. Israel cannot be viewed as more traditional than the US. Israeli laws and court decisions for gays and lesbians are much more progressive than in the US. It is a shame that the journalist did not bring a truer picture of what goes on in Israel.

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