JTA Story on the CJLS Meeting

Well, here’s the JTA “Breaking News” alert on the CJLS meeting. It answers the question about the two liberal papers (one by the father-son team of Rabbis Bob and David Fine; the other by Rabbi Gordon Tucker) that were apparently ruled as takkanot and defeated in committee.

Conservatives open to gays

The Conservative movement’s highest legal body moved to allow commitment ceremonies for gays and the ordination of gay rabbis. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards endorsed three opinions Wednesday on homosexuality.

Two opinions upheld earlier prohibitions on homosexual activity, but the third endorsed commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gay rabbis, while retaining the biblical ban on male sodomy.

Two other opinions that were under consideration, which would have removed all restrictions on gay activity, were declared takanot, or substantial breaks from tradition that would require an absolute majority of the committee members for adoption.

They were defeated.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Conservative Movement Changes Policy on Homosexuality

Here is the article from the Forward.

And here is the Press Release from the
Rabbinical Assembly that was just sent out from New York regarding the deliberations of The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on the subject of homosexuality — specifically on how Jewish Law (Halakhah) views homosexuals considering the biblical injunction against homosexuality. The ruling has a direct effect on whether rabbinical and cantorial schools in the Conservative Movement will be able to accept and graduate affirmed homosexuals to be rabbis and cantors.

Interestingly I do not see any mention of Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s teshuvah or whether it was even considered a takkanah before the committee. I am surprised that Rabbi Leonard Levy’s teshuvah, which argues for reparative therapy for homosexuals, was accepted by the committee (presumably by a minority vote). The bottom line however is that the teshuvah co-authored by Rabbis Nevins, Dorff, Reisner was accepted and therefore the Jewish Theological Seminary and University of Judaism will begin accepting out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians to rabbinical school. The UJ will likely begin this process tomorrow, while the Seminary will not likely begin until next year.

For Immediate Release

The CJLS of the Rabbinical Assembly concluded its two-day meeting on the subject of Homosexuality and Halakhah, or Jewish Law, this morning. The discussions and teshuvot of the CJLS reflect a deeply shared commitment to halakhah, Jewish Law and the Torah principle of kvod habriot, the God-given dignity of all human beings.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the international professional association of Conservative rabbis. The CJLS is the central halakhic authority for the Conservative movement, which represents more than two million Jews worldwide.

The following statement was drafted at the conclusion of the meeting:

Founded in 1927, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is empowered to deal with, and rule on, halakhic issues within the Conservative movement. The role of the CJLS is to issue rulings shaping the practice of the Conservative Jewish community. As such, it is an advisory, not a judiciary body. Parameters set by the committee guide all of the rabbis, synagogues and institutions of the Conservative movement, but within these bounds there are many variations of practice recognized as both legitimate and essential to the richness of Jewish life. As a result, there have been instances when two or more responsa, representing conflicting viewpoints, are validated by the committee. When that happens, the local rabbi determines which of the responsa to follow.

At the CJLS meetings, five specific teshuvot were extensively discussed in a spirit of collegiality and open-mindedness. Two teshuvot — one authored by Rabbi Joel Roth and the other authored by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner — obtained clear majority support. Rabbi Roth’s responsum “Homosexuality Revisited” reaffirmed the prior position, which denied ordination as clergy to active homosexuals and also prohibited same sex commitment ceremonies or marriage.

In contrast, Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, while retaining the Torah’s explicit prohibition, as understood by the rabbis banning male homosexual intercourse, argued in “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah” for the full normalization of the status of gay and lesbian Jews. Under this ruling, gay and lesbian Jews may be ordained as clergy and their committed relationships may be recognized, although not as sanctified marriage.

A third teshuva accepted by the CJLS, written by Rabbi Leonard Levy, which upheld the traditional prohibitions, argued that homosexuality is not a unitary condition and urged the development of educational programs within the community to achieve understanding, compassion and dignity for gays and lesbians. There was also some support on the committee for a more comprehensive repeal of the prior ban against homosexual relationships. All authors of teshuvot shared a universal appreciation for the principle of kvod habriot and the welfare of gays and lesbians in our community.

During its deliberations the CJLS did not discuss – nor do any of the papers reflect- any determination regarding gay marriage.

The meeting of the past two days on the issue of homosexuality and halakhah reflects a wide diversity of ideas and opinions. These distinct and divergent opinions may be used by rabbis, synagogues, institutions and individual members of the Conservative movement as a guide in welcoming gays and lesbians in our movement.

The teshuvot may also serve to determine the extent to which gays and lesbians may be admitted into our seminaries and guide the clergy of our movement on the question of whether to initiate commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians.

The CJLS is united in its concern for the unity of the Conservative movement worldwide. The diversity of opinions issued today reflects an essential strength of the Conservative movement – namely, its very pluralism. Indeed, a multiplicity of approaches to halakhah has been a key feature of the Conservative movement since its inception.

The CJLS is composed of 25 rabbis and 6 non-rabbinical members (who are non-voting) and who serve on a rotating basis for a period of at least 5 years. The Rabbinical Assembly, founded in 1901, is the international association of Conservative rabbis. The Rabbinical Assembly actively promotes the cause of Conservative Judaism, publishes learned texts, prayer books and works of Jewish interest, and administers the work of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for the Conservative movement.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Conservative Rabbi changes his mind on Gay Rabbis

Conservative rabbi and former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Gerald Zelizer, explains in today’s USA Today how he has experienced a transformation in his views on homosexuality in Judaism and the potential for gay rabbis.

A rabbi’s struggle: To allow gay clergy or not?

By Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer

Over the past few decades, the cultural battles over homosexuality have been waged in courtrooms, workplaces, schools and any number of other public forums. Religions, too, have become divided over the issue. You need not look very far for headlines showing splits over the acceptance of gay clergy or congregants.

My faith is in the midst of just such a struggle.

My personal journey in rethinking this choice reflects one side of the debate underway in Conservative Judaism, a denomination with an ideology between the more stringent Orthodox and the more liberal Reform. Its resolution will affect the roughly 1 million American Jews who identify with our religious approach.

The issue of lifting the ban on gay rabbis was first considered, but rejected, in 1992. I was then serving as the international president of the 1,200 Conservative rabbis in the USA and worldwide. At the time, I supported our decision: No. The Torah’s prohibition in Leviticus – “Do not lie with a male as you would with a female; it is an abomination” – seemed too absolute to allow any wiggle room.

After all, I reasoned, those who violated other biblical injunctions – such as not keeping kosher or committing adultery – also were unsuitable to be rabbis.

My fealty both to the Bible and my denomination’s decisions affected me personally. My cousin, a gay rabbi, openly challenged the refusal to lift the ban and had difficulty securing a synagogue. Sadly, he abandoned the pulpit. Surely, my support of the ban contributed to his exodus.

But the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, composed of our most learned rabbis and professors, is revisiting the earlier ruling. (A decision is expected by year’s end.) The debate goes on.

At our Rabbinical Convention in March, the matter was passionately debated, as it is in the field. A survey taken in 2003 by Keshet (rainbow), an advocacy group at our New York Jewish Theological Seminary, found that 83% of 222 respondents at the seminary want gays and lesbians to be admitted to Conservative rabbinical and cantorial schools. Others, though, such as Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the retiring chancellor of that flagship seminary, contend that uprooting the Torah prohibition would do violence to the underpinnings of our whole religious faith.

What I think

I feel differently. Since the last go-round, as I have become acquainted with more pious and knowledgeable gay and lesbian Jews, I have asked myself why God would design some people with a trait – for which there is paltry evidence that it can be reversed – and then designate individuals with that characteristic as “sinners?” Even if triggered by a gene mutation, as some argue, what is sinful about that? Too many gays I met suffered in their efforts to engage in heterosexual sex, marry heterosexuals, even bear children, only to realize that their homosexuality was immutable.

Conservative Judaism has always taught that we must upgrade our biblical understanding with new scientific knowledge. Contrary to the biblical assumption that gayness is a sinful choice, our best knowledge today indicates that it is as determined and irrevocable as blue or brown eyes. Of course, adherents of Orthodoxy and even some in my own movement will charge: “How can one be so presumptuous as to think he can improve on the biblical word of God?” Well, Judaism has done that from its inception, especially when moral considerations required it.

The biblical demand of “an eye for an eye” was interpreted in the Talmud as the monetary value of a wounded eye, and not an actual gouging. The Bible also orders the stoning of an unruly son, but the Talmud already qualified that as theoretical, saying, “It was never done nor will it be done.”

Abraham Heschel, a pre-eminent 20th century theologian, wrote that the Torah is not a literal stenographic recording of God’s voice, as over a long distance telephone, but a human interaction with the divine revelation.

Adapting to society

Changes in secular society have also contributed to the push for a change in my denomination’s attitudes. Of course, religion should adhere to its beliefs and not slavishly respond “me too” to all of secular culture – as with, for example, the growing sympathy with euthanasia. But in instances where secular society develops just insights, religion should not stubbornly retain its own unjust ones. Sometimes, the sensibilities of society are ahead of religion. This is the case with homosexuality.

I have changed a lot since 1992, as have many colleagues. Gay/lesbian Jews are God’s creatures, too. Some, like my cousin, are knowledgeable, observant Jews, qualified to be rabbis but prohibited because of a sexual preference not of their own making. It is time to lift the prohibition against gay rabbis by using the same blueprint that Judaism has employed to rectify other unjust religious dictums.

Will I rush to hire an assistant or intern rabbi who is gay? No. I need some time for truths that my mind now understands to reach my gut. I need to get comfortable, for example, witnessing a rabbi and his male partner dancing at my synagogue’s spring social, or seeing two lesbians hand-in-hand at the Torah while celebrating their daughter’s bat mitzvah. I am confident that, eventually, religious commitment will trump sexual orientation.

Should other faiths allow gay clergy? That is not for me to say. I know only that other faiths have the same goals of both incorporating believers and encouraging the most committed to serve as clergy. Beyond that, I can only describe my journey, in hopes others might learn from my experience.

Gerald L. Zelizer is rabbi of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Homosexuality Keshet Rabbis

The Conservative Movement and Homosexuality

The Michigan Daily published an article in today’s edition on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meeting in which four teshuvot (responsa) were presented regarding Gay commitment ceremonies and the ordination of Gay rabbis and cantors at Conservative seminaries.

I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with the author of the article (Andrew Grossman, a Catholic) but never told him that there were enough votes “to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.” I am not sure how he could have known that information unless it was published elsewhere. I certainly do not know if that is true and I am not sure that anyone knows how the members of the committee will vote in December on any of the teshuvot that have been presented. Some members of CJLS have been public about their viewpoint but most have kept their personal views to themselves.

Jewish group might allow gay rabbis

Conservative Jewish leaders delay vote on gay rabbis, but issue up again in December
By Andrew Grossman (Michigan Daily)

When he was growing up, LSA junior Dan Marcovici struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his Jewish faith. Religious tradition had always pointed him toward a wife and children.

“It was difficult. My Jewish family was always very family-centered. I was going to marry a woman, carry the family line,” said Marcovici, the chair of Ahava, a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews at the University.

Now, he has brought his faith and his sexuality together.

“My religion is a part of my life,” Marcovici said. “My sexual orientation is part of my life. One doesn’t preclude the other.”

Marcovici is part of the Conservative Jewish movement, which has recently experienced tension over the status of gays and lesbians in religious life.

Earlier this week, members of the movement’s Committee on Laws and Standards – a group of 25 rabbis who interpret Jewish law for the movement – had enough votes to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.

But while religious organizations across the nation grapple with the issue of faith and homosexuality, the committee did not make a decision, adjourning Wednesday’s meeting without a vote.

The issue is likely to resurface in December at a meeting of the movement’s international association of rabbis.

Conservative Jews fall in the middle of three major Jewish groups in the United States. The more liberal Reform movement passed a resolution in 2000 supporting rabbis who choose to preside over same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies. The traditional Orthodox movement maintains that the Torah’s prohibitions on homosexuality must be respected.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, 38 percent of Jews affiliated with a temple or synagouge were Reform, 33 percent Conservative and 22 percent Orthodox.

The Conservative movement is “a centrist movement in which there is a tension between Jewish law and modernity,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and the associate director of the University’s chapter of Hillel. “Living within that tension means trying to strike a balance between the two.”

The Torah, the Jewish holy book, mentions homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, stating, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 states that the punishment for such action should be death.

Openly gay applicants are currently prohibited from enrolling in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical and cantorial schools.

“To some extent, it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy,’ ” Miller said.

The debate over the role of gays in Conservative Jewish life has been at the forefront for the movement’s rabbis.

“For rabbis in the Conservative movement, this is the hot issue,” Miller said.

Miller was optimistic about the future of gay and lesbians in Conservative Judaism. He said he is confident the committee will “come to an answer that respects the human dignity of all Jewish people,” including gay rabbis and Jews in a committed homosexual relationship.

He added that he is certain the committee’s decision will reflect a “commitment to Jewish law and tradition.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Homosexuality Jewish JTS Keshet

No Vote from the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee on Gay Rabbis or Commitment Ceremonies

Jewish Theological Seminary Homosexuality Rabbi Jason MillerBelow is the “Breaking news” from that no vote was made on any of the teshuvot (responsa) presented. This was no surprise for me having sat in on several Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meetings while a student at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Teshuvot are presented, studied, debated, and then re-written or just tweaked before being voted on. I would have been shocked had they actually voted on any of these four papers during this meeting at an undisclosed location in Baltimore. It shows they are being mindful of how the halakhic (Jewish legal) process works and that this decision cannot be made based on social pressure or politicking from both sides of the debate.

The authors of the four response are our Conservative rabbis and members of the CJLS:
1) Joel Roth;
2) Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, Avi Reisner;
3) Leonard Levy;
4) Benzi Bergman, David Fine, Robert Fine, Myron Geller, Gordon Tucker.

Here’s the breaking news blurb from (The full article is here and the Forward article is here):

Conservatives delay gay policy decision

The Conservative movement’s policy on homosexuality will remain unchanged until at least December.

During a two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ended Wednesday, authors of four responsa on the status of homosexuality in the movement were asked to make revisions in advance of a vote on the issue in December.

The decision means that the movement’s 1992 decision barring openly gay and lesbian individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages will remain in place for now.

“The pain that so many real people are experiencing because of their love for tradition and their hope for a supportive community clearly hasn’t moved the Rabbinical Assembly as an institution to move more quickly,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, one of the founders of Keshet Rabbis, a group supporting gay and lesbian rights in the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, urged patience. “I am urging my colleagues who promote change to realize that there are an equal number of colleagues who are in favor of welcoming gays and lesbians in the Conservative community but who do not wish to change halachah,” he said.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Conservative Movement and the Law Committee Vote on Homosexuality in the NY Times

March 6, 2006

Conservative Jews to Consider Ending a Ban on Same-Sex Unions and Gay Rabbis


In a closed-door meeting this week in an undisclosed site near Baltimore, a committee of Jewish legal experts who set policy for Conservative Judaism will consider whether to lift their movement’s ban on gay rabbis and same-sex unions.

In 1992, this same group, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, declared that Jewish law clearly prohibited commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples and the admission of openly gay people to rabbinical or cantorial schools. The vote was 19 to 3, with one abstention.

Since then, Conservative Jewish leaders say, they have watched as relatives, congregation members and even fellow rabbis publicly revealed their homosexuality. Students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the movement’s flagship, began wearing buttons saying “Ordination Regardless of Orientation.” Rabbis performed same-sex commitment ceremonies despite the ban.

The direction taken by Conservative Jews, who occupy the centrist position in Judaism between the more liberal Reform and the more strict Orthodox, will be closely watched at a time when many Christian denominations are torn over the same issue. Conservative Judaism claims to distinguish itself by adhering to Jewish law and tradition, or halacha, while bending to accommodate modern conditions.

“This is a very difficult moment for the movement,” said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, a nonvoting member of the law committee and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the movement’s 1,600 rabbis worldwide.

“There are those who are saying, don’t change the halacha because the paradigm model of the heterosexual family has to be maintained,” said Rabbi Meyers, a stance he said he shared. “On the other hand is a group within the movement who say, look, we will lose thoughtful younger people if we don’t make this change, and the movement will look stodgy and behind the times.”

Several members of the law committee said in interviews that while anything could happen at their meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, there were more than enough votes to pass a legal opinion (a teshuvah in Hebrew) that would support opening the door to gay clergy members and same-sex unions. The law committee has 25 members, but only six votes are required to validate a legal opinion. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Q&A with Chancellor Ismar Schorsch

From the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
by Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, will retire in June. In that role, he has been informally considered the closest thing that the Conservative movement has to a leader. Schorsch, 70, met with The Journal to assess his two decades heading the seminary and his hopes for the future.

The Jewish Journal: Many observers say the next leader of the seminary has to be more than an academic or a capable university administrator — that the next leader will have to assume a crucial leadership role with the Conservative movement. How do you see the role of the next chancellor?

Ismar Schorsch: The chancellor is the head of the Conservative movement. And the chancellor often speaks of theology and religion, [giving] voice to Conservative Judaism in the public arena.

JJ: What did you originally set out to accomplish as chancellor? What do you think you did accomplish?

IS: I can’t say I came in with a well-formed agenda. Early on in my career, I did set a set of priorities for my administration — I was determined to make Jewish education the top priority of the seminary. I never wavered from that goal. I would say that my greatest accomplishment was significantly and largely the investment in serious Jewish education. We created the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which is by far the largest school in the country.

The School of Education has had an enormous impact on the other schools of the seminary. Many of the rabbinical and cantorial students are taking a masters of Jewish education. They are clearly going to be advocates of Jewish education when they finish their education. There will be a team effort in synagogues — you will have the rabbi, the cantor and the educational director all committed to serious education from preschool to adult learning. I think the creation of the School of Education has been an enormous catalyst for what I think is the only effective, viable response to the challenge of assimilation in American society, and that is serious Jewish education.

JJ: What has been your greatest challenge as chancellor?

IS: When I came in, we were still in the throes of ordaining women rabbis. We were not admitting women to cantorial school, and I immediately set about admitting qualified women students. And then we promoted the employment of women rabbis and cantors in the movement. So I would say that the integration of women students into the movement and cantorial school occupied my attention in the first [half of his time as chancellor].

JJ: You helped integrate women into the movement. But they are not at the place they necessarily need to be: The Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) report last year found that women make less money and don’t serve as leaders of major synagogues.

IS: I think the publication of the study itself is an important step. It’s crystallized the problem and intensified the advocacy by the RA and the seminary for equalizing pay and employing women in larger congregations. I think that’s happening. There’s been a positive response to the critical study of women in the rabbinate. There are women getting more interviews in larger congregations and getting positions there.

JJ: Why hasn’t it happened yet?

IS: Cultural change is slow. It’s naive to expect a change of that magnitude to occur from one year to the next. The transition may be frustrating, but I think it’s inevitable. Proactive measures and advocacy can accelerate the process but not eliminate it.

JJ: Why are you retiring now?

IS: There are some other things I’d like to do. I’m first and foremost a scholar; I came from the faculty, and I want to return to the faculty. I want to write a number of pieces that I have been working on, and I want to return to full-time teaching.

JJ: The seminary won’t ordain openly gay rabbis. Do you see a change coming in the future? Do you think a part of the movement will break off because of the gay rights issue?

IS: I want to address the larger issue of what direction the Conservative movement should take. The Conservative movement should reaffirm the correctness and power of its base with Jewish law … the Conservative movement should not try and be a rainbow. It needs to reaffirm the validity of traditional Judaism — that’s what the word ‘conserve’ means. The Conservative movement was created as a reaction to extreme reform in this society, which knows no limits. It is incumbent upon the Conservative movement to advocate traditional Jewish values and practice.

JJ: Who are the leading candidates to replace you?

IS: I am not involved in the search for my successor.

JJ: What do you consider a failure in your term or something you did not manage to accomplish?

IS: I would have liked to accomplish more in Israel. I think [the Conservative movement] is still small and fragile in Israel. In the mid-’90s, I led a national campaign to eliminate the office of the chief rabbinate, to have the State of Israel treat Reform and Conservative rabbis exactly as they treat Orthodox rabbis, to achieve a measure of separation between Orthodoxy and State of Israel. I can’t say that campaign has succeeded.

JJ: Ehud Bandel, the head of the movement in Israel, the Masorti movement, was let go this summer. How can the movement grow in Israel?

IS: The movement [here] has not been [good] about raising money [for Israel.] The great success [there] has been the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies. The Schecter Institute is having an enormous impact on education in the State of Israel through the Tali schools, which is a network of Conservative Israeli schools.

I think more financial support is critical to grow the movement in Israel. Good leadership would help a lot. The resistance to non-Orthodox growth in Israel is formidable.

JJ: The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles was founded from the University of Judaism during your leadership and didn’t please many on the East Coast, as it created a center for rabbinic study on the West Coast. Do you think JTS will always be the leading organization of the movement? How would you categorize the relationship between the East and West Coast schools?

IS: The seminary, to its enormous credit, has created a number of very significant institutions in the Jewish world. It created the University of Judaism after the Second World War, and it created the Jewish Museum in New York 100 years ago, which today houses the finest Jewish library outside the State of Israel. The seminary created the Schecter Institute, which is today a fully accredited Israeli institution. The seminary has a very fine track record in spawning institutions that grow to maturity and gain independence. That is not something to be diminished.

I’m proud of the accomplishments of the University of Judaism; our relationship with the Ziegler school is excellent. Our students spend a year together. We do placement together. There is a good deal of traffic and collaboration. There is neither animosity nor competition. What you have today are a number of Conservative seminaries producing leadership for the Conservative movement. What has developed over time is that you have a solar system of Conservative rabbinical institutions.

JJ: Is that going to weaken JTS’s prominence?

IS: The seminary has not been diminished. Its impact on the larger world has grown by the virtue of its offspring.

JJ: What do you think of breakaway synagogues that do not identify themselves as Conservative, despite shared values?

IS: It’s a phenomenon worth paying attention to. I think it’s an important development. The thrust for post-denominationalism is largely coming from the Conservative movement — it’s not coming from the Reform and not the Orthodox movement.

I think we should not embrace the rhetoric of post-denominationalism blindly. It is a rhetoric that cuts to the very core of the social capital of the American Jewish community. American democracy is promoted by the private sector, and the organized Jewish community is funded by the synagogue membership. To weaken the synagogue weakens the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Two-thirds of JCC membership comes from the synagogue. To weaken the synagogue base is to weaken the superstructure of the organized Jewish community. Therefore, I would be very careful of anti-synagogue rhetoric.

JJ: The Reform movement has recently moved to the right, and Orthodoxy seems to be thriving. Why do you think Conservative Judaism is important for American Jewry?

IS: The right-wing movement of the Reform should embolden us to affirm our traditional base. The climate is in our favor. “Conservative” is not a dirty word anymore. In a climate that is increasingly sympathetic to traditional values, this movement ought not to be shy of advocating values. I applaud the return of Reform to the center — I believe that the center is where most Jews want to be. I believe the cohesion of Jewish community lies in the center and not on the extremes. It is precisely that importance of the center that makes Conservative Judaism so vital to the American Jewish Community. Without a center you have two wings that do not have contact with each other. The Conservative movement is the bridge that keeps this community together. Eliminate that bridge and you get sects and not a religious community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

JTS Wants Student Input, After All

From The Jewish Week

Students at the Jewish Theological Seminary — many of whom favor a more progressive chancellor than retiring Ismar Schorsch — were shut out from a seat on the committee searching for his successor.

Now, students at the Conservative movement’s seminary were likely surprised this week to find a letter from the search committee soliciting their views.

“The members of the search committee are mindful that the position we seek to fill has been occupied by truly outstanding personalities, including Solomon Schechter, Cyrus Adler, Louis Finkelstein, Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch,” the co-chairmen of the search committee wrote to the students. “We seek a person of comparable distinction who can lead JTS to meet the important opportunities and challenges facing JTS and the Jewish community over the years ahead.”

The co-chairs, Robert S. Rifkind and Gershon Kekst, then wrote: “We earnestly solicit your advice as to the direction the search should take to meet the needs of JTS and the Jewish community it serves. We invite any suggestions you may have as to particular candidates who should be considered by the committee.”

A spokeswoman for the seminary, Elise Dowell, said the students were not the only ones to get the letter. She said it went to hundreds of people from all streams of Judaism, including all members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Jewish academic professionals, and undisclosed Jewish foundation executives and community leaders.

Dowell said that since the letter was sent last week there have been “quite a few recommendations.” Asked how the committee would react if there was overwhelming support for one candidate, particularly one who favors the ordination of gay rabbis, she replied: “All suggestions and recommendations are evaluated and taken seriously by the committee.”

It is up to the seminary’s board of directors to make the final selection, and Dowell declined to say how many names the selection committee was asked to send the board.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Ilana Garber: Rabbi-to-be learning to toughen her skin.

A Trick And A Treat

Elicia Brown – Special to the Jewish Week

I awoke with a jolt.

The press release I’d fished out of my junk folder proclaimed that The Jewish Theological Seminary would celebrate 20 years of women in the Conservative rabbinate with an “equity plan”: it would commit to equal pay for women rabbis, phase-out non-egalitarian synagogues, and welcome gay applicants to its rabbinical program.

Sequestered in a mommy-land of toothless giggles and preschooler pranks, I’d apparently missed the dawning of a new day for Conservative Jewry.

But even a non-caffeinated mother of two comes to her senses eventually. The spokeswoman at JTS seemed a bit on edge. “How do I know who this is?” she demanded. “I’m not familiar with your byline.” And later, more amenably, “Yes, the press release is a hoax,” not distributed by her office. (The next day the group Jewish Women Watching, which describes itself as an “anonymous collective of feminist rabble rousers,” took credit for the ruse.)

Call it a cruel joke or belated “Purim Torah,” but the faux release drew me in. The so-called equity plan, with its grand ambitions, was a fake. On the other hand, the anniversary of the movement ordaining women rabbis –– showcasing triumphs as well as troubles –– was real. I hopped in a cab to join the festivities.

And there, in a packed auditorium at JTS, were the women who make the Conservative movement a sometime home for me — the rabbi who introduced me to Yiddish women’s prayers, which I so often incorporate into my most tender and tense moments; the rabbi whose interpretation of Jewish law I trust most; the rabbi who advises me on simchat bat and brit milah.

Certainly, the common experience, alluded to by the speakers, and confirmed by a recent Rabbinical Assembly study, attests to daunting challenges faced by Conservative women rabbis, who lag behind men in pay and power.

But certainly also, there was cause for applause: “Francine, Francine you have company,” Rabbi Joel Roth told the roaring crowd. He learned that night that the board of directors of Congregation Beth Shalom of Oak Park, Mich., a congregation with more than 500 families, advised its congregation to begin negotiations with Rabbi Lynn Liberman. If all proceeds on course, she will become the second woman to fracture the stained glass ceiling. The first, Rabbi Francine Roston Green, was hired in March by Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., which also has more than 500 families.

In the context of 5,000 years of Jewish history, women rabbis still seem like a novelty. At the close of the last century, a family member advised my then 5-year-old niece, Dina, to “ask the rabbi-lady” her question about my wedding ceremony. Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld didn’t blink.

Ilana Garber, 27, is learning to toughen her skin. Following Shacharit services the day after the anniversary program, Garber downed some coffee and a bagel at the JTS cafeteria. A fifth year rabbinical student, she says she has “what to tell you” about interviewing for a pulpit position.

At one Southwestern congregation the committee asked Garber, who is single, how she plans to work all week, lead Shabbat services and get Shabbat dinner on the table. Also, how could she “raise her eventual children?” One congregant also commented, “Don’t worry, you look good in tefillin.”

“I don’t even want to think about where his mind was,” said Garber, who has donned tefillin since her years at Barnard College, and wears a black kipa, embedded with pearls and silver embroidery.

Garber also says that it “insults her very essence that my classmates are revitalizing the Stein minyan,” an on-campus, nonegalitarian service, like those still found in 10 percent of Conservative synagogues. “There is not one clear message being sent by our movement.”

And yet, Garber’s optimism is such that, a decade from now, she hopes to hold a pulpit in one of the largest congregations.

As for the fake press release, Garber says that she and her peers are angry at the immature manner in which it was handled.

So, what did Jewish Women Watching hope to accomplish by sending the stealth e-mail? “We wanted to make the Conservative movement take responsibility for its rhetoric” about inclusiveness, about its values of equality, said a representative of the group, who identified herself only as Muriel Rukeyser, the name of a deceased poet.

“Rukeyser” also said that they chose to send it under the guise of JTS because, “We didn’t want it to be discussed as a particular concern of one group of people.”

“There was a minute or two when people actually considered this real. And then they realized how far off it was,” Rukeyser said.

To that, I say, Amen. But back in the three rooms of my Upper West Side apartment where I pass so many of my days, I find my children asleep, dark circles encasing my husband’s eyes. I’m wired, wild with the spirit of women rabbis. And to that I must say, for now at least, Dayenu.

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(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen speaks out on the Conservative Movement and Homosexuality

The Conservative Movement’s Double Standard



February 11, 2005

For more than a decade, the Conservative movement has proclaimed its welcoming attitudes toward gay and lesbian Jews. As evidence, Conservative leaders have often cited the movement’s 1992 “Consensus Statement,” which affirms that “gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools.”

They neglect to mention the other, less-than-inclusive portions of the statement – the portions of the policy that actually characterize the treatment of gays and lesbians within the Conservative movement:

“We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays or lesbians. We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly.. Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the rabbi authorized to make halachic decisions for a given institution within the Conservative movement.. Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and for lay leadership positions.”

These injustices and other halachic issues concerning gay and lesbian people, the leadership of Conservative Judaism has promised, will be addressed when the movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, convenes in April. But the committee is composed of Conservative rabbis, and gay people are prohibited from becoming Conservative rabbis. They are kept outside of the synagogues and other institutions of the movement, except at the discretion of individual rabbis.

The onus, then, is on heterosexual rabbis and laypeople who have full access to Conservative movement institutions to remind the movement that full equality for gay and lesbian people matters to us, too. The onus is on us to make clear to the movement’s leadership that a double standard toward gay and lesbian people is unworthy of the professed ideals of a religious Jewish movement committed to the study of Torah and the relevance of rabbinic law.

I am proud that despite my recent struggle with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I can continue serving Congregation Beth Simchat Torah – the world’s largest synagogue serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews – as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. But let us not forget that the privilege of membership was only available to me at the outset because I am heterosexual.

Children who grow up to be gay and lesbian Jews are born into Conservative communities and named on the pulpits of Conservative synagogues. The movement educates gay and lesbian Jews in its Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps, sends them to Israel with United Synagogue Youth, encourages them to spend a year of serious study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

And then, when they are open about being gay or lesbian, the movement tells them they are welcome – sort of. They can be members of Conservative synagogues, but cannot celebrate their marriage to another Jew of the same gender. They can pay membership dues at those synagogues, but not as a family, because their families are not recognized. They can study to be Jewish educators, but the movement allows its schools the freedom not to hire them because of their sexual orientation. They can continue to study Jewish text, but they cannot be ordained as rabbis or cantors. They can be active laypeople in Conservative synagogues, but the rabbis of those synagogues can prohibit them from leading services, being called to the Torah or serving on the board.

All this is prescribed by the Conservative movement’s 1992 policy statement.

I have heard many times the claim that full inclusion of gay people in the Conservative movement and in Judaism in general is of concern only to a small number of “activist rabbis” and outsiders. These critics forget that the movement has made gay and lesbian people outsiders by closing them out of its institutions while offering them an empty welcome.

It is time for the “insiders,” the heterosexual Jews whose participation in Jewish life is not called into question by the movement’s policies, to raise our voices to call the Conservative movement toward justice. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements have moved more swiftly to embrace the diversity of our Jewish families and call for civil and religious equality for gay and lesbian people. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has the opportunity to do so this spring in a way consistent with the process of the Conservative movement. It is time for the Conservative movement to stand behind its promises of welcome within the movement’s institutions and support for civil equality of gay and lesbian people in this country.

This week the parsha teaches that the mishkan was built using the gifts of each member of the community. The holiness of a community is determined by its capacity to recognize and celebrate those gifts. Twenty years ago the Conservative movement chose to strengthen itself by deciding to ordain women as rabbis. This year the movement has the opportunity again, to continue diminishing itself through the exclusion of gay and lesbian Jews, or to increase in holiness and celebrate and include gay and lesbian Jews in our sacred community.


Ayelet Cohen is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |