A rabbi who has officiated at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples has been threatened with expulsion from the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association, though movement officials say it is not her activism that is at issue but her repeated defiance of the movement’s rules.
Ayelet S. Cohen, the junior rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a largely gay and lesbian synagogue in Greenwich Village, says she is being punished for her openness in performing the ceremonies. Officials of the association say it has nothing to do with the gay marriages. Rather, they say, she faces expulsion because she has repeatedly defied long-established rules for taking a job at a synagogue.
The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, with 1,600 rabbis, voted in 1992 not to ordain gays as rabbis and said that rabbis should not perform same-sex marriages. But the assembly stopped short of declaring the ban on marriage or commitment ceremonies a binding standard, tacitly allowing individual rabbis some discretion. Various rabbis within the movement have estimated that 20 to 40 rabbis have performed these ceremonies. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordain people who are gay and allow rabbis to marry gay people. Orthodox Jews neither ordain nor marry gays.
Rabbi Cohen said the assembly’s Joint Commission on Rabbinic Placement told her in recent days that it would recommend her expulsion from the assembly for taking a job at an unaffiliated synagogue without obtaining a waiver and, after getting a waiver, letting it expire. Officials confirmed that part of her account, and said her case would be heard on Jan. 25 by the assembly’s administrative committee and on Jan. 26 by the executive council, whose decision would be final.
Expulsion would make it virtually impossible for Rabbi Cohen to get jobs at 760 North American synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement, or to use the movement’s pension and insurance plans. She could continue serving at Beth Simchat Torah, which was discouraged from joining the Conservative movement and has not affiliated itself elsewhere.
In an interview before leaving for a vacation in Spain, Rabbi Cohen, who is 30 years old and heterosexual, said she was being punished for her vocal advocacy on gay rights.
“It’s because I have performed same-sex wedding ceremonies,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I made it clear from the outset that I plan to do it, and I have done it.”
Rabbi Cohen, whose father is Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, has performed four wedding ceremonies for people of the same sex, having them exchange vows under a chupah, or canopy, and having them sign a ketubah, or marriage contract. Last March, she was interviewed by The New York Times after charges were brought against two Unitarian ministers for performing same-sex ceremonies in New Paltz for couples who did not have marriage licenses. She said at the time that she would “continue to conduct ceremonies, even if illegal.”
Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, denied that Rabbi Cohen’s activism on gay issues had anything to do with the charges against her, and added, “She’s no more public about it than other rabbis.”
Rather, he said, she is facing sanctions because of her repeated defiance of bedrock rules on how rabbis get placed, rules that prevent synagogues from poaching one another’s rabbis with lucrative offers.
Rabbi Cohen was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s fountainhead, in May 2002 and took a job at the unaffiliated Greenwich Village synagogue before being formally granted a waiver to do so. Rabbi Meyers eventually gave her a waiver for two years, but Rabbi Cohen let it be known that the time was insufficient. By July 31, 2004, she should have applied for an extension but did not, waiting two months beyond the waiver’s expiration.
“It’s painful and unfortunate,” Rabbi Meyers said. “Ayelet Cohen is a very good rabbi. She gets people to talk about her positively in terms of her work, and it’s a shame she’s raising this – trying to push this off on the movement and its gay and lesbian stance – rather than looking at her own actions.”
Rabbi Cohen has received a letter of support from eight colleagues, including Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel in White Plains, the former dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school, and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the West Side. Noting that the movement has lost gay members and their families, the eight rabbis wrote: “Surely the opportunity to have Rabbi Cohen serve a community of gay and lesbian Jews who seek a Conservative rabbi is too important to be thrown away in favor of punishing her for such a technical error.”
Whatever happens to Rabbi Cohen, the issue is not going to go away. The assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards is meeting in April and will revisit the issue of gay and lesbian unions.