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Gay Synagogue Holds Separate Event After Exclusion from Israel Day Parade

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What may be New York’s most divisive Salute to Israel parade ever took place Sunday with two opposing sides both able to celebrate victories, albeit separately.

Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue expelled from the annual parade late last week, managed to attract Mayor David Dinkins, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Israeli Consul General Colette Avital to an alternative Salute to Israel gathering it co-sponsored with the Reform movement.

And the 11th-hour expulsion of the congregation enabled thousands of students from Orthodox schools that had threatened to boycott the parade take advantage of the perfect May weather to march up Fifth Avenue bearing banners and posters featuring fish, birds, zebras, strawberries and vegetables, in keeping with this year’s environmental theme.

The congregation’s expulsion also healed, at least for now, tensions within the Orthodox community. Few parents had appeared supportive of the decision by several Orthodox rabbinical groups to bar participation in the parade with the gay and lesbian congregation.

The apparent loser in the brouhaha, which attracted the interest of all of the city’s major newspapers, was the parade organizer, the American Zionist Youth Foundation. In its drawn-out, ultimately unsuccessful efforts to broker a compromise between Beth Simchat Torah and the Orthodox community, AZYF not only offended the former but ensured less-than-full participation from the latter.

“We’ve always had a much larger contingent, but people made other plans. It’s Mother’s Day and Lag B’Omer,” explained Froma Posner, principal of the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County.

Her school had been “in and out again a number of times,” most recently withdrawing early last week and then finally re-entering after the May 6 expulsion of the gay congregation.

Not only was it unable to muster more than 60 percent of its usual numbers, but the school could not manage at the last minute to print up the T-shirts traditionally worn by marchers.

‘MOST PAINFUL DECISION’ EVER

Don Adelman, AZYF’s executive director, described rescinding Beth Simchat Torah’s invitation as “the most painful decision we ever made.”

But he said he had to weigh the 22,000 Orthodox students whose schools were threatening a boycott against the relatively few who planned to march under a joint banner of Beth Simchat Torah and ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

The joint banner had been part of a compromise worked out by AZYF, in the hope that it would convince the Orthodox that a gay congregation was not actually participating but was only being supported by ARZA.

That agreement was violated, Adelman charged, by the congregation’s refusal to adhere to a ban on public discussion of it. The day before, The New York Times had run a flattering profile of the congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, which referred in one sentence to the compromise.

The article, Adelman said, made it clear that Beth Simchat Torah was using the parade “as a platform.”

Kleinbaum insists she abided by the agreement not to discuss the wording of the banner and that she was never asked to withhold any other information.

Regardless of the actual terms of the agreement, the Times interview clearly infuriated the Orthodox. And it therefore provided an opening for resolving a crisis that had led at least 24 of 40 Orthodox day schools to plan on boycotting the parade.

Said Rabbi Israel Miller, senior vice president of Yeshiva University and a member of the AZYF executive committee: “The story in The New York Times was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When it reached what we felt was very blatant breach of what had been agreed to, it was no longer possible to go along with it.”

Until the article appeared, Yeshiva University’s affiliated high schools had been among the 16 schools leaning toward participating in the parade. But the school had been coming under increasing pressure from within its own ranks, with its Talmud faculty ruling that participation would be against traditional Jewish law.

‘WE HAVE NOT BEEN SILENCED’

Yet many of the Orthodox spectators could not see why it was more problematic to march with a gay synagogue than with an avowedly secular youth group such as Hashomer Hatzair, which marched between contingents from Yeshiva University and the Bnei Akiva youth group.

At the parade, the views of Dennis Duban seemed typical: “I would have no objections if (Beth Simchat Torah) marched. What’s most important is that all Jews stick together, even if you don’t agree with what they stand for.”

Those who did voice their objections tended to take a stance similar to Jason Schwartz, a Yeshiva University student who said, “We have to salute Israel; it’s nothing more than that. It shouldn’t be a platform for anybody to promote their agendas.”

Agendas were in evidence, however, despite the absence of Beth Simchat Torah.

The right-wing Betar youth group, affiliated with Israel’s opposition Likud party, shouted, “Not one inch,” referring to giving up land.

Spectators from the left-wing New Jewish Agenda held signs saying “End the occupation: Two people, two states.”

And a small group of demonstrators from a group calling itself Jewish Young Gays and Lesbians shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia’s got to go.” One held aloft a placard saying, “I served in the Israeli army. Why can’t I march in this parade?”

The gay congregation’s exclusion from the parade was deplored by a number of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

While members of the congregation were angered by their exclusion, they seemed encouraged by the show of support.

“Today is a victory for CBST, making clear that, though we have been excluded, we have not been silenced,” said Rabbi Kleinbaum.

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