Camp’s Decision to Censor Magazine Illustrates Rift Among Conservatives

Canada’s Conservative Jews have long been discomfited by the willingness of their colleagues south of the border to ordain women. And recently, some refused to be good campers about it.

The Canadian arm of the Conservative movement’s camp system refused to distribute the Summer 1994 issue of "Ramah — the Magazine" because it included an article about female camp alumnae who now serve as Conservative rabbis and cantors.

The magazine’s former editor, Lori Forman, has charged that the Conservative movement’s leadership in New York did not sufficiently push the Canadians to send out the issue because it was afraid of losing the funding the Canadians provide to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This was disputed by a seminary spokesman.

According to the director of Camp Ramah in Canada, camp officials refused to distribute the issue because they felt that the article on clergywomen represented American, rather than Canadian, Conservative values, said Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the camp.

"Anything having to do with women’s rights in the movement is very, very sensitive here," said Cohen. "But this has less to do with women’s rights than with American control over Canadian values.

"Camp Ramah in Canada still has a form of religious practice which is not completely egalitarian," Cohen said "That form of religious practice still needs to be respected, and is not by many people in our movement."

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which serves as the official interpreter of halacha for the Conservative movement, decided in 1983 to allow the ordination of women as rabbis.

MOST CONSERVATIVE SHULS NOT EGALITARIAN

But the Conservative movement in Canada remains far more conservative than its American counterpart. Most Canadian Conservative congregations are not egalitarian, and only one, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has hired a female rabbi, compared to dozens in the United States.

According to Forman, the Canadians feared the article about clergywomen would be "bad publicity" and could drive away the 75 campers from Orthodox homes who attended the camp.

But, said Forman, herself a Conservative rabbi who spent eight summers of her youth attending Ramah camps, more than half the campers at the Camp Ramah in Canada are Americans from Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, whose egalitarian practices should be respected.

Forman has since left the magazine, as scheduled, to become interreligious program consultant at the American Jewish Committee.

The Ramah system includes seven camps –six in the United States and one in Canada — which serve about 4,000 campers a year.

Camp Ramah Canada, located two hours north of Toronto in Utterson, Ontario, employs a modified form of egalitarianism in its worship service. According to Cohen, girls are permitted the honor of being called up to the Torah but are not counted toward a minyan.

The controversy over the magazine has been simmering since the spring, when Forman distributed magazine proofs to Ramah officials.

Citing opposition to the article about the clergywomen, leaders of Canada’s camp refused to send Forman the mailing labels for the magazine.

Forman and 46 other female rabbis and cantors sent a letter to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and head of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism, and asked him to intervene.

By June, according to Forman, Canadian rabbis were threatening to withhold money from JTS if the magazine was distributed in Canada. Schorsch and Sheldon Dorph, national Ramah director, went to Canada to make sure funding was not cut off, she said.

"Canada has threatened over and over to leave the movement" over the issue of ordaining women, she said, "and the seminary is trying very hard not to lose them for fund-raising reasons."

According to JTS spokesman Shammai Engelmayer, "The Canadian office has a right to distribute magazines as they see fit. Not everyone in Canada agrees with egalitarianism, and there was a feeling that the article could be seen as a slap in the face to those who don’t feel that way.

"Fund raising did not enter into it," Engelmayer said. "We don’t want to see one part of the movement breaking away over an ideological issue when the movement prides itself — and has historically been — pluralistic."

Forman believes that while Canada’s Conservative congregations are entitled to disagree with the ordination of women, censoring the fact that women are ordained within the movement contradicts the pluralism which Conservative Judaism ostensibly values.

Forman said she was distressed, but not surprised by the leadership’s refusal to intervene.

The movement’s leaders "don’t want to celebrate" the role of women as rabbis and cantors, she charged.

Engelmayer described that charge as "absurd on its face."

"We had a whole conference here last year celebrating the 10th anniversary of women in the rabbinate," he said.

Forman said that while the magazine ultimately was not distributed, she and her colleagues succeeded in raising "a lot of consciousness" over the issue of women rabbis and cantors.

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