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Conservative rabbis avoid debate on contentious issues

New York Jewish Week
BALTIMORE, May 3 (JTA) — Nearly 500 Conservative rabbis gathered in Baltimore from around the world last week to discuss the future of their movement. But issues not found on the official agenda for the 99th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization representing 1,500 Conservative rabbis, were perhaps more interesting than the scheduled seminars. There were no sessions on some of the major hot-button issues affecting the Conservative movement: gay ordination, the recent barring of intermarried congregants from lay leadership positions and the lack of affordable Conservative day schools to serve the nation’s 1.5 million members. Another controversial issue missing or given only a cursory nod was the pluralism battle in Israel, where the Conservative movement is fighting for religious equality against the Orthodox establishment, and education. Assembly officials insisted there was a strong desire to keep controversial issues off the table, which explains the withdrawal of a formal resolution by gay advocates to prohibit job discrimination against openly gay members. Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the group, said there was no need for such a resolution because the organization’s policy already bars discrimination. But he said because of misperceptions and the emotional nature of the issue, he will submit clarifying language on the group’s policy at June’s executive council meeting. The written statement, which has been drafted by gay advocates, affirms that all R.A. members in good standing are entitled to all privileges of membership, including job placement. The struggle over gay rights heated up over the last two months in the Conservative movement. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a group of rabbinical students have launched an effort to gain grass-roots support to change the Conservative ban on ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis. The action followed a heated meeting between the students and Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, who reiterated his long-standing opposition to overturning the ban against openly gay rabbinical students. Openly gay students are barred from attending the rabbinical school, but are allowed entry into the school’s other divisions, such as the graduate and undergraduate schools, activists said. At a March 23 forum, Schorsch angered a group of student advocates when he stated that there is a consensus in the Conservative movement against ordaining gay rabbis, according to students who attended. Schorsch’s main statement was that rabbinical students “are a small elite group that cares about this issue, and that Conservative rabbis in the field and the laity don’t care,” said one participant. Advocates of gay ordination say there is more support for their position than the chancellor acknowledges. Joshua Levine Grater, a fourth-year rabbinical student and one of the leaders of the effort, told The Jewish Week that he intends to organize a rally and plan other actions to galvanize that support. “We can no longer be silent,” said Grater, who is married. Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow of New York said she is attempting to reinvigorate a group called B’tzalmaynu, Hebrew for “in God’s image,” to push for a change in the Conservative movement’s policy. She said that in June 1993, 120 Conservative rabbis signed a petition supporting full rights for gays in the movement. “There is a growing number of rabbis wanting to make B’tzalmaynu a more active organization to raise awareness that this is an ongoing issue, and to get the issue revisited,” the rabbi said. “Dr. Schorsch thinks this is going to go away, but it’s not going to go away.” Schorsch did not return several phone calls. His spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment. Grater said he first approached Schorsch about the issue in January, when he presented the chancellor with a petition signed by about 25 students who supported a change of seminary policy against gay ordination. “I think it’s a form of racism that we have,” Grater, a rabbinic fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, said of the gay policy. “I’m of the opinion that we have a new, totally different understanding of what the Torah was talking about” when it bans homosexuality in one passage in Leviticus. The petition presented to Schorsch states that “no longer can we, the undersigned, sit silent while our institution, as well as our movement, continues to ignore the issue of gay and lesbian ordination and investiture. We recognize that there are complexities which surround this issue, not the least of which is halachah. Yet we are prepared to talk about it openly and honestly.” The seminary policy on not allowing openly gay rabbinical candidates was adopted on March 25, 1992. Adopted by a 19-3 vote, the assembly stated: “We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools, or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly.” But the policy adds: “At the same time, we will not instigate witch hunts against those who are already members or students.” Paasche-Orlow argues that the statement was meant to be a temporary measure, pending further study and reflection. “The problem is the continued effort has not served to effect or inform policy,” she said. In April, the assembly’s Meyers defended the process. He said that in 1992 and 1993 the R.A. “went through a very detailed process” in its law and human sexuality committees.” He noted that “there has always been a group within the assembly that has been consistently agitating for a change in halachah” on gay rights. But he said he did not believe that reflected the majority. Meanwhile, a lesbian rabbi has been called before the R.A.’s ethics committee. The case of Rabbi Benay Lappe, a fellow at the New York-based CLAL-the National Center for Leadership and Learning, is being examined after it became public that she is gay. Lappe, whose sexuality became public after it was disclosed in newspaper articles, declined to discuss the matter. Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the R.A., reportedly said the committee is concerned that Lappe may have attended the seminary and sought admission to the group under false pretenses. “We don’t go around asking people what they do in their bedrooms,” Essrog reportedly said. “Had she not raised the issue, the issue would not have come to the public arena.”