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Conservative group reaches out to gays

WASHINGTON, June 30 (JTA) — Sympathetic to concerns of gay and lesbian Jews seeking a place in their movement, some Conservative rabbis are, in a way, coming out of the closet. Some 100 rabbis from the United States, Europe and Israel signed on this month with a new group called Keshet-Rabbis. The organization seeks to provide members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community with resources to help them find a welcoming place in Conservative Judaism. Rabbis open to giving guidance to gays and lesbians are listed on a Web site, While the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in 1992 declared that congregations should welcome gays and lesbians, it left it up to the individual congregations to decide if gays may be hired as teachers or youth leaders. In addition, the movement’s rabbinical seminaries do not ordain openly gay rabbis, nor may Rabbinical Assembly members officiate at gay wedding ceremonies. The assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently affirmed the status quo and will meet again in March to examine several teshuvot, or responsa, on the movement’s approach to homosexuality. All of the Keshet-Rabbis members belong to the Rabbinical Assembly. “Everyone who’s signed on agrees that our polices at the U.J. and the JTS need to change,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., referring to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Creditor, who is among a small group of rabbis who founded Keshet-Rabbis, said he doesn’t want the organization to be seen as divisive. “I don’t think pushing a progressive agenda is a slap in the face,” Creditor said. “If the Rabbinical Assembly is going to be responsive, it needs to have a voice from within.” But Rabbi Peretz Rodman is concerned. Rodman, president of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel region, considered signing on with Keshet-Rabbis but decided against it. “I am entirely sympathetic to the goal of Keshet-Rabbis, but I have hesitated to join because I don’t think that it’s healthy for us as colleagues to form separate organizations other than the Rabbinical Assembly itself,” he said. “I think it’s important to work within the U.S. and the Masorti movement worldwide to make congregations gay-friendly,” he said. “I think it’s important that Masorti-Conservative rabbis have the conversation about the place of gay and lesbian rabbis in our community and our profession.” Rabbi Janet Ozur Bass, a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., did sign on. “It’s important for people in the Conservative movement to understand there is a diversity of opinion on this issue,” she said. “I want people who are searching and have questions about their identity or about people they love in the Conservative movement to know that I am out there and can be a safe place for them to ask questions,” she said. In addition, she said, it’s important that she make herself available as a teacher. “It’s not just for gay students, but for straight students” to know they can talk about the subject, Ozur Bass said. Rabbi Eitan Julius says the Conservative movement’s policies on homosexuality have driven numerous “top-notch” potential rabbis into the arms of the Reform, Reconstructionist and renewal movements. The pace at which the movement has addressed the issue, he added, is “skewed and unacceptable.” “We in the field are coming in contact with” gay Jews who are “members of our congregations and are in turmoil because the misconception is that the Conservative movement is antigay — and we’re not,” said Julius, rabbi of San Jose, Calif.’s Congregation Sinai. In the long run, he said, the goal is eventually to see lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rabbinical-school students “who do not have to go into the closet in order to pursue rabbinic ordination in the Conservative movement.” Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va.’s Agudas Achim Congregation has held classes at his synagogue dealing with inclusiveness and gay marriage. He also has been involved with the Human Rights Campaign, lending his voice to statements on behalf of the gay-advocacy group. “I am hoping that gay and lesbian people feel so welcome in this community that nobody reaches out,” Moline said. Realistically, he said, “I’m expecting to hear everything from ‘Can I be gay and Jewish at the sametime?’ to ‘What am I supposed to do if I want a lifelong relationship with my partner?’ and everything in between.” Unlike the majority of Conservative rabbis, Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg said he would officiate at gay marriage ceremonies “for Jews who want to create a Jewish home and strive to live the Jewish way of life.” Ginsberg said he hopes the new organization will advance his vision of Conservative movement institutions “evaluating Jews by their moral character, intelligence, abilities and willingness to serve God, and not by their sexual orientation.” (The Washington Jewish Week’s Aaron Leibel and JTA staff writer Chanan Tigay in New York contributed to this report.)