Maverick Ordinations Spark Probe In Conservative Movement


The disciplinary committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has opened an unprecedented investigation into the actions of several of its member rabbis who in recent weeks privately ordained two individuals in different parts of the country in violation of the RA’s Code of Professional Conduct, The Jewish Week has learned.

Although private ordination is done in the Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, it is so unheard of in the Conservative movement that one of the rabbis involved told The Jewish Week he did not know it violated RA rules.

The code states: “Rabbinical Assembly members may not privately ordain individuals. The Rabbinical Assembly firmly opposes private ordination as undermining the high standards of rabbinic education and training, and as demeaning the trust and respect of the rabbinic profession. Failure to abide by Rabbinical Assembly policies and/or this Code of Professional Conduct may result in disciplinary action.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel, vice president of the RA, said he has been a rabbi for 30 years “and these instances [of private ordination] are the first I’ve heard of. … As far as I know, nobody has ever been disciplined for this.”

He said he was not free to discuss the issue because “all issues before our ethics committee are completely confidential.”

Rabbi Phillip Scheim, immediate past president of the RA, said he was not aware of the private ordinations, and that individuals who are privately ordained are ineligible to become members of the RA. Asked what disciplinary action might be appropriate for the RA members involved in the ordinations, he suggested “censure,” saying expulsion would be too harsh.

“It is a game changer,” Rabbi Scheim added. “I think one has to be cautious about allowing this. I would not consider myself to be qualified to ordain a rabbi. How do we accept that the person has been properly educated? We have some very fine rabbis, but nobody with universally acclaimed scholarship. … The hard thing is not saying which rabbis can perform ordinations but rather how you tell someone he is not qualified to do it. It opens a Pandora’s box.”

But a rabbi involved in one of the ordinations, Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail that he favors a change.

“It should not be surprising that in a moment of great cultural, demographic, technological and scientific transition in which all systems and domains are being disrupted that we would have fluidity in standards, authority and accreditations,” he wrote. “What it means to be a rabbi is as up for debate as what it means to be Jewish, and so just like there is an explosion of ways and permutations of being Jewish that are far from ‘normative,’ so there is inevitably an explosion of new ways to become a rabbi.”

What it means to be a rabbi is as up for debate as what it means to be Jewish, and so just like there is an explosion of ways and permutations of being Jewish that are far from ‘normative,’ so there is inevitably an explosion of new ways to become a rabbi.

Rabbi Kula also argued that “this move toward new forms of ordination is a return to more traditional models of teacher-student relationship, and more integrated, customized, and personalized study that engages the whole person — intellectual development as well as character formation. Remember, the seminary academy model is less than 200 years old and is essentially a Protestant model of accrediting religious leadership. Of course, this explosion of new forms of ‘ordination’ is and will disrupt the existing authorities and seminaries and they will resist with a variety of strategies — banning, dismissing, punishing, expelling, demonizing — the ways all incumbents in any domain resist disruption.”

The ordination in which he was involved was of a woman who was an educator and wanted a second career as a rabbi. The woman, Betsy Forester, formerly of St. Louis, was ordained last month and was immediately hired as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Center, a Conservative synagogue in Madison, Wis., which is also a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

She was most recently the director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, Ill., and had led religious and educational events in day school, religious school, Camp Ramah, and community lecture settings, according to the synagogue’s website. The site said she has been an active member of the Conservative movement and was founding chair of The Ramah Day Camp near Chicago.

Prior to ordination, the site said, she “followed a traditional model of deep study … [with] distinguished rabbis and scholars who are leaders in the Jewish world and fully committed to her preparation for the rabbinate according to the highest standards of learning and professional competency.”

In an e-mail, Forester said, “It is my understanding that there was a waiver from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) [to permit the congregation to hire her], although I cannot speak to the details or parameters of it. The synagogue continues to be a member of USCJ, and I look forward to a strong relationship with them now that I am here.”

Rabbi Steve Wernick, USCJ’s chief executive officer, did not reply to The Jewish Week’s multiple phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. Neither did the professional staff of the RA.

The USCJ bylaws permit congregations to hire rabbis who are not members of the RA, but those rabbis are required to follow the RA’s Standards of Rabbinic Practice.

A rabbi involved in the second ordination, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., spoke cautiously about the situation. “We are under investigation,” he confirmed. “One of the others involved got a call from the [ethics] council.”

Rabbi Feinstein said he has been a member of the RA for 36 years and “I didn’t know there was such a rule.”

He added: “The rule makes a lot of sense to me because you want to support the movement’s institutions [rabbinical seminaries]. I have never done this before, but there were strong extenuating circumstances.”

Because of the ongoing investigation, Rabbi Feinstein said he did not want to elaborate or reveal the name of the young man he helped ordain.

“I think I did the right thing,” the rabbi said. “He was caught in a bureaucratic and ethical mess.”

The young man involved had apparently completed five years of classes at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles when he was informed by the school that he would not be ordained because of prior indiscretions. The RA also reportedly refused to accept him. Rabbi Feinstein declined to discuss the problem, except to say it was a “personal issue” that was “not criminal — not even #MeToo.”

“But it was serious enough to raise suspicions that the school and the RA felt uncomfortable extending the title of rabbi,” Rabbi Feinstein added.

Nevertheless, he said he and the other two rabbis who together formed a beit din (a Jewish tribunal empowered to adjudicate cases involving criminal, civil or religious law) “knew [the young man] very well and for many years” and that they asked him questions to confirm his qualifications for ordination.

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL, said there has been some discussion about these private ordinations on a rabbis-only Facebook page and that “some rabbis said they were upset about it. Nobody defended it.”

The question of who is a rabbi and what does it take to be a rabbi are very important questions for the rabbinical community to ask.

Asked her reaction, Rabbi Sirbu said: “There are many different paths to ordination, and having one vision of a five-year residency school needs to be rethought. It is a large investment of time and money and there are ways for rabbis to gain the skills they need in a faster framework or while working and learning at the same time. A social worker, for instance, does two years of classes and three to four years of actual practice before becoming a social worker. … There are a lot of different models out there.”

Rabbi Feinstein said these cases should prompt a re-examination of whether rabbis should be involved in private ordination and what standards should be followed.

“Should the standards be uniform or subjective and are they to be considered ordained by the movement or outside the system?” he asked. “Nobody in the Conservative movement has taken up these questions and I think it’s good they are being taken up now. The question of who is a rabbi and what does it take to be a rabbi are very important questions for the rabbinical community to ask. Being a rabbi is not the same as being a surgeon. I think rabbis have a right to expect from each other serious scholarship and academic credentials – and it’s also a lot about heart.”