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Conservative Rabbis Rebuke but Don’t Expel Rabbi of Gay Shul

January 27, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm decided to censure the young associate rabbi of a gay and lesbian synagogue this week, it quietly resolved a public dispute that had caused anger, pain and confusion in the movement. Although the Rabbinical Assembly rebuked Rabbi Ayelet Cohen on Wednesday for violating one of its strictly enforced placement rules, it did not move to expel her, which had been one of the options.

The movement actually has expelled others for placement violations, but Cohen’s story had grabbed headlines in both Jewish and mainstream newspapers because of her vocal support for gay rights in Judaism and the fact that she had performed several same-sex marriages.

“It was very natural” that the issue of the movement’s struggle with gay and lesbian positions would be raised, “because Rabbi Cohen was working at Beth Simchat Torah,” Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said, referring to the Manhattan synagogue where she works.

Movement insiders say the sort of rule Cohen broke is the most frequent cause for expulsion from the assembly, and its violation rarely garners the kind of media attention Cohen’s case did.

“Nobody contacted the Rabbinical Assembly in the fall when we also had to expel a member,” said Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of Leadership Development and of the Committee on Congregational Standards for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Repeated attempts to reach Cohen this week proved unsuccessful.

Rabbinical Assembly members are required to obtain a waiver from the organization before accepting postings at synagogues not affiliated with the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s synagogue branch.

Cohen, assembly officials say, took her job at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah before receiving such a waiver, and though she was granted one retroactively she allowed it to expire.

During a meeting Wednesday with the assembly’s executive council, Cohen, 30, apologized for violating the waiver procedure and also apologized that material regarding the case had been leaked to media, Meyers said.

Council members decided against expelling her from the organization and granted her permission to stay on at Bet Simchat Torah for an indefinite period.

Meyers said it was a “most natural assumption for people to make” that there was a connection with the gay and lesbian issue, which the Conservative movement is now struggling with.

“It would be difficult for people to understand that it was an issue about” disregarding a technical rule, he said.

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s decision, Cohen and Meyers exchanged charges and countercharges in the media..

Cohen, who is heterosexual, said she was being targeted because of her controversial views on same-sex marriage. Meyers said this was untrue.

Indeed, the assembly said it is aware of at least 20 Conservative rabbis who have performed such ceremonies without consequence from the assembly.

“It’s because I have performed same-sex wedding ceremonies,” Cohen said on Jan. 14 in The New York Times.

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly. voted against ordaining gay rabbis and officiating at same-sex weddings.

The assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is planning to re-examine the movement’s approach to homosexuality in April, and members will be submitting papers on the issues in advance of those discussions.

The prevailing practice in the Conservative movement as far as already-ordained rabbis go has been described as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Declared gays and lesbians are officially barred from the Conservative movement’s two main rabbinical seminaries, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

The assembly has no mechanism for expelling rabbis who are discovered to be gay, although the group has in the past informed congregations considering hiring a gay rabbi of that person’s sexual orientation, and in one case did not allow a gay rabbi to use its rabbinic placement services, said movement leaders.

The placement rules prevent synagogues from plucking talented rabbis from other shuls and those familiar with the assembly say those rules are assiduously enforced.

But Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side said that Cohen’s post at Beth Simchat Torah was not one that many other Conservative rabbis had chased after.

“She didn’t cheat anybody out of this job,” he said.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at the University of Judaism, noted that for the Rabbinical Assembly, violating placement procedures is “the no-no.”

“To the extent that there are expulsions, it’s usually related to placement procedures,” he said.

The Rabbinical Assembly also has expelled members for performing intermarriages as well as other violations of its rules and procedures.

Dorff said that when the assembly again debates issues relating to gays and the rabbinate, it will look at the issue “on the basis of its own merits,” with the Cohen case not likely to affect the discourse.

He and others suggest that the Conservative movement’s position on gay rabbis is bound to change at some point. “It’s a question of when, not if,” he said.

“I think it’s largely a generational issue,” Dorff added. “It hopefully will happen this time around. If not, it will happen within 10 years.”

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