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Gay Jewish Students Protest Exclusion by Conservative Movement

February 18, 2004
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Gay Jews too often have had to keep their identities in the dark, so during this Havdalah service, the lights were kept on.

About 50 gay and lesbian Jewish college students met at a recently restored synagogue in Washington’s Chinatown district Saturday evening and, arm in arm, chanted the prayers for the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath.

It was the culmination of a festive weekend of discussion and entertainment at the annual conference of the National Union of Jewish LGBTIQQ Students — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning Jews.

At issue was the current policy of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movements’ rabbinical arm, not to ordain gay rabbis or marry gay Jews.

The policy, the students said, is emblematic of their status as outsiders — as gays in the Jewish community, and as Jews in the gay community.

“Knowing that you are not officially welcome provides a stigma that can last for years,” said Nathan Weiner, co-chairman of the conference.

The Conservative movement’s officially policy is to bar declared homosexuals from its two main rabbinical seminaries, and rabbis are told not to perform gay or lesbian commitment ceremonies. Rabbis who have come out publicly as gay have been forced to leave the movement’s seminaries.

It is up to individual rabbis to determine whether gays and lesbians are fit to be community leaders in other capacities, as youth group leaders or trustees of a synagogue.

The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is expected to begin debate on the gay marriage issue at a retreat next month, and the movement has been holding forums on the issue over the past year.

Several students here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they are struggling with whether to apply to rabbi-training schools like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. It would mean a five-year commitment to hiding their true identity.

“I will not live a lie,” said one student. “Being a rabbi is about baring your soul, and how can I do that if I cannot tell my congregants who I really am?”

Several students said they respect the debate the Conservative movement is undertaking, but that it is hard not to be insulted when Conservative leaders suggest they are not fit to be communal leaders.

“They are judging me without knowing me,” one said. “They are judging me based on something that I cannot control.”

The Conservative movement’s policy for gays and lesbians is often compared to that of the U.S. military: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“The Torah cannot be used to keep people down,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb, a Conservative congregational rabbi who officiated at a gay commitment ceremony last year.

Speaking of his decision to violate knowingly the Conservative movement’s decree on gays, Loeb lauded the efforts of the students in Washington. He called their fight more significant than the anti-war and women’s movements he supported in the 1960s.

Conference participants are drafting a letter to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, that calls on Conservative Jewry to reassess the role of gays and lesbians, allow rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies and allow gays to serve openly as rabbis and community leaders.

“For the sake of the future of the Conservative movement, we feel the movement cannot afford to continue losing talented, bright and dynamic Conservative Jews as a result of unconscionable admissions and employment policies at Conservative institutions,” the draft reads.

Judy Yudof, USCJ’s president, and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the group’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, both were traveling outside the country and were unavailable for comment. Rabbi Joel Meyers, RA executive vice president, was unavailable as well.

In the past, Conservative leaders have said that the movement’s commitment to Jewish law makes it difficult to support a pro-gay stand, given the biblical injunction against homosexual activity.

Yudof has asked the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to review the Conservative movement’s views on homosexuality.

“Someone can learn to keep kosher, someone can learn to observe Shabbat, but I don’t believe someone can learn to change their sexual orientation,” Yudof told JTA last year.

Not all of the conference attendees were Conservative Jews. The gathering brought together a wide variety of Jewish college students, for sessions such as “101 Ways to Make Your Own Jewish Community More Queer Inclusive” and how to have a kosher commitment ceremony.

“It’s very hard, on campus, to feel as if you are not alone,” one student said. “Here, it’s very easy.”

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