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Gay Ruling Catching Up Conservatives with Campus Inclusiveness, Students Say

December 14, 2006
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Conservative Jewish college students across the country were applauding the movement’s increased inclusion of gays and lesbians last week, even as they acknowledged it would do little to change their already accepting campus communities. “I don’t think it’ll affect Jewish life on campus,” Nathan Weiner, executive director of the National Union of Jewish LGBTQ Students — a group for gay, bisexual and transgender Jewish college students — told CampusJ.

“I think Jewish campus life and most of the Conservative movement progressed a long time ago. It was just a matter of whether the leadership would catch up.”

Weiner said Conservative groups on campus already include gays and lesbians. He said the greater inclusion will have more of an impact in USY, the movement’s youth group, which had restricted employment in its regional and national groups — largely staffed by college students — to heterosexuals.

The decision by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards allowing rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies and accepting gay rabbis was a hot topic on many campuses.

At the University of Pennsylvania, campus Conservative Rabbi Michael Uram devoted a Friday night speech to explaining the decision. At Indiana University, a course in Jewish folklore discussed news articles about it and viewed the documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, “Trembling Before G-d.” At Washington University, Conservative students held a “Coming Out Party” at Friday night dinner, where they distributed copies of newspaper articles and the most permissive responsum.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland of the Stanford University Hillel, who is one of the few openly lesbian rabbis at a Hillel and has started LGBTQ groups for Jewish students at two schools, said Jewish students at Stanford used the decision as an opportunity to engage in textual study, and to learn about the different denominations and their approaches to Jewish law.

It’s “raising interest in what all the different sects of Judaism are about,” she said, noting “that’s significant in a world where people want to be just Jewish, and as students don’t want to be pigeonholed into different movements.”

Copeland, a Reconstructionist, said Conservative students in her Jewish Queers group are excited that “there’s gonna be so many out gay and lesbian rabbis in the Conservative movement,” and that they also “hope this makes a difference in their congregations, especially undergrads who are dealing with coming-out at home, to their families and the rabbis of their congregations.”

For many Conservative students planning on attending rabbinical school, it was cause for celebration.

“The committee’s work embodies a first step on a sacred journey toward full inclusion,” Aaron Weininger, a gay Conservative undergraduate deciding among rabbinical schools, told CampusJ.

Hillary Blank, a straight Conservative undergraduate who plans to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, said that “I am very moderate politically but on issues in Judaism, I consider myself very liberal, as on the issue of homosexuality from the religious perspective, so I was very happy to see that this was accepted.”

Conservative student leaders also expressed support. At Washington University, the Conservative minyan issued a statement expressing solidarity with Keshet, the Jewish LGBT group there.

“I think it’s great,” Eliot Gordon, the co-chairman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Conservative Jewish Community — one of the more active campus Conservative groups — told CampusJ. “As a progressive community we want to follow the tide of the times and respect gay rights while balancing this with traditional Jewish beliefs. This is a hard thing to do, but I’m excited about the decision.”

While some students hoping for a more progressive decision were unhappy with the continued ban on male intercourse, and the two responsa that expressed a negative viewpoint toward homosexuality, others considered the regressive aspects irrelevant.

Copeland said Conservative students at her campus are looking to the progressive elements as “a foot in the door” and the regressive elements as “laughable” because they consider it impossible that “anybody would refrain from any kind of sexual activity that they would want to engage in.”

However, Weiner was less pleased. “I’m torn because I feel like any progress is good progress, but in my initial reading, I felt that it was a slap in the face,” he said. “Keeping the ban on male sodomy is problematic; it’s almost like they’re saying you can be a rabbi, but like a Catholic priest, they’re asking you to be celibate.”

Weiner, who grew up as a Conservative Jew, called the move “too little, too late” to get him to return to the movement, which he left in college.

(Reporting by Sam Guzik, Laura Birnbaum, Jordan Magaziner, Ben Greenberg and Steven I. Weiss.)

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