The struggle over gay rights in the Jewish community heated up this week in the Conservative and Orthodox movements. At the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side, a group of rabbinical students are launching an effort to gain grassroots support to change the Conservative ban on ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis. The action follows a heated meeting between the students and Chancellor Dr. Ismar Schorsch, who reiterated his long-standing opposition to overturning the ban against openly gay rabbinical students.
Openly gay students are barred from attending the rabbinical school, unlike other divisions, such as the graduate and undergraduate schools, activists said.
At a March 23 forum, Schorsch angered a group of student advocates when he stated that there is a consensus in the Conservative movement against ordaining gay rabbis, according to students who attended.
"Schorsch’s main statement was that [rabbinical students] are a small elite group that cares about this issue, and that Conservative rabbis in the field and the laity don’t care," said one participant.
Advocates of gay ordination say there is more support for their position than the chancellor acknowledges. Joshua Levine Grater, a fourth-year rabbinical student and one of the leaders of the effort, told The Jewish Week he intends to organize a rally and plan other actions to galvanize that support.
"We can no longer be silent," Grater said.
Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow said she is attempting to reinvigorate a group called B’tzalmaynu, Hebrew for "in God’s image," to push for a change in the Conservative movement’s policy. She said that in June 1993, 120 Conservative rabbis had signed a petition supporting full rights for gays in the movement.
"There is a growing number of rabbis wanting to make B’tzalmaynu a more active organization to raise awareness that this is an ongoing issue, and to get the issue revisited," the rabbi said. "Dr. Schorsch thinks this is going to go away, but it’s not going to go away.
"It’s appropriate that at the time of Passover, seminary students are applying the meanings of our text to modern-day issues of gay and lesbian liberation," she said.
Schorsch did not return several phone calls. His spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment.
Grater said he first approached Schorsch about the issue in January, when he presented the chancellor with a petition signed by about 25 students who supported a change of seminary policy against gay ordination.
"He called me in for a half-hour meeting and told us he is not in favor of having gay and lesbian ordination, but he said he would think about an open forum," Grater recalled.
Grater said Schorsch held the forum while Grater was out of town and at an inconvenient time for rabbinical students. Grater said he wanted the meeting open to all JTS students, but Schorsch held it only for rabbinical students.
"I think it’s a form of racism that we have," Grater, the Marshall T. Meyer rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, said of the gay policy. "I’m of the opinion that we have a new, totally different understanding of what the Torah was talking about [when it bans homosexuality in one passage in Leviticus.]"
The petition presented to Schorsch states that "no longer can we, the undersigned, sit silent while our institution, as well as our movement, continues to ignore the issue of gay and lesbian ordination and investiture. We recognize that there are complexities which surround this issue, not the least of which is halacha. Yet we are prepared to talk about it openly and honestly."
The seminary policy on not allowing openly gay rabbinical candidates follows the position of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rule-making body. In a March 25, 1992 position paper, adopted by a 19-3 vote, the assembly stated: "We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools, or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly."
But the policy adds: "At the same time, we will not instigate witch hunts against those who are already members or students."
Rabbi Paasche-Orlow argues that the statement was meant to be a temporary measure, pending further study and reflection.
"The problem is the continued effort has not served to effect or inform policy," she said.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the RA, defended the process. He said in 1992 and 1993 the RA "went through a very detailed process" in its law and human sexuality committees." He noted that "there has always been a group within the RA that has been consistently agitating for a change in halacha" on gay rights. But he said he did not believe that reflected the majority.
Asked how change might occur in the RA’s halachic position, Rabbi Meyers said that "anyone is free to approach the law committee to revisit the issue or to approach the executive council."
Rabbi Paasche-Orlow said she knows of at least four lesbians who left the rabbinical school over the issue.Second-year rabbinical student Ayelet Cohen said the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, has raised awareness of gay rights at the seminary. One of the two suspects pleaded guilty Tuesday to the Shepard murder and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole.
"It’s very important to me that the Conservative movement is inclusive of all committed Jews, including the full inclusion and welcoming of gay and lesbian Jews and their families," Cohen said.
Meanwhile, a lesbian rabbi has been called before the Rabbinical Assembly’s ethics committee. The case of Rabbi Benay Lappe, a fellow at CLAL-the National Center for Leadership and Learning, is being examined after it became public that she is gay.
Rabbi Lappe declined to discuss the matter. Her sexuality became public after it was disclosed in newspaper articles.
Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the RA, reportedly said the committee is concerned that Rabbi Lappe may have attended the seminary and sought admission to the RA under false pretenses.
"We don’t go around asking people what they do in their bedrooms," Rabbi Essrog reportedly said. "Had she not raised the issue, the issue would not have come to the public arena."
Meanwhile, in a ruling affecting the Orthodox community, a state Supreme Court judge upheld Yeshiva University’s right to bar two lesbian students from living with their lovers in subsidized housing designated for students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Justice Franklin Weissberg dismissed a lawsuit brought last year by medical students Sara Levin, 26, and Maggie Jones, 23, against Einstein. Each was offered subsidized apartments, but sued after the college denied their requests to have their non-student lesbian partners live with them.
The lawsuit contended that Einstein violated city and state laws against discrimination based on marital status. But Weissberg ruled that same-sex couples do not have the same constitutional guarantees as married couples. The judge said nothing in the law prohibited YU from distinguishing between married and unmarried couples in deciding who would be allowed to live in subsidized housing.
Weissberg also rejected the suit’s claim that the school’s housing policy has a disparate impact on them because they are gay.
The attorney for the women, Michael Adams, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, called the decision disappointing and said his group would appeal.
Abe Habenstreit, Einstein’s director of public affairs, said the college was pleased that the court validated its student housing policies, which he said "are fair, appropriate and in compliance with all anti-discrimination laws."