Jerusalem — When, in 2007, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit openly gay students for the first time, the decision presented these students with a dilemma: where to study during their mandatory third year in Israel.
Traditionally, JTS rabbinical students have spent their Israel year at Machon Schechter, the Israeli Masorti movement’s rabbinical seminary, which does not ordain openly gay students.
This worried Ian Chesir-Teran and Aaron Weininger, JTS’ first two openly gay JTS students.
At the urging of JTS administrators, Chesir-Teran and Weininger began their Israeli studies at Schechter in September 2009. But they and three heterosexual students opted out of the program for the spring semester for “reasons of conscience,” The Jewish Week has learned.
Their exit highlights the differences between American and Israeli Conservative rabbinical schools — the former, which does ordain openly gay rabbinical students, the latter, which does not — and the students caught between them.
“One of the main reasons I left Schechter is because it discriminates against openly gay and lesbian Masorti Jews by not ordaining them,” explained Chesir-Teran, a 39-year-old father of three from East Meadow, L.I.
Though fully aware of Schechter’s policy ahead of time, Chesir-Teran decided to “give them a chance” because “JTS didn’t give us another option.”
Soon after arriving in Israel, the former lawyer met Masorti-affiliated gays and lesbians who aspired to become rabbis.
“One person told me he intended to move to America to study at JTS in order to receive rabbinic ordination, because he can’t do it here,” Chesir-Teran recalled. “At the time I said to myself, ‘The only reason I’m being allowed in the rabbinic program is because I’m a foreign exchange student here for the year. If I was Israeli, I’d be refused ordination.’”
Ironically, Chesir-Teran now finds himself in this exact position because he and his family have decided to make aliyah. He’s hoping that JTS will find a way to ordain him, despite the distance.
Although Machon Schechter permitted the openly gay students to receive aliyot to the Torah and to perform all other rituals, Chesir-Teran and Weininger said they could never forget Schechter’s official policy on homosexuality.
The policy, as outlined by Rabbi Einat Ramon, Machon Schechter’s former dean in a 2007 essay in the Washington Jewish Week, is to accept “only students who believe in the importance of the intimate relationships between a man and a woman in the confines of the Jewish institution of marriage and to serve, to the best of their ability, as role models in that regard.”
The former dean, who also served as the school’s “posek,” or decisor of Jewish law, made her ruling after the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted 13 to 12 to accept gay rabbis. The committee’s ruling empowered the movement’s rabbinical schools to decide for themselves whether to accept homosexual rabbinical candidates.
“Ramon’s ruling speaks of how gay and lesbian Jews are causing the destruction of traditional family values, and refers to [the need for] reparative therapy,” Weininger said.
Weininger recalled how, two years ago, Ramon refused to permit a gay student event to take place on campus, an incident that made international headlines.
Although Weininger said Schechter’s new dean, Rabbi Moshe Silberschein, and incoming Assistant Dean Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, “are wonderful and have a really positive attitude toward the inclusion” of gays and lesbians, he recalled the time Siberschein failed to send out an e-mail to the Israeli students about an event related to the Jerusalem Open House, a local LGBT center.
“Everyone thought I’d censored the letter, but actually, I just didn’t know how to use list files on my computer,” Silberschein said. “Things are misinterpreted; there’s baggage.”
Yosef Goldman, one of the three straight students who left Schechter, said he and his fiancée, Annie Lewis, believed staying would betray their “core values” of equality for all people.
Unlike Chesir-Teran and Weininger, whose alternative studies this semester (at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Yeshiva) are being paid for by JTS, the three other students said they have been forced to pay for non-Schechter courses from their own pockets.
In a letter to JTS Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins obtained by The Jewish Week, the couple said limiting tuition refunds only to openly-identified gay students “could create a situation in which gay, lesbian or bisexual students who do not want their sexual orientation known are forced to choose between an unhealthy emotional environment at Schechter, studying elsewhere while bearing an unreasonable financial burden or revealing their sexuality to the administration of their rabbinical school in order to justify financial assistance.”
The couple also expressed the hope that next school year, students will have the “official option” to study in settings other than Machon Schechter.
In an interview from New York, Rabbi Nevins said that while Machon Schechter will continue to be the main address for future visiting JTS students, other courses will be offered, for the first time, at the Schocken Library in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Nevins made a point of saying that “not all of our gay students chose to leave Schechter,” but added that JTS has tried to accommodate the students who did.
Rabbi Nevins said that JTS “is proud” of Chesir-Teran’s decision to make aliyah and that it is “working with him [to help] him complete his course requirements for JTS.”
The dean was more circumspect with regard to the non-gay/lesbian students’ financial outlays.
“The finances of our students are not a matter of public record,” he said.
While Rabbi Nevins acknowledged the discomfort some of his students feel at Schechter, he himself called the year there “an opportunity.”
“I think studying together with people with a different point of view is a fundamentally healthy situation. I think it’s good for the Israelis and the Americans to study together, despite different points of view. If you look at the Talmud, there are different points of view on every page.”
Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, said all Jewish streams have had to contend with the generally conservative nature of Israeli culture.
“I was the first woman ordained by the Reform movement in Israel — 20 years after my movement ordained the first woman rabbi in America. There’s a time lag.”
Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, agrees.
“JTS started ordaining women in the mid-1980s, but it took eight or nine years before Schechter began to do the same here in Israel.”
Asked whether Schechter could be on the same trajectory with regard to gay ordination, Rabbi Golinkin replied, “I’m not a prophet.”
Silberschein said change, when it comes, will have to come from Israel.
“Change has to come from within, and the students, however well-intentioned, won’t change Israeli society overnight. If Israel isn’t where they’re at right now, it doesn’t mean Israel is right or wrong. It’s just different.”
Weininger doesn’t disagree.
“It’s important for me to respect and allow Israelis to create that change,” Weininger said, “but at the same time, as I pour my soul into my rabbinical training and deepen my passion for Israel and Torah, I need to be in a place that respects diversity of thought.”
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