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N.J. Newspaper Controversy Pits Gays Against Orthodox

N.J. Newspaper Controversy Pits Gays Against Orthodox

Standard’s publishing and about-face of same-sex wedding announcement sparks battle on diversity and inclusion.

The decision by a major New Jersey Jewish newspaper to include the wedding announcement of two men in its “Lifecycle” section (and then to apologize, and reverse policy soon after) is fueling a debate about the role of Jewish newspapers in the communities they cover.

The uproar at the New Jersey Jewish Standard comes less than four years after the Conservative movement began permitting rabbinic officiation at same-sex unions, and as growing numbers of people in the Orthodox world are taking a more lenient position toward gay and lesbian Jews. In February, Yeshiva University hosted a panel on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” and this summer more than 100 Orthodox rabbis, educators and mental health professionals signed onto a “Statement of Principles” that urges respect for homosexuals but stops short of condoning same-sex relationships. (The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have welcomed LGBT Jews for several decades.)

And while the Standard is now re-evaluating its policy, according to a statement released this week, several other Jewish newspapers around the United States report that they have begun including same-sex announcements without garnering major criticism. Justin Rosen and Avi Smolen, whose wedding announcement appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of the Standard (and remained on the website as of Tuesday), were the first same-sex couple to appear in the paper’s Lifecycle section. And they may be the last.

The paper, following criticism that it said came from several rabbis in the heavily Orthodox area, issued an editorial this week apologizing for its decision to include gay marriages in its pages. The apology drew several hundred letters to its website, nearly all critical of its policy reversal.

“We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple’s announcement of their intent to marry,” according to the statement issued Monday by the Jewish Standard. “Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received. A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we have caused. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”

Smolen told The Jewish Week in an interview Tuesday night that he and Rosen submitted the announcement online as “part of the normal routine” of a to-be-married couple, unaware that they would be the first same-sex couple to be published in the Standard. When the paper’s editors expressed some hesitancy, he submitted to the Standard the written policy of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, which now accepts notices from gay couples.

Many of the couple’s friends in Bergen County, including members of the Orthodox community, supported the paper’s decision to carry the announcement, Smolen said. “It’s just unfortunate that a small segment of the Orthodox community pressured the paper to make that [policy] change. My anger is not particularly with the paper — my anger is with that segment of the Orthodox community.”

The controversy over the paper’s decision followed the suicide last week of a gay student at nearby Rutgers University whose sexual liaison with another man was broadcast, without his knowledge, over the Internet.

The comments of several people in the Jewish Standard’s online edition this week referred to the Rutgers tragedy.

New Jersey recognizes civil unions, which includes same-sex marriages.

“It is such an incredible insult to think a newspaper would censor itself based on pressure from certain homophobic members of the community. I hope this reaction to such censorship, and to the recent suicides of gay children due to isolation, harassment, abuse, and social shunning will make you reconsider your misguided, shortsighted decision,” one person wrote. Others called the paper’s change of policy “disgusting and abhorrent,” “craven and ridiculous,” “absolutely despicable,” “shameful” and a “shande.”

“This decision makes sense, in crass and venal sense: the ‘traditional/Orthodox’ community is large and spends a lot of money that the Jewish Standard’s circulation and advertisers care about a great deal,” another person wrote. “It’s just sad that the rage of bigots and filthy lucre count for more than the lives and loves of other human beings.”

The paper may be having another change of mind.

“We did not expect the heated response we got, and — in truth — we believe now that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community,” Publisher James Janoff said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are now having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders. We will also be printing, in the paper and online, many of the letters that have been pouring in since our statement was published.

“We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together,” said Janoff, whose family has published The Standard since 1931.

The New York Times began publishing same-sex commitment announcements in 2002, and according to its website “more than 1,000 U.S. newspapers (nearly three-quarters of the total) have followed suit.”

Jewcy, an online Jewish magazine, declared this week that “we are no longer readers of The Jewish Standard due to this decision,” and a writer for Tablet, another online Jewish publication, said this week that “By refusing to run paid announcements from fellow Jews, and by kowtowing to but one segment of the community, the paper has chosen to ‘affiliate’ with one ‘point of view,’ doing the precise opposite of [the Jewish Standard’s policy of] ‘giving expression to all phases of Jewish life.’”

Representatives of the Jewish Standard declined to comment on this issue to The Jewish Week this week, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which includes rabbis from the major denominations of Judaism, did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Golden State Equality, called the paper’s announcement that it would stop publishing same-sex announcements “disgraceful,” and he told The Bergen Record, “I can’t think of a more divisive policy.”

The Buffalo Jewish Review, which does not publish same-sex union announcements, drew heavy criticism in the city’s Jewish and general community several years ago when it declined to publish an advertisement that named the gay identity of a performing group, but several Jewish papers contacted by The Jewish Week say they have published same-sex announcements without drawing significant criticism.

(The Jewish Week does not have a weekly social page, but is currently exploring policy options.)

J., the Jewish weekly, in San Francisco, regularly carries same-sex commitment notices. The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia started publishing such notices about a year ago, said Lisa Hostein, the paper’s executive editor. The community reaction, she said, was “overwhelmingly positive.” She said people asked her, “What’s the big deal?”

The Exponent announced its policy change in a column by Hostein last October. “The shift … illustrates the changing thinking of not just a publication, but the Jewish community as a whole,” she wrote. “While we want to be sensitive to [the Orthodox community], the new policy is a reflection of the Exponent’s effort to be as inclusive as possible.”

The Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston published its first same-sex announcement, accompanied by a major feature story on the couple, about a decade ago, and received “no official complaints, no official accolades,” said Michael Duke, associate editor.

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix has published the one same-sex announcement it received since it opened its pages to such notices last year, said publisher Flo Eckstein. The paper received “no reaction,” she said. “We just published it.”

The American Jewish Press Association, the umbrella group of Jewish publications and writers in the U.S., was unable to state how many member papers now publish same-sex announcements.

According to the announcement in the Standard, Smolen, 23, is a development and communications associate at the Manhattan office of Keren Or, the Jerusalem Center for Blind Children with Multiple Disabilities. Rosen, 24, is a master’s degree candidate in public administration at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and at the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies for a master’s of arts in Jewish studies. He is a Wexner Fellow taking part in a leadership development program for emerging professionals in the Jewish community. Smolen’s father, Robert, is the principal at the Gerrard Berman Day School Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland. Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg will officiate at the ceremony at North Shore Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Syosset, L.I.

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