A lesbian couple holding hands during the annual Gay Pride rally in Tel Aviv on June 8, 2007. Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

England’s top Sephardic rabbi said acceptance of homosexuality is ‘fantastic’ — controversy ensued


The United Kingdom’s top Sephardic rabbi became the center of an international controversy after he praised societal acceptance of homosexuality as a “fantastic development.”

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, who serves as senior rabbi at London’s S&P Sephardi Community, came under fire after making the comment at a lecture last month. An Orthodox rabbi in London asked a rabbinic court to look into removing Dweck from his position and a petition created by an American Orthodox rabbi calling Dweck a “heretic” had gained some 480 signatures, The Jewish News reported.

A letter from Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef, also condemned Dweck.

“I am amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah,” said the letter, which was posted on the Israeli news site Kikar HaShabbat.

Dweck received rabbinic ordination from Yosef’s father, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef.

Dweck, who grew up in Los Angeles and has been in his current position since 2013, has refused to back down, although he acknowledged that his use of the word “fantastic” was “exaggerated,” The Jewish News reported.

“I did not say that homosexual acts were fantastic. I said that the development in society had residual benefits much in the same way that Islam and Christianity did, as the Rambam pointed out,” he said.

Dweck continued: “These residual effects in my opinion are that it has helped society be more open to the expression of love between men. I was not asserting law, nor for that matter, demanding a particular way of thought. I was simply presenting a personal observation.”

The rabbi isn’t without his defenders. More than 1,900 people signed a petition backing Dweck,

“The current situation, wherein character assassination, misrepresentations, and misconstrued contexts has constituted a majority of the responses rather than honest, open, and sensitive discussion is disheartening and reflective of a most unfortunate climate in our community,” the petition reads.

A recording of the lecture from last month was originally posted on the website for the S&P Sephardi Community but has since been taken down, according to The Jewish News.

Obama must take action on LGBT rights overseas


When I was a young man, still in the closet, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most prolific authorities on Jewish law of the 20th century, described gay people as rebels against God.  Grossly misinformed about the phenomenon, Rabbi Feinstein posited that homosexuals were possessed of a demonic urge to destroy civilization.  Ten years later, the characterization of homosexual desire in Orthodox Judaism moved from a portrayal of vicious evil to a serious, but ordinary sin.  Later, the language shifted from active sinfulness to sickness, as putative reparative therapies claimed to offer cures to what was deemed a mental illness. Recently, a majority of Orthodox rabbis have rejected these bogus therapeutic claims and some are beginning to describe homosexuality “as simply a part of the human condition.”
 
The arc described above is a piece of a larger American story, and it is still in motion.  There is much work to do in my own community to move more Orthodox leaders to this last and most realistic portrayal of sexual orientation.  Eshel, an organization I helped to found four years ago, is working to encourage Orthodox leaders to take responsibility for the well-being of LGBT young people in their communities and schools, to offer them what every young person needs most, a secure sense of self-worth and hope for a good future.
 
However, while we continue to press for greater understanding and acceptance for LGBT people here in America, many of the LGBT people living across the globe are untouched by the last fifty years of social progress.  Same-sex loving people who live in traditional communities in Africa, India and Asia are still commonly perceived by powerful religious and political leaders as demonic, corrosive threats to their respective societies and face devastating, if not deadly, threats.  Tens of thousands of people are actively intimidated, humiliated, brutally assaulted and even killed by family members, peers and, in many cases, by police and other government officials—simply because of who they are or whom they love.  In 77 countries, people can be arrested for having sex with someone of the same gender. In five of those countries, a person can be put to death for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
 
Last February, Ugandan President Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes same-sex sexual behavior with life in prison and makes it illegal for organizations to provide services like health care to LGBT people or promote their human rights. On June 30 this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” thus opening a new, dark chapter in the history of gay rights in Russia.
 
All of this feels disturbingly familiar. In the summer of 1935 in Germany the Third Reich's Ministry of Justice revised and strengthened Paragraph 175, a provision of the German criminal code established in 1861 that punished homosexuality.  Months later, on September 15, 1935, new laws were instituted at a party rally in Nuremberg. The Nazis revoked Reich citizenship for Jews and carried pernicious racial theories into law.  Just shy of 80 years ago, Nazis began what would be their systematic persecution and selective extermination of homosexuals along with their murderous war on the Jews by carrying into law portrayals of both Jews and homosexuals as demonic threats to the German people.  
 
The policies of Uganda and Russia and 75 other countries all over the world that criminalize homosexuality are treading this path of demonization of difference and enshrining it into law.  The Jewish community bears a covenantal duty to God and to the memory of millions not to stand idly by the degradation of our fellows.  As proud Americans we are called to global leadership on the human rights issues of our day.
 
The urgency of this moment presses upon me, not only as a Jewish American, but as a child of a Holocaust survivor.  My mother and aunt were among the 1,300 hidden children who were saved by ordinary French citizens and brave resistance workers—people who risked their lives daily for an Abrahamic ethic of welcome and a biblical notion of human value and dignity.   
 
I and all the children and grandchildren of those 1,300 saved souls can no longer thank the many resistance workers in France who risked life and limb for our families, but we can support the brave human rights workers today in Uganda and Russia and around the world, who are working to turn around pernicious laws and to change the cultures where they live.  We can champion the courageous justice workers, from Kampala to Cairo, and from Mombasa to Moscow, who often risk their lives to fight the cultural and institutional forms of bigotry that continue to plague the world today.  Presently, there is no high level U.S. diplomat whose job is to coordinate global efforts to defend the rights of LGBT people.
 
I feel very proud that a few months ago, my Senator, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, took on this challenge.  He introduced a new bill in the Senate that aims to promote LGBT rights around the world. Several weeks later it was introduced in the House of Representatives. If it passes, the International Human Rights Defense Act will make preventing and responding to discrimination and violence against the LGBT community a foreign policy priority, and will ensure that our government devises a global strategy to achieve those goals. It will also create the permanent position of a “Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People” in the State Department.
 
We all are aware of the challenges of the present Congress. While the bill was introduced with support on both sides of the aisle in the House, it does not yet have bipartisan support in the Senate, and so it faces a steep uphill battle on the Hill. I urge all Americans to press their members of Congress to support this bill and I urge the Jewish community to join American Jewish World Service’s We Believe campaign, which is fighting for this and other legislation that promotes the rights of women, girls and LGBT people in the developing world.  
 
In the meantime, President Obama can put a vital aspect of this bill into action immediately by appointing a Special Envoy for LGBT rights in the State Department. The Obama administration has a legacy of leadership on this issue—and now has an opportunity to provide high-level diplomatic attention to a situation that unfortunately appears to be worsening in much of the developing world.   
 
I am calling on President Obama to insure that the U.S. leads global efforts to promote the rights of sexual minorities and to end the deadly demonization of LGBT people in much of the developing world.  With the President’s continued leadership on this issue, we can make America a beacon of light and hope for LGBT people worldwide.   
 
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, co-director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT community support and education organization and serves on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He lives in Boston with his partner Steven Goldstein and daughter Amalia. 

The Conservative gay marriage debate


On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

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U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Defense Of Marriage Act in win for gays


The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a central portion of a federal law that restricted the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples in a major victory for the gay rights movement.

The ruling, on a 5-4 vote, means that legally married gay men and women are entitled to claim the same federal benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples.

The court was due to decide within minutes a second case concerning a California law that bans same-sex marriage in the state.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy, often the court's swing vote in close decisions, also said the law imposes “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia both wrote dissenting opinions.

By striking down Section 3 of the law, the court clears the way to more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights and burdens linked to marriage status.

As a result of Wednesday's ruling, Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman and sued the government to get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses die, will be able to claim a $363,000 tax refund. 

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham

Supreme Court issues two major rulings expanding gay rights


The Supreme Court upheld the federal rights of same sex couples in states that allow same sex marriages.

The first of two rulings Wednesday struck down a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman. The ruling, a 5-4 split along ideological lines, requires the federal government to abide by the laws of individual states in its dealings with couples from those states.

In a separate ruling, the court ruled that individuals who sought to reverse a California Supreme Court decision that had overturned a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage had no standing. A number of Jewish groups had filed friends of the court briefs on both sides.

The DOMA lawsuit had been brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who was also Jewish, despite the fact that their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they resided.

[From our archives: The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage]

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Anthony Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

Liberal Jewish groups were rallied by Wednesday’s decisions, which came a day after the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states where racial discrimination had been pervasive. Groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League pledged to lobby Congress to reinstate the key language that would reinstate such review.

L.A. Jewish LGBT community reacts to same-sex marriage decisions


Leaders of the area’s Jewish LGBT community rejoiced today after the Supreme Court ruled that part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, was unconstitutional. The court also paved the way for a return of same-sex marriage to California in a separate case by dismissing an appeal to Proposition 8 that banned such marriages.

“It’s a historic and wonderful day,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform congregation serving gay and lesbian Jews in West Hollywood. “It means marriages are restored in California It means federal protection.”

Kol Ami is a sponsor of a rally tonight in support of the rulings. It will take place at 5:30 p.m. at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

According to Eger, the ruling gives married LGBT couples 1,138 benefits that were previously denied to them, including Social Security benefits for surviving spouses, the ability to file tax returns together and hospital visiting rights for spouses.

Other examples abound.

“Let’s say there is a binational couple,” Eger said. “A heterosexual couple can apply to have one spouse have permanent residency status in the United States. [LGBT] people were hanging in limbo, where one spouse was forced to live in their country of origin while other, say, finishes school here in America.”

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue, pointed out that the court’s rulings do not address prohibitions against gay marriage in other states and that prejudice remains. But, she said, “It will take us a long way.”

Edwards’ congregation on Pico Boulevard has been involved in many of the efforts to bring about marriage equality, including Equality California, GLAAD, and the Courage Campaign.

To celebrate today’s court rulings, BCC has planned two events. On Friday night, a chuppah will be placed on the bimah as a symbol. Two days later on June 30, David Codell, who was involved in the litigation for the 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, will speak from 2-4 p.m. The event will be streamed live on the Web at bcc-la.org.

Codell, who received BCC’s Humanitarian Award this year, is currently the visiting legal director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

“These are exciting steps forward. The court’s ruling invalidating DOMA is monumental. It enables same-sex couples to finally experience equality under the law,” Codell told the Journal.

“Exactly 10 years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not make it a crime for gay people to have intimate relations. The progress in 10 years is remarkable. Today the court recognized that the families that same-sex couples formed are entitled to the same dignity as other families.”

Codell predicts that it will take some time to determine how today’s ruling will apply to same-sex couples in states that do not currently recognize same-sex marriage. In California, however, same-sex marriages could resume in as little as a month. Even then, there are more important decisions to be made.

“Is the Supreme Court’s decision effective as of now, or is it retroactive to the date a couple was married?” Codell asked. “It will likely take time to sort out these questions.”

Both Eger and Edwards already have begun scheduling same-sex marriages. Edwards says that many people planned their marriages after the election in 2008 and then got “left out.”

Eger said, “The Supreme Court did not give us a sweeping marriage ruling, which means we have to continue to fight for equality… but I believe we will be successful.”

Young Iranian-Jews discuss taboo topics at UCLA


Nearly 300 young Iranian Jews packed UCLA’s Fowler Museum auditorium on March 7 for a discussion featuring five prominent young Iranian-Jewish professionals openly discussing topics considered to be taboo within their community. The gathering was historic not only because young Iranian-Jews do not typically discuss their problems regarding career choices and personal relationships in a public forum — but also because this event marked the first time an openly gay member of the community has discussed issues of homosexuality facing Iranian-Jews in Los Angeles.

“I believe that we were aiming to create the types of dialogues and conversations that are already occurring between young Iranian-American Jews when they sit down together — only this time, we wanted to expand these expressions to a public forum so as to send a message that it is OK to actually discuss these issues openly and as a community,” the event’s moderator, Tabby Davoodi, executive director of the L.A.-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit 30 Years After (30YA), said.

While 30YA did not sponsor the event, Davoodi said many of the local young Iranian-Jews who make up its membership were drawn to the event to learn how to speak to their family about pressures surrounding career choices or about issues of sex and marriage.

Speakers included Saba Soomekh, a theological studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, and her sister, Iranian-Jewish film actress Bahar Soomekh; hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian; financial adviser Joseph Radparvar; and Shervin Khorramian, an openly gay Iranian-Jewish accountant. Fowler Museum organizers chose each speaker because they demonstrated independence and challenged community taboos. Each speaker talked about how young people in the community should feel empowered to make decisions in their own lives and take steps to shatter the taboos.

“I think it’s only natural for Iranian-Jews, as immigrants to this country, to be scared and want to keep their kids near them and push them into areas which they think are best for their kids,” Nazarian said. “But it’s up to each one of us in the younger generation to have the courage to follow our passions and make decisions that are best for us personally.”

Radparvar, 30, expressed the frustration many young Iranian-Jewish professionals face as their parents push them into medicine or law for the potential financial rewards. 

“Every single day I was in law school I was miserable, and I know there are hundreds of other young Iranian-Jews who feel the same way because they go into certain fields just to make their parents happy,” Radparvar said. “I had to leave home and remove myself from that environment to find the inner strength to choose a career path I was happier with.”

Saba Soomekh said her young Iranian-Jewish students frequently say they feel trapped and are unable to speak with anyone about their issues of sexuality and relationships.

“The amount of sexual confusion in our community and the need for women to keep their sexual purity is at a ridiculously high level,” Soomekh said. “The fear of backlash and spreading of gossip has gotten to the point where girls can’t even talk to their girlfriends about issues of sex.”

She also said some Iranian-Jewish parents expect their daughters to remain virgins until marriage while looking the other way when sons are sexually active, creating a double standard that is a point of contention for young women in the community.

Homosexuality is a highly taboo topic in the community, as well. Many gay community members are not open about their sexuality out of fear of being ostracized by family or friends. Khorramian said Iranian-Jewish parents, especially, face a significant difficulty when gay children come out of the closet.

“I can understand the sense of loss Iranian-Jewish parents feel when their kid comes out to them, because they feel the child has left their culture and their norms,” Khorramian said. “The second you come out, the roles are reversed. You become the teacher, and your parents become the students — so you have to be patient, considerate, accepting and forgiving of them.”

Khorramian also said many young Iranian-Jews who are gay lead double lives. They often use the Internet for anonymity, which can expose them to sexual predators online or other dangers.

Iraj Shamsian, an Iranian-Jewish psychologist who has long helped young Iranian-Jews open up to their families about their homosexuality, but was not at the UCLA event, said that community members need to have ongoing public discussions about sexuality, drug abuse and alternative career choices.

“The reality is that there are Iranian-Jews who are drug addicts, or who are gay or have mental health issues — we don’t have to like it, but we must acknowledge these people and slowly begin a healthy community dialogue about these topics in order to grow as a society,” Shamsian said. “We have to change as a community, so people who need help can get help, and we need to take a risk to understand these issues and not to judge individuals facing these issues.”

Shamsian said he hopes to begin a support group for young gay Iranian Jews to help them come out to their families and to embrace their new identities. 

30YA head Davoodi said that while currently there are no plans for future events on the topic, she has been bombarded with positive feedback from attendees expressing their support for the open dialogue created by the event.

“There is a way to explore the taboo issues in healthy, gentle ways without sacrificing our amazing principles and traditions,” Davoodi said. “It all begins with listening, compassion and suspension of judgment, whenever possible.” 

JONAH center being sued for false claims on reversing homosexuality


JONAH, a Jewish center in New Jersey that offers therapy to reverse homosexuality, is being sued for allegedly making fraudulent claims.

Four gay men and two of their mothers filed the suit Tuesday in New Jersey Superior Court against Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, which offers treatments that the group says can turn its clients straight. Some of the treatments include using rabbinic writings on the subject of homosexuality.

The lawsuit, which was filed through the Southern Poverty Law Center, maintains that the center uses misleading pretenses to entice clients to enroll in its program. The plaintiffs are previous clients of JONAH.

“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine Sun of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”

JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing violate the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Acts, the lawsuit said. JONAH therapy options cost a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling and $60 for group sessions, it said, and some clients said their instructions included undressing in front of a mirror or group sessions of standing naked in a circle.

Reacting to the lawsuit, Goldberg told ABC News that many JONAH clients were successful and healed, and “hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied.” He also said, “Our therapy is very conventional.”

The amount of money being sought by the plaintiffs was not made clear but includes the costs spent by clients on JONAH and psychological services that dealt with alleged damages from using JONAH, as well as attorney fees, Reuters reported.

Reinstated Amsterdam chief rabbi rues using title on ‘curing’ homosexuality document


The chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who was suspended for signing a statement on “curing” homosexuality, reportedly has been reinstated and said he was wrong to sign the document using his chief rabbi title.

Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag of New York, who travels to the Netherlands several times a year to rule on matters of Jewish law, traveled to Amsterdam last week to discuss his position, the Dutch news agency ANP reported Thursday.

Along with saying he was wrong to sign the “Declaration On The Torah Approach To Homosexuality” using his title, Ralbag also said that the statement “did not properly reflect his position,” according to APN.

He had been suspended in mid-January by the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam pending a face-to-face meeting to discuss his signature on the declaration. The Amsterdam community suspended the rabbi over including his title as chief rabbi in his list of positions, saying at the time of his suspension that “Rabbi Ralbag’s signature may give the impression the Orthodox Jewish community of Amsterdam shares his view. This is absolutely untrue. Homosexuals are welcome and recognized as full members of the Amsterdam Jewish community.”

Ralbag was among some 180 rabbis, community leaders and mental health professionals who signed the document, which according to a page on the declaration website was initiated by Jews who say they have overcome their homosexuality. The declaration states that “We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid.”.

The Conference of European Rabbis said in a statement issued Wednesday that “We welcome the reinstatement of Chief Rabbi Ralbag as a wise step in the best interests of the Amsterdam community,” said.

Ralbag said at the time of his suspension that he would not travel to the Netherlands for several weeks due to threats on his life. The Amsterdam community said it will discuss Ralbag’s long-term future in the position, since it is concerned about how well the rabbi can do his job when he lives so far away, APN reported.

The Conference of European Rabbis had criticized the Amsterdam Jewish community for levying the suspension, telling a Dutch newspaper at the time that the rabbi has done “nothing more than restate what the Torah says about homosexuality.”

Its statement on Wednesday said that “The Amsterdam kehilla is known the world over for its proud commitment to its traditions. We are pleased it has decided to address any issues relating to the articulation by its Chief Rabbi or other officially appointed Rabbinic figures of traditional, halachic positions, in a positive and consultative manner.”

Knesset passes civil union bill


Israel’s Knesset passed a civil union bill, although it is expected to help only a small percentage of Israelis who do not want a religious wedding.

The bill introduced by the Yisrael Beiteinu party passed its second and third readings during a midnight vote Monday. The lawmakers’ vote was 56-4; lawmakers from the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism parties opposed the bill and did not attend the vote.

Yisrael Beiteinu had promised to pass a civil union bill during its first year in the government; the year ends next week.

The new law will allow Israelis without a religious affiliation to register a civil marriage with a special couplehood registrar, a position that will be created. It will help about 10 percent of couples who want a civil marriage, according to reports.

Under current law, only civil marriages performed abroad are recognized in Israel.

Several lawmakers, saying the new law does not go far enough, filibustered the vote for nearly three hours.

Synagogues Working to Be More Open to Gays


[UPDATE]

NEW YORK (JTA)—The newsletter sent out last month by Temple Israel of New Rochelle contained the usual sort of announcements, including a reminder about the synagogue’s upcoming Purim carnival, mazal tovs and condolences, and information about a social event at a local steakhouse.

But a small notice about a screening of the film “Hineini: Coming Out In a Jewish High School” reflected a quiet change at the Reform synagogue in suburban New York.

The screening is part of an overall push by Temple Israel to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. In recent months, the synagogue has edited its membership forms to accommodate diverse family structures, and it now advertises in the gay press and with gay advocacy groups. It also plans to train teachers to be sensitive to issues related to sexuality.

Prompted by the experience of a teenager in the community who was teased when he revealed his homosexuality, momentum built last year when the synagogue hired a new youth director who is openly gay.

“On some level, I kind of view myself as a poster child and that these kids and the adults need to see somebody in the community who fits the description,” said Barry Shainker, the youth director.

Shainker says that while changes are programmatic, the goal is to make such inclusiveness routine.

“Of course in some ways, our goal is to put ourselves out of a job,” he said. “In a few years this will be a no-brainer. What could be a 30-minute discussion at a board meeting becomes a 30-second vote in the future.”

Temple Israel is not alone: A recent conference in New York attracted a cadre of about 60 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conference, organized by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which seeks to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. A similar program took place March 1-2 in Los Angeles.

“There isn’t going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented at the New York conference, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming. The survey found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews, although only 33 percent of the 997 synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

The impetus for adopting a more welcoming approach comes from a critical mass of gay members or from policy questions such as the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Caryn Aviv.

“It has shifted people’s perceptions because they’re having personal interaction with gays and lesbians,” said Aviv, who co-authored the study with Steven Cohen.

To be sure, some synagogues have consciously welcomed sexually diverse Jews for years. For example, Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform congregation with 1,700 families, made such a decision based on what members believed was “right.”
“It was untenable to them that gay and lesbian Jews wouldn’t have a home,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin said.

The synagogue is working with the Boston-based advocacy group Keshet to become a so-called “safe school,” meaning it will train teachers to address bias and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

Temple Israel recently conducted a focus group with some of its LGBT members to find out what as a community the synagogue could improve. Last year the synagogue hosted a program on transgender and gender expression. In the past there was a LGBT chevra, or social group, and the synagogue sent dozens of people to rally at the Massachusetts State House in support of equal marriage.
“Acting publicly around justice issues is another way that we are proactively welcoming,” Kolin said.

At the conference in New York, representatives of other synagogues shared their “best practices.”

At Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, b’nai mitzvah students discuss gender diversity in Jewish texts. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta has adopted a “brit,” or contract, that stipulates the inclusive values of the community. Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s synagogue for GLBT Jews, has published a new prayer book in which the prayers for life-cycle events—including marriages and baby namings—are not printed in the conventional order, so as to promote the idea of diverse family life.

According to Debra Kolodny, the executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a critical part of being inclusive is to have leadership that reflects diversity in sexual orientation, and that LGBT perspectives are heard and integrated into teaching and services.

“So it’s just kind of normative,” she explained. “I think inclusion presumes that there is an ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ ”

At Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Piedmont, Calif., the congregation’s inclusiveness was on display last summer when seven same-sex couples married in a group ceremony staged in reaction to the state’s Proposition 8.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s executive director, said the ceremony “was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values.”

For gay and lesbian Jews, having programs and sermons targeting them—combined with a generally welcoming attitude—make congregations more inclusive.

When Joseph Antenson was shopping for a synagogue several years ago, he sought a congregation that had obvious participation from gay and lesbian members and where there was no “separate but equal” status. His desire to hear a rabbi take a proactive stance from the bimah was part of his attraction to B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Sure, we’re welcoming,’ but just don’t talk about it,” he said.

In general, Antenson noted with regret, the Jewish community has not been at the forefront of welcoming gays and lesbians into synagogue life.

Antenson, a lay leader and member of the marriage equality, membership and interfaith committees at B’nai Jeshurun, said that when he told fellow congregants about his partner, “I never got a reaction.”

Half of the members of the marriage equality chevra are straight and at B’nai Jeshurun, it is common to celebrate the anniversary of a gay couple, or to see a gay or lesbian couple celebrating an aufruf.

“It’s public evidence that we welcome gays and lesbians, and they are full members of the congregation,” Antenson said.

But according to Aaron Weininger, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change in cultural assumptions must accompany concrete actions.

“There are so many ways to engage the issues,” he said, citing films such as “Hineini” and programs like LGBT Shabbat dinners. “It is not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and.’ ”

While Weininger noted there is no “one size fits all” model, he said synagogues should be asking whether they are engaging all members of the community.

“Because LGBT Jews have been marginalized and alienated for so long, there does need to be a certain level of awareness,” he said. “The more messages our synagogues send that are pro-inclusion, the more younger people coming out and identifying as LGBT feel safe.”

Still, he and others noted, a shift in attitude in Conservative congregations is linked to the movement’s policies regarding gay rabbis and cantors.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., said his congregation was ahead of the curve and had been since the mid-1990s, when the synagogue was asked to participate in a gay marriage ceremony.

“I think that the Conservative movement in its official capacity sort of caught up to what we’ve been doing,” said Allen, who served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality in the early 1990s.

Allen said in lieu of programs targeting LGBT members, his congregation has adopted a welcoming mind-set.

“We didn’t make a special gay slot on our board,” he said.

Gay members serve on the board because they are involved and supportive of the synagogue.

“For many years, people did not feel they could talk about the core of who they were,” Allen said. “I think all we’ve done is open the door and allow people to walk in.”

Valley couple shares bimah for rite of passage


When Lee Larsen and Bob Clarke met in the 1970s at the 8709 Bathhouse — one of Los Angeles’ best known gay social spots of the time — they never imagined that they would one day share a very different kind of aquatic experience.

“We were so high after our mikvah,” Temple Beth Hillel member Clarke, who started down the path of conversion with his partner about three years ago. “I walked around in a state of bliss for hours.”

The experience was equally moving for Larsen.

“Our teacher [Rabbi Sarah Hronsky] told us that the mikvah doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the past but that we’re evolving into Judaism,” he said. “It did feel that important.”

With their conversion over, the next stage in Clarke’s and Larsen’s evolution into Judaism begins with their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, which they will celebrate on the bimah together.

Larsen and Clarke had each been a spiritual seeker before they met more than 30 years ago. Larsen, 65, was reading Ram Dass, experimenting with drugs and dabbling in meditation. In reaction to his parents’ open-minded secularism, Clarke decided to become an ardent Christian, studying Aramaic and following his restless muse from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Dallas and Cleveland.

“When we met, we weren’t too stable or responsible,” said Clarke, 71. “Then we started examining our lives, asking ourselves ‘What are we doing?'”

That earnest, companionable introspection has been the foundation for a relationship that both men credit with saving their lives.

“We shouldn’t have been successful,” said Larsen, who points toward the traumatic experience of growing up gay in a conservative Christian home as the source of the self-destructive behavior in his past. “But even when I was living the wild life, I was praying for a partner and thinking I really needed to be married.”

Clarke notes that without their commitment to each other, they might not have managed to avoid the fate that befell many other gay men in the 1980s.

“AIDS probably would’ve claimed us, too,” he said.

Over the years, as they’ve healed each other, the spiritual yearning that each man felt in his youth has taken shape as a desire to heal the hurting world they see around them. That hunger for spiritually motivated social activism led the couple down a few blind alleys until a client in their gardening business suggested that they visit a synagogue near their home in North Hollywood.

“I was pretty wary at first,” Larsen said. “I thought Judaism was like an even more conservative version of Christianity.”

But after the couple attended services at Temple Beth Hillel, Larsen felt immediately at home.

“At first I was shocked when I realized what was happening,” Clarke said. “I thought, ‘Now we’re going to be a double minority.'”

Clarke’s fear of marginalization turned out to be unwarranted at Beth Hillel. The couple says that the warm, wide cultural embrace at their synagogue encompasses other gay men, lesbian couples with children, atheists and agnostics, as well as straight people and deeply religious believers.

“Jews deal in reality,” said Clarke, who sees the synagogue’s eclectic demographic mix as its greatest strength. “And the reality is that we’re all here to make the world a better place.”

Lee echoes that assessment.

“Temple Beth Hillel isn’t so much faith-based as it is social-action based,” he said.

By their own account, Clarke and Larsen have blossomed at Beth Hillel — “our tribe,” as they call the congregation. In a short time they’ve both learned enough Hebrew to follow the prayers at services and have come to relish the observance of holidays on the Jewish calendar, particularly Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“It just makes sense to take stock of your life and reaffirm your commitment to acting responsibly in the company of the people you share your life with,” Larsen said.

While the couple is looking forward to their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, Larsen is already looking past that event to their next rite of passage.

“We’re going to have a Jewish wedding,” he said.

Initially the men assumed they would need to have the ceremony at a gay synagogue, but the importance of publicly honoring their commitment to each other in their new spiritual community quickly became apparent.

“Rabbi Jim Kaufman said people need to see us get married,” Clarke said of Beth Hillel’s senior rabbi. “That’s when it felt like we’d really come home.”

To an outside observer, Larsen’s impatience to find himself under a chuppah in his seventh decade of life may seem a little puzzling, but to him it feels like a dream too long deferred.

“It has taken me a long time to grow up,” he said.

Conservative seminary in Israel pushes pro-gay event off campus


In a sign of continuing friction among Conservative Jews over the issue of homosexuality, a ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the first anniversary of the decision to admit gays to the Jewish Theological Seminary was held away from the campus of the movement’s main educational institution there.

A news release from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary said the students agreed to move the ceremony off campus after refusing to “give equal expression” to a movement-approved religious opinion that upholds the traditional ban on homosexuality.

The movement’s legal authorities adopted conflicting rulings on the status of homosexuality in 2006. One permitted the ordination of gay rabbis, another upheld Judaism’s longstanding ban on homosexual intercourse.

According to the release, “the students who approached SRS stressed that they were interested only in their own personal celebration with their friends, and that they had no interest in noting the second Halakhic ruling.”

One of the student organizers, Jill Levy, told JTA that the ceremony was held Wednesday “in the woods” several minutes walk from the seminary. Levy would not comment on her exchanges with the school.

The dispute at Schechter points to the continuing tensions within the Conservative movement over homosexuality and the apparently different directions in which the movement’s various international affiliates are moving.

Following the 2006 decision by the movement’s law committee to permit the ordination of gay clergy, both JTS and the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) changed their policies to admit gay rabbinical students.

But Schechter’s dean, Rabbi Einat Ramon, declined to change her school’s policies, basing her decision on the more conservative ruling.

Ramon is a well-known critic of the liberalizing tendency toward gays within Conservative Judaism. She has said she views homosexuality as a choice and, in a speech last year to a conference in Israel, reportedly said the family is endangered by gays with an agenda who seek to destroy it.

Ramon said further that the Conservative movement must protect the family against these homosexuals, who already have succeeded within the Reconstructionist movement.

“I think they’re particularly sensitive because they’ve chosen what seems to be an unpopular stand among many in the Masorti movement,” said Rabbi David Lazar, using the Hebrew equivalent of American Conservative Judaism. Lazar leads a Masorti congregation near Tel Aviv.

The Jerusalem ceremony was inspired by a daylong commemoration of the change held Wednesday at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The event was mostly closed to media, but one participant told JTA an emotional high point was a panel in which rabbis and rabbinical students related their personal stories of coming out.

“We celebrate not only the admission of gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools but also the process of honest outreach and spirited discussion that led up to that decision,” JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen said in a statement. “JTS has long known that our differences make our community stronger.”

The Jerusalem ceremony was considerably shorter and featured an address by Yonatan Gher, the incoming director of the Jerusalem Open House, a support center for gays and lesbians. Gher is also a former spokesman for the Masorti movement.

Jews should oppose Senator Craig’s ouster


Long before Sen. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, American Jewish groups harbored serious doubts about the Idaho Republican. In June 1990, when Craig, then a congressman, was running for an open Senate seat, the Jerusalem Post bemoaned his “miserable” record on Israel. Pro-Israel political action committees raised more than $55,000 for Craig’s Democratic opponent in the race.

Now Craig, who over the weekend announced that he will step down later this month, is a man with very few friends.

One of his few outspoken defenders in recent days has been a gay, pro-Israel Jewish Democrat from Massachusetts, Rep. Barney Frank. While acknowledging that Craig’s conduct was “hypocritical,” given the Idahoan’s anti-gay rights record, Frank said his crime was “not an abuse of office” and does not warrant resignation.

Frank seemed to be speaking from his experience as an openly gay man, not from his experience as a Jew. But the American Jewish community as a whole should be upset over the Republican rush to drive Craig from office, and not just because as a senator he ended up being a pleasant surprise for pro-Israel activists.

As the late Yale historian John Boswell showed, where there is homophobia, anti-Semitism very often lurks around the corner.

“The same laws which oppressed Jews oppressed gay people; the same groups bent on eliminating Jews tried to wipe out homosexuality,” Boswell wrote.

While his study was based on medieval Europe, his words ring true in modern America. Jews may disagree about the status of homosexuals within our own religious communities, but when there is an upsurge of homophobia in society at large, all Jews should take note.

Craig, even though he insists he is not gay, appears to be a victim of homophobia.

Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives have long tolerated members in their midst who carried on extramarital affairs – with women. Craig’s crime in the court of law is that he allegedly sought to have sex in an airport bathroom, but his sentence in the court of public opinion is so severe because he allegedly sought to have sex with a man.

A double standard is being invoked here, and Jews, as the historical victims of double standards, have a duty to speak up.

The National Jewish Democratic Council is fulfilling that duty, at least in part. In an Aug. 30 statement, the council noted the discrepancy between the GOP’s lenient treatment of Republican Sen. David Vitter, the first-term Louisianan whose name appeared in a female prostitute’s Rolodex, and its swift punishment of Craig, who lost his major committee assignments after the sex scandal surfaced and was pressured into announcing his resignation.

Yet it is one thing to assail the Republican leadership and quite another to put in a good word for Craig himself. We may condemn Craig’s apparent attempt at adultery; we may disagree with Craig’s views on almost every topic; we may support the idea of a Democrat winning his Senate seat in 2008. But the fact remains that in the first year after his election to the Senate, Craig underwent a remarkable evolution from isolationist to Israel supporter. While his colleagues condemn Craig’s “conduct unbecoming a senator,” American Jews should remember Craig’s conduct on becoming a senator.

By 1990, Idaho’s senior senator, the Republican James McClure, had amassed, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “one of the most anti-Israel records.” Craig, who voted in the House against aid to Israel, seemed likely to follow in the retiring McClure’s footsteps.

As a freshman senator, however, Craig reconsidered his views. He visited Israel and spoke out on the Senate floor in favor of a $10 billion package of loan guarantees to pay for the absorption of Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants. Though he is unlikely to appear on any list of the “most pro-Israel senators,” Craig has consistently cautioned his colleagues about the threats posed to Israel’s security by global jihadists and a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Book of Proverbs instructs us: “Do not forsake your friend.” Craig has been forsaken by his own party, but as Craig has shown concern for the fate of the Jews, we should likewise show concern for him.

Of course, Craig’s pro-Israel stance is not the only reason why American Jews ought to oppose Craig’s ouster. We ought to oppose his ouster because it would signal a victory for forces of hate within the Republican Party.

Seventeen years ago, American Jews tried to prevent Craig from becoming a senator, but now we should be outraged over how he lost his job.

Daniel Hemel is a 2007 Marshall Scholar and is studying international relations at the Oxford University.

Why the Conservative movement endorsed gays


Last week, the Conservative movement paved the way for ordination of gay rabbis and the performance of commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But the decisions that came out of the two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee — the advisory body for the movement — were much more nuanced than headlines suggested.

After the 25-member committee heard five responsa (halachic papers ruling on the subject), the group voted to ratified three, allowing Conservative seminaries and rabbis various options from which to choose:

  • Rabbi Joel Roth presented an opinion upholding the movement’s earlier position barring gay clergy and commitment ceremonies. It received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Elliot Dorff presented an opinion that would allow commitment ceremonies and gay clergy while retaining the biblical prohibition on anal sex. It also received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Leonard Levy’s opinion called for reparative therapy for gays. It received six votes — the minimum for adoption.
  • Two other responsa, both of which called for the full ordination of gays with no prohibitions on sexual activity, were voted into “takanot” — like constitutional amendments — and needed a majority of 13 votes to be adopted. They did not receive the votes.

Shortly after the decisions, Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism and author of the most liberal opinion ratified, spoke to The Journal.

Jewish Journal: What does the ratification of your responsa this mean for you?

Rabbi Elliot Dorff: It takes a major burden off my shoulders. I’ve been involved in this since 1991, when the law committee first met on this. And then again when we started in January 2004, for the last three years. I’m really glad that we came to a conclusion and the conclusion was favorable.

JJ: Why go so far as to allow for gay commitment ceremonies and ordination but come out against anal sex?

ED: The strategy that we used was to uphold the prohibition in the Torah, at least how that prohibition has been understood by the rabbis, while revoking the prohibitions that the rabbis of old have added.

It’s a compromise position. The verse itself [Leviticus 18:22] is not clear. There are a number of biblical scholars that have different understanding to what that means. The mishnah and the Talmud prohibited anal sex. Then they added to it; the rabbis also prohibited male-male forms of sex, oral sex or mutual masturbation or hugging and kissing.

In our case, the Torah is like the constitution, and the rabbinic rulings are a secondary authority. It’s more justifiable to change what the rabbis added than to change the Torah itself. It’s somewhat akin to Congress changing previous legislation than Congress changing a constitutional amendment.

JJ: What will the prohibition mean, in practical terms? Will you become the bedroom police?

ED: Neither for heterosexuals or for homosexuals; it’s simply not my business what either do in bed. It’s just as much against Jewish law for heterosexuals to have sex during nidda, the menstrual period, as for homosexual couples to have anal sex…. When we do weddings, very rarely do Conservative rabbis talk to couples about abstaining from sex during the menstruation period. It’s simply counterproductive if the rabbis don’t think the couple will uphold it. In the same instance we would not talk about it to heterosexual couples, we wouldn’t talk about it with homosexual couples unless they ask. If you know someone’s not going to obey a particular law, better that they do it not knowing it’s a violation than do it intentionally. Rabbis should not say things that are not going to be heard.

Jewish law sets up ideals, and in every aspect of our lives we do not fulfill those ideals. So three times a day we ask God for forgiveness. Even if a gay couple were to engage in anal sex, that doesn’t mean that they are any worse than the rest of us.

They are sinning, but no different than the rest of us. The point is that — none of us is perfect. None of us fulfills every letter of the law.

JJ: Some people have hailed this decision as paving the way for gay rights in the Conservative movement. But others find it hypocritical to call gay intercourse a sin.

ED: It’s a violation of Jewish law. That’s what it is. The word “sin” carries all kinds of Christian connotations. It carries with it Calvinistic and Puritan understandings, especially the connotations of the word sin as in Jonathan Edwards quote, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” — that you’re going to be banned to hell. This is not the case. This is not at all the understanding of violating God’s will. I hesitate to call it a sin. It’s a violation. We all make violations. We have to be very careful about mounting a high horse and making a campaign against sinners and look at ourselves first.

JJ: At the same time, while your teshuvah was approved, so was Rabbi Levy’s, which seemed to espouse homosexual reeducation, taking the earlier position backward. What was the place for this responsa in the law committee?

ED: I voted against his teshuvah. Our teshuvah includes a summary of the best research available for sexual orientation and origins of sexual orientation and children of homosexuals. Our teshuvah has 30 to 40 different studies in regards to statements, and the overwhelming majority of people agree that homosexuality is not changeable, and by the time you’re 6 or 7 your sexual orientation is a part of you and cannot be changed. That’s the research that we quote and that’s the overwhelming research of the psychological community. Our teshuvah is based on the best research available. Rabbi Levy found one [person] who says [sexual orientation] can be changed.

It’s a minority opinion. It got six votes — barely enough. Ours got 13 votes.

JJ: There were two minority opinions that went farther than yours in giving full acceptance to gays. Why weren’t they endorsed?

ED: The two responsa — that we should simply change the law altogether, that gay sex would not be any more prohibited than straight sex in a marital relationship – each got seven votes, which would normally make them valid options as well. But there’s another procedure in the law committee that says if a majority of committee votes that it is really a takana [an amendment] then it needs thirteen votes to pass, an absolute majority. They were voted takanot, so they were not considered validated opinions.

The writers will submit [their responsa] as a concurring opinions to ours, which means they’re not official positions, but they will be published. People will be able to read them, and they can follow them. Rabbis will take more seriously those teshuvot that will be validated by the committee. But rabbis on their own authority can make their own decisions.

JJ: The 25 members of the law committee vote on all the responsa. One rabbi voted twice — for opposing opinions, upholding the ban and permitting it. What does that mean?

ED: That is an option. At least one person thought that both teshuvot presented reasonable interpretations of Jewish law. That’s the nature of law. It’s not a zero-sum game.

JJ: The UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies has already announced it will begin ordination of gay rabbis. What do you think will happen at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the other seminaries in Budapest and South America? Will they choose to ordain gay rabbis?

ED: Given the fact that both teshuvot got 13 votes, individual seminaries will have to decide if they will adapt one teshuvah or another. We [at the UJ] met with the board and administration in advance of the meeting and decided if they endorsed [my teshuvah] we’d follow that opinion.

It means that there’s room in our Conservative community for those who think that Gays and Lesbians should not be ordained and those who think they should be. Some congregations will choose to interview them, and some will not.

We’re much better off now than we were in 1985, when the first women rabbi was ordained in the Conservative movement, and there are some congregations that still will not accept a woman rabbi. It’s not a happy fact of life. Gays and lesbians understand that our society still has a lot of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that’s true in the Jewish community as well. Some congregations will choose not to interview people who are gay and lesbian. That seems to me like a very bad thing to do.

JJ: Ziegler became its own school in 1994. Do you think that your teshuvah’s being approved is a symbol of West Coast’s more liberal Jewish values’ influence on the East Coast?

ED: I hesitate to say that because this is not just a West Coast phenomenon.

JJ: People have said that ordaining gays would split the Conservative movement apart. Four rabbis resigned in protest from the law committee. How do you think this multioption answer will affect the Conservative movement as a whole?

ED: The Conservative movement went through the ordination of women a generation ago. We lost far more people on the left in 1968, when the Reconstructionist movement was founded, because we were not moving fast enough to equalize the place of Jewish women. We lost a few people in 1983 [when they voted to ordain women rabbis], and women are 50 percent of the Jewish population. Now we’re talking about gays and lesbians, which are 3 percent to 7 percent of the population. These decisions will not affect most Conservative Jews.

I hope it will attract a number of people to the Conservative movement who have been repelled by our stand on this issue until now, who have gone to more liberal movements.

JJ: Now that the Conservative movement will be ordaining gays, how do you see the Conservative movement differing from the Reform movement, which has become more traditional than it was in the past?

ED: The Reform movement still endorses individual autonomy. Like the Orthodox, we see halacha as being binding. But unlike the Orthodox movement, we understand it as changing and evolving, a legal living system. The fact that we view halacha as binding and the Reform does not translate into practical issues. Ninety-five percent of our services will be in Hebrew. Conservative synagogues will have kosher kitchens. The vast majority of Reform synagogues do not. The majority of Reform children do not go to day schools. Half the Conservative movement’s children go to day school or Hebrew school. It doesn’t seem to me the differences between the two movements are at all immaterial. They’re very material. And I think that’s a good thing. One of the best assets of American Judaism is it has multiple ways to enter Jewish life.

JJ: Anything else you want to add?

ED: What has happened this week is not a sign of a splintered movement, it’s the mark of a movement that cherishes pluralism. Aristotle said that it is unwise to pretend that things are clearer than they are. And I think that is indeed what happened here. We did not pretend the entire movement is behind one opinion or another. We said quite loudly that we have three opinions on the issue. I think the real strength of the Conservative movement is to state that clearly and to live with each other quite nicely. Thank you.

Second-class Conservative citizens


When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.

Law Committee’s gay ruling stepped outside Halacha


The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last week validated three responsa, or teshuvot, on the general subject of homosexuality.

In fact, the primary technical issue was the Jewish legal status of sex between members of the same gender. From the answers offered to that question followed the views of the authors as to the permissibility of commitment ceremonies — implying, of course, a need also for “uncommitment ceremonies” — and the ordination of gays and lesbians as clergy, who serve as exemplars of commitment to halachah.

Two of the papers reaffirmed the classical position of Jewish law forbidding such sexual activity and, therefore, forbade commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The third paper permitted most sexual activity between men — forbidding only intercourse — and sexual activity between women. As a result, the authors of this paper permit commitment ceremonies and ordination.

I was the author of one of the papers that reaffirmed the classic Jewish legal position, a position I had affirmed in 1992 when this subject was last on the law committee’s agenda.

Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general.

I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues:

  • How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? None of the authors of any of the papers denied what the uncontested precedents of Jewish law are, and that the preponderant majority of decisors of Jewish law from time immemorial considered all types of sexual behavior between members of the same sex to be a prohibition of biblical status, d’oraita, based on rabbinic interpretation of scriptural verses, midrash halachah.
  • What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which
  • Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition?

The authors of the permissive paper argued that the Talmudic category of “human honor,” which they translated as “human dignity,” allowed for its abrogation. I argued that the category is entirely inapplicable to the case under discussion, even if we assumed that the prohibition is rabbinic and not biblical.

In almost all of the cases in which the category is invoked, the claim is that X may violate the law out of deference to the honor of Y. In the case under discussion, X is to be entitled to violate the law out of deference to his own honor, for which claim there is no real precedent.

What’s more, such a claim is theologically weak, since no law-abiding Jew would ever entertain the possibility that his honor would supersede that of God. And in the few cases of application of the category, which can possibly be understood to imply that X may violate the law out of deference to his own honor, X is always literally in a social context and in the presence of others.

For example, X may wear a hearing aid on Shabbat in the synagogue lest he be embarrassed by his inability to hear the Kaddish being recited and not answer the communal lines when the community does. In our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.

How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark? We all understand and agree that decisors of Jewish law often approach the subject before them with a predisposition to give a specific answer. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

What, then, distinguishes a good decisor from a poor one?

The good decisor is able to judge his decision with enough dispassion to see whether his predisposition has blinded him to the indefensibility of his answer, and the poor one is not.

It is my opinion that my colleagues have here been blinded to the indefensibility of their conclusion. It is based on three pillars — I have not discussed one of them here — each of which is either quite clearly false or, at a minimum, is debatable.

For their conclusion to follow, however, all three must be considered as true and valid. This leads me to conclude that their decision was arrived at entirely independent of halachic reasoning, and that the defensibility of their after-the-fact reasoning was not relevant to them. The decision simply had to be as it was.

The combination of the above leads me to believe that the permissive position validated by the law committee was really outside the halachic framework, and I resigned from the committee.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Sex and God


Libido. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Of the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism has arguably done the most admirable job ofmicromanaging our lust. Our tradition teaches us that while the sex drive can wreck us, it can also, if channeled correctly, lead to loving relationships, pleasure and procreation.

In the inevitable struggle between the rabbinical ascetics, who wanted no more sex than absolutely necessary, and the sages like Nachmanides, who held the body in higher esteem than even the soul, the Nachmanidean view prevailed. There are entire talmudic passages (Nedarim 20a; Pesachim 112b) that give a whole new meaning to the phrase Oral Law.

That’s why Judaism has been more agile than other religions at handling modernity’s revolution in sexual mores.

And that’s why I hope and pray the authorities of the Conservative movement choose wisely when they decide this week whether to ordain openly gay rabbis and allow commitment ceremonies for homosexuals. Their decision, which was expected earlier this week, before The Journal’s press time, presented an opportunity to display the kind of deftness and sensitivity that marks much of Jewish thinking and law on human sexuality.

A wise decision on their part will stand in stark contrast to some very public examples of sexual dysfunction hitting the headlines these days.

Take Catholicism.

Last Friday the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $60 million to settle accusations by 45 people that priests had sexually abused them. The scandal speaks to a culture of institutional insensitivity that hid abusers even as it enabled them to victimize more children. But it also reflects a tradition that celebrated celibacy and sexual repression while repressing natural human urges and disguising deep pathologies.

And then there’s Islam.

Pierre Rehov’s just-released, must-see documentary “Suicide Killers,” which takes us into the lives of actual Palestinian suicide bombers, reveals young men who are so sexually repressed that the alluring fairy tale of 72 virgins awaiting them in heaven becomes compelling, if not overwhelming.

Indeed, writing in the HuffingtonPost.com, Iranian-born author Hooman Majd said the putative “war of civilizations” between the West and Islam is more about sex than we could ever imagine.

Majd cites a fatwa, or edict based on religious law, issued by a senior Shiite cleric, Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri on the day before Baghdad fell.

“What was most noted by the media was its rejection of an American presence in Iraq,” Majd writes. “Less noticed were the reasons given why: namely that if the U.S. stays in Iraq, ‘it will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people’s faith.'”

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been facing a fatwa of its own.

It must decide based on Jewish law, or halacha, whether to ordain openly homosexual rabbis and to marry gays and lesbians in a Jewish ceremony.

The Reform movement permits these measures; Orthodoxy clearly rejects them.

The Conservative movement, which follows a 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, has struggled to find a halachic basis to fully include homosexuals in Conservative religious life.

One faction hews to the traditional interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, which on the face of it abhors same-sex unions: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Another proposal would obviate the biblical verse altogether, based on the view that it’s unjust.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, proposed a third option: ending the ban but adhering to a prohibition against anal sex between men. That’s right: everything but. This compromise, floated a decade ago by Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, is, at first glance, ripe for ridicule.

To traditional Jews the idea is repugnant. They tacitly condone the ordination of gay rabbis — let’s face it, all denominations have been ordaining closeted gay rabbis for years — just not openly gay ones.

To secular and Reform Jews, the idea of telling couples how they can have sex is cruel at worst, a joke at best. And make no mistake, if his proposal wins, expect Rabbi Dorff, one of the country’s leading bioethicists, to become a late-night television punchline.

I appreciate the fine line the rabbi is trying to walk — opening the doors to a radical new acceptance of human sexuality within halacha, without risking burning down the whole house.

What seems hypocritical on its face — telling men they can be gay but not that gay — is actually quite honest: Rabbi Dorff is not pretending, as many traditionalists do, that homosexuality is not already a fact of Jewish life; and he is not presuming, as many more secular Jews do, that Jewish tradition can exist divorced from halachic dogma.

But in the end, I am hoping the Conservative movement, my movement, takes the more liberal tack, and welcomes gays and lesbians fully into the fold.

Greenberg himself, in his 2004 book, “Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” provides a way to bring gays into Orthodox life with “no humiliation; no advocacy; no lying,” that is a major step forward for halachic Judaism. It’s a powerful lesson to all other Jews, and most all other religions.

Conservative rabbis open doors to gays, sort of


NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (JTA) — By the time leading Conservative rabbis
convened to discuss the movement’s approach to homosexuality, talk already
had turned to the day after.

With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or
halachic responsa, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
— two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting
ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies — it’s likely that other
rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the
knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal
body.

With advocates on both sides of the issue warning that it could
irreparably fracture the movement, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a leading
advocate of gay ordination, told a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary
on Tuesday to remember that Conservative Judaism is a large enough tent to
accommodate differing opinions.

“I have congregants who call me rabbi who disagree very strongly
with me,” Creditor said. “They still call me rabbi and I still call them friend.
There’s something really important about that.”

Momentum has been building for years for a more permissive
Conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Despite the 1992 decision of the
movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which upheld the ban on
gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, a number of Conservative rabbis do
perform such ceremonies.

That number is expected to grow.

“I think there will be a significant change,” said Ayelet Cohen, a JTS
graduate and rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a Manhattan
synagogue for gays and lesbians.

An outspoken proponent of changing the traditional prohibition on
homosexuality, Cohen performed commitment ceremonies for gay couples prior
to this week’s decision by the committee. She said opponents of change no
longer will be able to use the law committee’s 1992 statement on homosexuality
as an excuse to continue excluding gays from the movement.

“According to the current position of the movement, gay men and
women are lesser human beings than heterosexuals.,” Cohen said. “Gay people
can be kept out of every level of lay leadership in our movement. Until now,
rabbis have been able to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied.’ ”

But by deciding that continuing the ban on homosexuality also is a
legitimate position, the committee has ensured that local rabbis who oppose a
change in policy will have a halachic authority to cite in making their case.
There is considerably less ambiguity at the movement’s seminaries,
where much of the agitation to change policy has originated.

At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made
clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee issued a
permissive ruling.

In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary has been less
forthcoming. Though he has said publicly that he supports gay ordination,
incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen has outlined a process of consultation with
students and faculty that he intends to follow in deciding whether to ordain
gays.

KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group, says a survey shows that eight
out of 10 members of the JTS community would support such a move.

“I think that congregants are ahead of their rabbis on many issues, and
this is one of them,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi
and senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning
and Leadership. “I can tell you that there are people who have wanted to go to
the seminary to become a rabbi and have chosen to go elsewhere, and will be
thrilled that that option will now be open to them.”

One such person is Aaron Weininger, an openly gay senior at
Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong member of the Conservative
movement. His decision on where to apply to rabbinical school hinged on the
law committee’s decision.

“I would like to be able to apply to a Conservative seminary, and for
both ethical and personal reasons right now that’s not an option,” Weininger
told JTA before the vote.

Weininger said he would apply to the University of Judaism, but would
also consider JTS if that became an option.

Like other advocates of liberalization, Weininger said what’s at stake is
not just the status of gays in Conservative Judaism but the movement’s entire
approach to interpreting halacha.

He hopes the decision will lead to greater clarity in the way movement
authorities negotiate the line between fidelity to tradition and the demands of
contemporary life.

“Morality is at the very core of law, and that law really drives us
toward our aspiration of holiness and justice,” Weininger said. “And so if we in
turn interpret law to exclude people, we really violate the intent of the law.”

Given the multiple opinions allowed by the law committee, neither
advocates nor opponents of change will feel compelled to adjust their positions.

Still, many observers are hopeful that the decision will open a vital
discussion within a movement that once was America’s largest Jewish
denomination.

Creditor said Eisen’s use of the committee debate as an opportunity for
discussion is a step in the right direction.

“That’s a revolution,” Creditor said. “It might be quiet, but I think it’s
going to change things on the ground because rabbis can’t ignore the inclusion
of whichever teshuvot will be accepted. We can’t ignore it. There’s no hiding it.
It’s transparent.”

Could Pride rally tension put gay issues on Israel’s agenda?


Gay issues have never been at the forefront of Israeli domestic politics — unlike in the United States — but some wonder if that will change after ultra-Orthodox protesters used violence to prevent a gay pride parade.

Confrontations with police and threats of worse violence to come forced gay-rights advocates to downgrade the Nov. 10 event from a parade through the city center to a rally, in a cordoned-off stadium on the edges of the capital.

“People are talking about the issue as part of a conservative agenda, where before it was never an issue,” said Eran Hertzmann, 34, a high-tech worker from Tel Aviv who attended the rally with his partner, Uri Eik, 37.

The two belong to an organization called Hoshen that tries to educate the general public about Israel’s gay community. “The idea is to destroy the stigma and show we are all simply people,” Hertzmann said.

Noa Sattath, director of Jerusalem Open House, a group for gays and lesbians that helped organize the rally, said the violence surrounding it did not bode well for social change.

“The fact that people think they can act violently and trample on the rights of a minority,” she said, “is a distressful sign.”

Religious leaders claim gay activists caused the problem by not being sensitive to their concerns. Still, the violence and public statements by Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics against the event stood in marked contrast to the general Israeli openness toward gay society.

Israel’s army has a more liberal approach to homosexuals than the U.S. military, accepting openly gay soldiers as opposed to the Americans’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Israeli gay couples are also allowed certain types of legal recognition.

“Still, there’s a lot of work that has to be done with society at large in order to be accepted,” said Rommy Hassman, a leading Israeli gay-rights activist.
In secular Tel Aviv, gay life flourishes. But as one ventures from the center of the country, the acceptance level tends to drop off.

That became apparent in the run-up to the Nov. 10 event, including several long nights of rioting by ultra-Orthodox youth in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. Throwing stones and burning trashcans, they faced off against police to demonstrate their opposition to an open gathering of homosexuals in the city center.

Even the Vatican got involved, calling on the Israeli government to cancel the event, saying it would be offensive to all religions, given the sacred nature of Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court ruled the event should be allowed to take place. In the end, however, the street violence and threat of more to come, coupled with a heightened security alert following the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians in Gaza from errant Israeli shelling, led to a compromise deal between gay activists and ultra-Orthodox leaders to hold a rally rather than a parade, and not in downtown Jerusalem but in a Hebrew University stadium.

There were roughly as many police — about 3,000 — protecting the event as there were participants. Participants were searched for weapons before being allowed inside.

As part of the compromise struck between the two groups, there were no ultra-Orthodox protests at the rally. The event went off without serious incident, but police detained five religious men found at a Jerusalem park with clubs, knives and a gun.

The rally turned into a demonstration for democracy as much as for gay rights. Many heterosexuals at the rally said the violent opposition had galvanized them to come.

“When I saw where the violence could lead, I felt it was my obligation to be here,” said Dvora Jacobi, 63, a chemist from Rehovot.

“Today the police carried out one of the most important tasks in history by protecting you. Over the past several days, there was wild incitement against you, which does not reflect the position of most of the citizens of Israel,” Sami Michael, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said at the rally.

“Let us be free in our own country,” a young Israeli man wrapped in a rainbow flag roared out to the cheering crowd.

The young man was Adam Russo, one of the three people stabbed at last year’s gay pride march in the capital.

Until last year, gay pride marches in Jerusalem, generally small events, took place quietly and without major protests. But the idea of a gathering came under scrutiny last summer when an international gay festival was planned for Jerusalem, a move fiercely opposed by religious groups in the city.

That festival ultimately was canceled because of societal tension caused by the simultaneous Gaza Strip withdrawal, and after Israeli police said they would not be able to secure the parade and possible fallout from the withdrawal at the same time.

A local march was held instead, where Russo and two other marchers were stabbed by an Orthodox protester.

Hassman, the gay-rights advovcate, said the intense reaction by Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox snowballed after the attention on last year’s planned international event.

“Jerusalem is becoming more and more Orthodox and religious and I think political leaders were looking for trouble. The easiest way to arouse a public is to find an enemy,” he said. This time the enemy was the gay community.

Nightly television footage of Jerusalem streets blazing and clashes with the police did not reflect well on the ultra-Orthodox, he said. “Now they look like the bad guys, and the gays look like the good guys,” he said.

Among those at the rally who said the government should have spoken out against the violent demonstrations was Dana Olmert, daughter of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert, a lesbian who lives with her partner in Tel Aviv, was especially incensed by comments from Eli Yishai, a Cabinet minister from the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party, who condemned the gathering and compared the gay community to the biblical residents of Sodom and Gemorrah, who were destroyed for their iniquity.

“I wish someone in the government had answered back to him,” she told Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
 
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
 
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
 
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
 
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
 
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
 
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
 
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
 
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
 
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
 
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
 
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
 
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
 
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
 
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
 
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
 
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
 
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
 
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
 
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
 
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
 
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
 
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
 
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.
 

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

Producer Channels


Gays weren’t even on the radar in Ilene Chaiken’s Jewish community in Philadelphia back in the 1960s.

The creator of Showtime’s lesbian drama, "The L Word," grew up in a home of "good liberal Jews" and belonged to a Reform temple.

"But I think the closest one ever came to acknowledging that homosexuality existed was that ‘queer’ was an insult," said Chaiken, 46. The poised, cerebral executive producer spoke to The Journal in her publicist’s Beverly Hills office. "For years, I was conditioned to think of myself as heterosexual and to measure myself in terms of how I fared in the heterosexual world."

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the 22-year-old Chaiken obtained a job as an agent trainee and a steady boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. But despite the external stability, she felt out of sorts.

"I sensed it had something to do with my sexuality, but I didn’t confess that even to myself," she said.

The change came when she began hanging out at a West Hollywood cafe owned by several lesbians; eventually she struck up a friendship with one of the women, with whom she had her first same-sex affair.

While the relationship didn’t last long, she said, "it let me know that this was a possibility, and once I became aware of it as a possibility, suddenly life seemed a bit more right. The process was scary, but it was much more just a revelation and a relief."

Chaiken channeled that experience and others into "The L Word," which centers on a circle of hip lesbians in West Hollywood. The first television series to revolve around lesbian characters, it joins gay-themed TV shows such as HBO’s "Six Feet Under," NBC’s "Will & Grace," Showtime’s "Queer as Folk" and Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Although "The L Word" has been well-received by TV critics, some observers worry that the series and others like it will enhance the allure of "bisexual chic" among teenage girls.

"Children, in particular, are vulnerable to messages they receive from the popular culture," said Robert Peters, president of the interfaith watchdog group, Morality in Media.

Chaiken, who dismisses such thinking as "archaic," insists the show "is not going to make something happen that is not already happening in the zeitgeist." In fact, she conceived the show while writing an article for Los Angeles magazine four years ago on the gay and lesbian baby boom, a trend she had personally experienced when her partner, Miggi, gave birth to their twin daughters in 1995.

"I suddenly realized that I was very much writing about my life and my community, and that there were so many more [lesbian] stories that hadn’t been told," she said. "I figured the best way to tell them was to do an ensemble TV show."

She brought elements of her own life to several of the characters, including the fictional Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a passionate, bookish Jewish writer, who is new to Los Angeles and living with a boyfriend, albeit sexually confused.

While Jenny soon questions her heterosexual relationship, the more hesitant Chaiken continued dating men for a year after her first lesbian experience. It took her even longer to come out to her parents, which happened when she was 24 and living with Miggi, an architect, whom she described as her roommate. But a few days after her mother came to visit around 1984, Chaiken knew she had to come clean.

"Things got very tense and awkward, because it’s unpleasant to live a lie," she recalled.

Over the course of 12 years, the Chaikens began including Miggi in family seders and calling her their daughter-in-law.

Each "L Word" character also tells her coming-out story, which Chaiken calls a seminal experience in every gay person’s life.

Charges that the steamy sex in the series is a ploy to draw male viewers irk Chaiken.

"The whole notion that we did this just to titillate men is just so off the mark," she said. "The sexuality portrayed in the show … speaks directly to gay women starved for representations of themselves on TV."

Although Chaiken’s primary concern is telling meaningful, universal stories, she also hopes the show reaches lesbians who feel as lost as she did during her early years in Los Angeles. "I hope it helps them come to terms with themselves and to feel less alone," she said.

"The L Word" airs Sundays, 10 p.m., on Showtime.

Your Letters


Holy Boundaries

In discussing the ordination of homosexuals, [Rabbi] Debra Orenstein’s essay (“Holy Boundaries,” April 25) goes to the core of Conservative Judaism. As Orenstein notes, both the biblical and the post-biblical sources (until the late 20th century) are uniformly and very strongly negative about male homosexuality. This approach leaves a fundamental question: In what sense is this new sexual ethic of the Conservative movement “Jewish”?

Avraham Sachs, Los Angeles

New Crop of Rabbis

Thank you for your terrific coverage on the Academy for Jewish Religion’s inaugural ordination (“Seminaries Issue New Crop of Rabbis,” May 16). Just one correction and one point of clarification. Rabbi Mel Gottlieb is the dean of our rabbinical school not, as stated in the article, the dean of students. In addition, we want to make clear that, like other rabbinical seminaries, a total of 70 course credits, equivalent to five years of full-time study, are required for graduation. Our three outstanding ordinees were able to graduate in three years only because they were advanced placement students, transferring from other programs. Having said that, we appreciate The Journal’s well-founded interest in our unique and innovative program, faculty and students.

Rabbi Stan Levy, Chair Board of Governors Academy for Jewish Religion

Too Jewish

I would like to commend Gary Wexler for his recent essay illuminating how “too Jewish” really is “not very Jewish” at all (“When Jewish Is Too Jewish,” May 9). Having served the Jewish community professionally as a Hillel director and rabbi, I found his insights refreshing, important and daring. I believe this discussion needs to go much, much further if the community hopes to produce religious leaders of national and international import.

Marsha Plafkin, Los Angeles

If Wexler thinks he is making an affirmative statement about himself as a Jew and how Jews should act, I would say he is confused about his values and embarrassed about being a Jew.

Diane Agate, Tarzana

‘Road Map’

The May 9 issue contained three particularly impressive pieces: Gary Wexler’s “When Jewish Is Too Jewish,” Steven Spiegel’s “‘Road Map’ Critics Are Off Course” and Reuven Firestone’s “‘Leasing’ of Peace Could Be Best Move.” All three questioned established ways of thinking and taught me something.

Between Spiegel and Firestone, we just might get out of the Middle East impasse and enable Israel to play an important role in the community of nations. Listening to Wexler, we can recalibrate the delicate balance between Jewish particularism and universalism, so that being proudly Jewish enables us to contribute beyond ourselves.

Congratulations to The Journal for including a range of well-articulated views on important issues in this, as many other, issues.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dean of Religious Life USC

Steven Spiegel’s academic discourse on the “road map,” while optimistic, is somewhat naive. The road map is dead on arrival. Even if Mahmoud Abbas has sincere intentions toward peace, as long as [Yasser] Arafat wields control of the Palestinian Authority, its finances and terrorist apparatus, there will be no peace.

Indeed, the chance for peace in Israel will only come about with the defeat of the top purveyor of terror — Arafat. Spiegel advises the opponents of the road map “Don’t let your fears control your minds.” I say let reality control the course of action.

Kevin Rice, Los Angeles

Hitler on CBS

Tom Tugend, in reviewing the new TV biopic on Hitler, states that the origins “of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism continue to baffle the experts…. A definitive answer may never be found” (“Rabbis, Scholars OK CBS ‘Hitler’ Pic,” May 9).

A childhood friend of Hitler says that he was an anti-Semite before he went to Vienna. Most certainly, he was predisposed to see the Orthodox Jews as not just different or even foreign in their “otherness” and separateness, but as evil. This predisposition made him an easy target for the anti-Semitic literature in which he immersed himself.

But in our eagerness to find some abstruse or psychological theory explaining his hatred of Jews, we should not ignore his own explanation of how this evil developed in him. The persistent view of some people as separate “others,” can easily lead to viewing them as evil.

Carl Pearlston, Torrance

Correction

In the article, “Foundations Try to Stop a Jewish Killer,” the Cure FD Foundation was incorrectly referred to as the Familial Dysautonomia Cure or FD Cure foundation. Also, Dysautonomia Foundation Inc. operates on a yearly genetic research budget of $359,500, and its clinical care centers run on an annual budget of $596,078.

Flamboyant Ballet


When Boris Eifman’s ballet, “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death,” premiered in Moscow in 1993, angry picketers surrounded the concert hall.

“They stood with a banner that read, ‘Stay away from our Tchaikovsky,'” said Eifman, whose ballet debuts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center May 16-18.

The provocative phantasmagoric piece explores the beloved Russian composer’s tortured psyche, especially his repressed homosexuality. His inner split is portrayed literally, with one dancer representing the closeted, anguished Tchaikovsky, and another his sexy, uninhibited alter ego. Homoerotic playing cards cavort in one sequence, while another depicts Tchaikovsky kissing a sleeping prince, rather than a princess, in an allusion to his ballet, “Sleeping Beauty.” The piece is as explicit, if less sensationalistic, as Ken Russell’s 1970 film “The Music Lovers.”

The audaciously flamboyant work is what audiences have come to expect of Eifman, whose ballets include “My Jerusalem,” an ode to the Israeli capital, and “Red Giselle,” about a Soviet ballerina gone mad.

While noting that Eifman’s company has received far more attention in the West than others in Russia’s vibrant, contemporary dance scene, Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal nevertheless praises his “talent for grand-scale pictorial splendor” and for creating “very gutsy work within that society.”

“Homosexuality was only legalized in Russia in 1997, and here he has a seminaked Tchaikovsky and his boyfriend doing male duets,” Segal told The Journal. “His ‘Red Giselle’ has a communist [official] virtually raping the heroine. Eifman managed to stage dances about religion, and he is a Jewish artist who managed to stand up to the communists and not back down. So I give him amazing points for courage.”

The renegade choreographer took his first dance classes at age 6 in Siberia, where his father, an engineer, had been ordered to work in a tank factory during World War II. In 1953, his family relocated to Kishinev, Moldavia, where Eifman began choreographing at 13 — to his parents’ chagrin.

“A musician in a Russian Jewish family, it’s normal, but a dancer is abnormal,” he said through a translator.

The authorities also regarded him as abnormal when, after graduating from the Leningrad Conservatory, he founded his own company in 1977 to create “absolutely nontraditional work that broke the canon of Soviet ballet.”

While audiences cheered his unorthodox mix of contemporary movement and Freudian drama, the cultural commissars disapproved. They nixed his funding and forbade him from touring outside the U.S.S.R, forcing Eifman, now 58, to scrape by on ticket sales in the provinces. They also pressured him to leave the country: “They said, ‘You’re not a Soviet choreographer; better you should go to Israel,'” Eifman recalled.

The harassment included anti-Semitism, even though the choreographer felt “this is my culture; it’s just like a difficult relationship in a family.”

So he chose to remain in the U.S.S.R., although he took the first opportunity to visit Israel, when Perestroika hit in 1989.

Walking around the capital, Eifman said, spurred “My Jerusalem,” in which three soloists personify Judaism, Christianity and Islam co-existing in one place.

“I wanted to show that God created this city to show a model of love,” he said.

Four years later, Eifman focused on Russian culture when he holed up in the St. Petersburg library to research a piece on his favorite composer, Tchaikovsky. He pored over diaries and letters in which the musician described his unhappy marriage and a suicide attempt.

“My whole life I wondered why he composed such tragic music, and I learned it was because he lived a double life,” Eifman said. “He was a religious man, and he thought his sexuality was his personal tragedy. I decided two dancers could show the conflict between his soul and his body.”

When “Tchaikovsky” premiered in New York during the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s triumphant 1998 United States debut, not a single picketer surrounded the concert hall. Instead, excited Russian immigrants lined up to see their favorite company, along with expectant dance critics.

After the first performance, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff wrote that “you won’t find such daring actor-dancers anywhere else, not even in other Russian companies.”

Eifman traces his success to his dual cultural roots. “I make Russian ballets with a Jewish soul,” he said.

Tickets, $20-$65, are available at (714) 556-2787, ext.6677; online at www.ocpac.org ; and through Ticketmaster, (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500.

Holy Boundaries


This week’s Torah portion includes the verse: "Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

The subject is particularly at issue because the Conservative movement is now revisiting Jewish laws around homosexuality and the ordination of openly gay Jews.

The meaning and implications of this famous verse are disputed. A literal translation is: "Do not lie down the lying down of women." Some scholars interpret this as referring to penetration or specific cultic practices. The word to’evah (abomination) is undeniably negative (Lev. 20:13). However, the Bible uses to’evah to describe everything from eating nonkosher animals to withholding charity to practicing idolatry to committing adultery. Why should one particular to’evah of men who "lie down the lying down of women" become the measure of turpitude? Why should heterosexuality (or abstinence from homosexuality) be the litmus test for religious leadership, among and above other behaviors and values?

The verse is also significant for what it does not say. There is no biblical law against women partnering with women, and rabbinic prohibitions are both late and weak. Restrictions against lesbians are rooted primarily in social critique and emotional response, not halacha. Shall we therefore ordain lesbians, but not gay men? Some rabbis stiffen the prohibitions against lesbians to preserve sane and consistent mores. Others, like Bradley Shavit Artson, find halachic ways of softening prohibitions against male homosexual sex.

As I understand the peshat (simple, contextual meaning) of Lev. 18:22, it prohibits and condemns sexual contact between men. However, that is where rabbinic interpretation begins, not where it ends. We have ample rabbinic precedent for imposing restrictive definitions, or expansive requirements, in order to mitigate or effectively eliminate biblical punishments and judgments. Consider rabbinic limitations on the death penalty, compared to biblical law. Had the ancient Sages accepted the peshat of Deuteronomy 21, the stoning of rebellious children would pose quite a challenge to Jewish continuity. Within the Bible itself there are changes in law and morality (e.g., regarding the treatment of slaves).

Rabbinic decisionmakers readily admit that rulings and argumentation typically begin with the desired end in mind. That desired end, in turn, is based on rabbinic hierarchies of values, on privileging certain texts and ideas over others.

Rabbis Hillel and Akiva both taught, in different words, that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the essential principle of Torah. Why should that principle hold any less true in a discussion of sexual behavior? Opponents of gay rabbis sometimes equate homosexuality with molestation, bestiality or promiscuity. Loving adult relationships should not be confused with the abuse of children or animals. Monogamous partnership is a Jewish standard we can and should prize, regardless of sexual orientation. Even if one regards both adultery and monogamous gay partnership as sexual sins, the former hurts people and breaks covenant; the latter increases love in the world.

It is hard to convey the pain and damage caused to our neighbors by excluding gays from Jewish communal acceptance on the one hand, and tolerating sexual abuse on the other. The movements — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal — have not yet adequately addressed molestation, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by Jewish leaders. The challenge is to rigorously define and practice a comprehensive Jewish sex ethic in which "not doing what is hateful" takes priority.

Leviticus 18 suggests that one pillar of Jewish sexual ethics is maintaining appropriate boundaries. I oppose and would mitigate or uproot the prohibition against male homosexual sex, and the presumption that men own the sexuality of their women (Lev. 18:16). Still, I value the public reading and conversation about sexual boundaries that we hold now and on Yom Kippur. The Torah reading reminds us: Don’t abuse another. Your body is your vessel. Holiness requires distinctions. Sexuality can undermine or enhance holiness. Certain boundaries should not be crossed.

I acknowledge that the issue of boundaries is precisely why some Jews sincerely believe that homosexuality must continue to be characterized as abomination. If that is your position, I urge you nevertheless to welcome religious leadership from gays. Every human being — and therefore every rabbi — sins. Gay men and lesbians can serve the Jewish community nobly; as a class, they have no moral or religious failing.

If we accept that gay Jews can serve the Jewish community, can we ask our gay rabbis, cantors and educators not to find a life partner, not to celebrate when they do and not to raise Jewish children? Is that what it means to be a Jewish role model?

Several rabbis have been credited with saying: "I am not lenient regarding the laws of Shabbat; I am stringent on laws protecting life and health." (Thus, they defend and endorse violating Shabbat for the sake of obtaining medical care, even when the patient might have waited.) Without in any way comparing myself to these sages: I don’t consider myself lenient regarding laws of sexuality. I try to be stringent on "love your neighbor as yourself."


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana and a frequent scholar-in-residence.

Dissembling Before G-d


Orthodox Jewish homosexuals are the subject of a documentary film that achieved darlinghood at a number of film festivals over the past year and has now been similarly well-received at its New York debut. Many audiences and reviewers have found “Trembling Before G-d’s” portrayal of the anguish faced by Jews who want to remain Orthodox but see themselves as homosexual to be compelling.

And on one level, the film might well be regarded as a tribute to the determination of heartfelt Jews who, despite the catastrophic clash of their desires and their faith, nevertheless find themselves simply unable to abandon the latter. The Jewish soul is indeed a hardy, holy thing.

Unfortunately, though, “Trembling” seems to have other intents as well. While it never baldly advocates the case for broader societal acceptance of homosexuality or for the abandonment of elements of the Jewish religious tradition, those causes are subtly evident in the stark, simplistic picture the film presents of sincere, conflicted and victimized men and women confronted by a largely stern and stubborn cadre of rabbis.

That picture is both incomplete and distorted. For starters, the film refuses to even allow for the possibility that men and women with homosexual predilections might — with great effort, to be sure — achieve successful and happy marriages to members of the opposite sex.

Though he interviewed hundreds of subjects for the project, producer Sandi Simcha DuBowski claims to have been unable to find any such people. Therapist Adam Jessel, though, writing in The Jerusalem Post, says there are many and recounts how he attended a screening of the film with precisely such a person — a man, it turned out, who was actually interviewed by DuBowski but whose experience was not included in the film.

Jessel also quotes another man who reported that DuBowski, with whom he spoke by phone, “told me he doesn’t believe in change. He didn’t seem to be interested in meeting any Jews who were in the process of change either.”

Such change is more common than most people realize. An organization — JONAH (Jonahhelp@aol.com) — has been helping Jews, both Orthodox and otherwise, who wish to overcome homosexual orientations, and has met with considerable success. Neither it nor any of its clients are featured or mentioned in “Trembling.”

More importantly, while the film thoroughly portrays the challenges faced by its subjects, it simply does not allow Judaism to make its case. Several prominent Orthodox rabbis were interviewed at length by DuBowski, but only short excerpts are included in the film.

One of those rabbis, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, currently the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, says that the film fails to convey the deep compassion with which thoughtful Orthodox Jews regard those who are challenged with a homosexual orientation. The film, he asserts, “makes us appear to be narrow and bigoted” when, in fact, “it is compassion, albeit without condoning” that accurately describes Orthodoxy’s attitude toward homosexuality.

That attitude reflects the fact that no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not inherent proclivities.

Behavior, though, in every area of human life and endeavor, is carefully delineated by Jewish religious law. That is Judaism. And controlling behavior, even — no, especially — when difficult, is precisely what the Torah asks of its adherents.

That’s not, however, the film’s attitude, which is better summed up by one of its subjects, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, billed as “the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.” Addressing the Torah’s strong prohibition of male homosexual acts, he suggests to the camera, without elaboration: “There are other ways of reading the Torah.”

What Greenberg apparently believes is that elements of the Jewish religious tradition are negotiable; that the Torah, like a Hollywood script, can be sent back for a rewrite. That approach can be called many things, but “Orthodox” is not among them.

DuBowski has told the press that his experiences in making his film have made him more religious, that he has experienced Shabbat for the first time and laid tefillin. Such Jewish growth is no small thing, and is a true tribute to the man. May he continue to grow as a Jew and to learn more about Jewish ideals and observance. And may he also come to understand why his film, whether or not it is a critical success, misleads.

Because “Trembling Before G-d” wrongly answers the most important Jewish question imaginable: Is Judaism about what we’d like God to do to accommodate us, or about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do to obey Him?

‘Trembling’ Truth


For filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski, “Trembling Before G-d” isn’t just a documentary, it’s a revolutionary movement.

The searing, award-winning film profiles gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile their love of Judaism with the strict biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. But DuBowski hasn’t been content with the good reviews he’s received since the documentary debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. With grants from groups such as Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person Foundation, he’s industriously parlayed the movie into an international outreach effort to change attitudes about the gay frum (Orthodox) community.

When “Trembling” opened in New York in October, 15 Orthodox synagogues sponsored post-screening dialogues. Two-thousand viewers participated in a passionate discussion after a Nottingham, England, screening last year. And when “Trembling” opens at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on Feb. 20, the director’s goals will be equally ambitious.

He’s hired a Los Angeles outreach team, headed by former Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles publicist Michelle Kleinert, to organize discussions and related events with Orthodox and community groups. DuBowski and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay frum rabbi, will be on hand to talk to audiences. Events this month include a screening sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a New Israel Fund event.

“To have [Orthodox] rabbis and synagogues actually putting their names on a public dialogue about an issue that has never had a public hearing is extraordinary,” marvels DuBowski, who himself is a member of the Jewish gay community.

Nursing a glass of water recently at a busy Santa Monica restaurant, the New York filmmaker spoke of the extraordinary effect his movie has been having around the country. “We opened in New York on Oct. 24, and it was supposed to have a two- week run,” he recalls. “It broke box office records for opening day. It did so well that … it’s grossed over $300,000, which for a documentary is extraordinary.”

Spoken like a true creature of show business. But for the small, thin, 30-something with thinning hair and a Harvard degree, his physical presence belying the passion within, the commercial prospects for the film are the least of his concerns. What DuBowski is after is something much more radical: He wants frum Jews to learn to nurture and include observant gay and lesbians in their midst, instead of giving them the bleak choice of becoming “cured” of their sexuality or facing lifelong exile from the only way of life they have ever known. And he wants us to understand that “Trembling Before G-d” is changing lives — lots of them.

“Already we’ve had famous rabbis all over Long Island and New York announcing it on Saturday morning from the pulpit,” DuBowski enthuses. “And what we did in the synagogues of New York, we’re repeating in every city we go to. I’m meeting with Orthodox rabbis and holding dialogues and discussions with all kinds of panels.

“It’s put the film on the map in the frum community.”

In Nottingham, a woman stood up after a screening and said, “I went to the mikvah three weeks ago to cleanse myself of my homosexuality. After seeing the film, I’m going to accept it.'”

In other cities, DuBowski says, “People have come up to me and whispered, ‘I buried my son,’ ‘I buried my brother who died of AIDS,’ and they’re so ashamed they’ve never been able to speak of it to anyone. So with my grants I hope to build a supportive network of rabbis and Orthodox mental health professionals.”

But DuBowski admits that at least one section of the Orthodox community slams the film and criticizes it for being “incomplete and distorted.” Among the naysayers are officials of Agudath Israel, who released a letter titled, “Dissembling before G-d,” criticizing the film for not treating homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured.

The question that DuBowski finds most irksome comes from Conservative and Reform Jews: “If the Orthodox believe they are an abomination,” some people ask, “why don’t they simply find non-Orthodox congregations where they will be accepted?”

“You’re asking someone just because of their sexual orientation to rip the root out of their culture and to go into another,” DuBowski protests. “For some people it works, but for the vast majority it’s like asking someone to cut off their sexuality to save their spirituality or to cut off their spirituality to save their sexuality.”

Don’t tell DuBowski he’s doomed to failure since Orthodoxy, by definition, is fixed and immutable. “Why then have [so many] Orthodox synagogues invited the film to screen?” he counters.

“My ultimate goal is when an Orthodox parent has a gay child that they can say to that child, ‘I can’t say that our shul may be the shul you’ll grow old in, but there’s a shul in this city where the rabbi is supportive and that you don’t have to give up Torah, you don’t have to leave the community, you can live your life there as a religious Jew.’ I want there to be safe havens where gay and lesbian people can live lives of Torah and mitzvahs and help build the Jewish people.”

For information about the movie, see
www.tremblingbeforeG-d.com. For information about a $250-per-person gala benefit
at the home of “Sex & the City” creator Darren Star on March 7, call Judy
Sitsitzer at (310) 899-9191. To set up discussion groups and Q & A sessions
with DuBowski, Greenberg and those in the movie, contact Michelle Kleinert at
(323) 868-3624 or Michelle@TremblingBeforeG-d.com . For screening times at the Laemmle theater, call (323) 848-3500.

Neglected History


Heinz Dormer is almost 90 years old, but his faded blue eyes take on a terrified, faraway look as he remembers an awful place called "the singing forest." As a young man, he was arrested under the Nazi’s anti-gay laws and incarcerated in a camp where homosexuals were tortured in a forest clearing. "It gave us all goosebumps," he says of the distant screams of homosexuals hoisted onto hooks in the woods. "The howling and the screaming were inhuman."

The frail, elderly Dormer, a tiny figure in a wheelchair, is one of six interviewees in "Paragraph 175," a deeply unsettling documentary that explores a phenomenon heretofore neglected in the history books. Though everyone knows about the Nazi persecution of Jews, few are familiar with the suffering of almost 100,000 men arrested under Paragraph 175, the Reich’s anti-gay statute, and held in prisons. While the 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals who landed in concentration camps were not slated for the gas chambers, they endured slave labor, castration and surgical experiments.

The searing movie is the latest documentary by filmmakers Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have been lauded for their previous films on the gay experience. "Common Threads" (1989) about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, won the Oscar for best documentary; "The Celluloid Closet," about gays in the movies, won an Emmy; and Epstein’s "The Times of Harvey Milk" won him an Oscar in 1985.

But the gay producer-directors never tackled a film that touched upon their Jewish roots — until "Paragraph 175."

It began in 1996, when they traveled to Amsterdam for the premiere of "The Celluloid Closet." A somber letter was waiting for them when they returned to their hotel. The note, on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum stationary, was from Dr. Klaus Müller, the Western Europe project director for the U.S. Holocaust museum; he urgently wanted to meet with them the next day.

"We expected an elderly man wearing tweeds," Friedman says; instead, the filmmakers met a hip, young gay German professor who was immersed in research about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, his "gay grandfathers." Time was running out, he warned. Fewer than 10 survivors were known to be alive; most were elderly and had never publicly spoken of their experiences. Müller wanted to know if the documentarians could help get their stories out to the world — and quickly.

The filmmakers were hesitant. "We were wary of becoming entangled in the thicket of Holocaust politics," Friedman said. "For example, we knew there had been resistance from elements of the Jewish community about including other victim groups in Holocaust museums, especially gays."

"But as gay men and as Jews, we had obvious personal reasons to be drawn to this issue," Epstein said.

Friedman, 49, the son of a leftist English professor, grew up in a culturally Jewish home in New York. Epstein, 45, became bar mitzvah in a New Jersey Reform synagogue and enjoyed a close relationship with his Yiddish-speaking, Russian immigrant grandparents. By the age of 20, he had come out to his parents, moved to San Francisco and co-directed "Word is Out," a landmark documentary about the gay experience.

Back in New York, Friedman, a former child actor who had appeared in off-Broadway plays, saw the 1978 doc and found it to be "a revelation," he says. "’Word is Out’ showed me that there were openly gay people making movies, and I wanted to find those people," recalls Friedman, who moved to San Francisco and met Epstein at the younger man’s 26th birthday party. In 1987, the two founded their production company, Telling Pictures, and began working on "Common Threads."

Nine years later, they embarked on "Paragraph 175," which proved to be a difficult endeavor. German television and Jewish foundations declined to fund the project, ostensibly because of the glut of Holocaust TV programming. One survivor they’d hoped to interview died during pre-production, and the rest were reluctant to talk about the years they were forced to wear the pink triangle, the Nazi symbol for homosexuality.

The reason, Friedman says, is that homosexuality was not completely legal in the unified Germany until the 1990s; Dormer, for one, was incarcerated for nearly 10 years during the Reich, then spent another eight years in prison after the war. In 1982, he applied for reparations from the German government, but his applications was denied.

Friedman noted another irony. "While American gay activists used the pink triangle as a symbol of their resistance in the ’70s and ’80s, they knew very little about the real men who wore the triangle," he says. "Those men were sitting alone in their shabby rooms, watching a TV program, isolated and forgotten."

As Epstein and Friedman began production in 1997, they met Gad Beck, who tried to rescue his lover from the Gestapo by disguising himself as a member of the Hitler youth.

They interviewed Pierre Seel, who bitterly recounted how he was violated with broken rulers, stabbed with syringes and forced to build a crematoria while incarcerated in the internment camp at Schirmeck. On one terrible day, the Alsatian man was forced to watch his lover torn apart by the Nazis’ German shepherd dogs. "I swore never to shake hands again with a German again, and here you are," he told Müller. "It’s terrible."

While Müller wanted to depict the survivors only as heroes, the filmmakers saw a more complex story. One gay man, for example, emerged from prison and joined the German army because, in his words, "that’s where all the men were."

An even greater challenge was completing the interview with Seel, who "took out all his rage at Germany on Klaus," Friedman recalls. At one point in the film, Seel explodes into an angry tirade, revealing that he still bleeds every day from the Nazi torture. "Do you think I can talk about that?" he screams. "That it is good for me?"

Seel, nevertheless, accompanied the filmmakers to the documentary’s premiere at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival, where Epstein and Friedman sat nervously in the audience. "We were worried people would say that Americans had no business making this film," Epstein says.

But after the screening, the viewers erupted into a sustained applause — and rose in an explosive standing ovation when Seel was introduced to the audience. "Then Pierre came up to the stage, and he kissed all of us, even the crew, and he made a long, rambling, poetic speech of reconciliation," Epstein recalls.

Shortly after the screening, the German government issued a formal apology for its treatment of gays during World War II, Epstein says. German lawmakers have since discussed the possibility of annulling gay convictions under Paragraph 175 during the war, which could pave the way for survivors to receive Holocaust reparations. But Friedman believes such compensation will come too little, too late. "All these men are very old ," he says, ruefully. "By the time anything happens, they will most likely be gone."

"Paragraph 175" opens today in Los Angeles.

The Stealth Politics of Dr. Laura


She’s mean, she’s popular. And she’s more political than her shocked listeners realize. Pat Buchanan has floated her name for running mate. Gay activists have made her a target in the battle for marriage rights. And Christian lobbyists and proselytizers are carrying her flag high.

She promotes herself as a simple, conservative “advice giver” whose “moral health show” sends out common sense to as many as 20 million listeners each week. But take a closer look at “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, the 53-year-old bulldog of a Jewish woman who is spreading her anti-abortion, anti-feminist and anti-gay message. Schlessinger, it turns out, is no milquetoast Dear Abby, and she’s no shock-jock Howard Stern. She’s part of the national political movement to impose conservative religious values on all Americans.

In recent months, gay activists have been working to scuttle Schlessinger’s planned TV show, which was to be launched by Paramount this September. They have objected to her claims that homosexuality is “deviant” and the result of a “biological error” and have lobbied her to restrain her “hate speech.” But this isn’t just a gay issue: There are reasons why women, Jews and all minorities should be alarmed.Homosexuality is just the most visible issue on Dr. Laura’s agenda. There are also the aggressive campaigns by Schlessinger against abortion, working mothers, and all the gains of the feminist movement. “It seemed to me,” notes one Jewish leader, “that [what] she was preaching would put women back 20 or 30 years.”

This is echoed by Susan Weidman Schneider, LILITH magazine’s editor-in-chief: “It should alarm all women and men who have campaigned for gender equity that Laura Schlessinger is preaching her retrograde message to large audiences daily and that she identifies herself as a Jewish woman while she’s at it. We run the risk of having other Americans imagine that her views are mainstream Jewish views, which they are not.”

What is important to note about Laura Schlessinger is the extraordinary ties between her and the Christian right. Many of these groups, calling themselves “family values” organizations, have thrown their public support behind Schlessinger. She has preached in their churches and on major televangelist programs and has received their awards. Lobbying groups like the influential Family Research Council, founded by presidential candidate Gary Bauer, have paid for advertising trying to defend her against the outrage of gay activists. Evangelical Christian publishers of books and magazines have featured her words, and Pat Buchanan has suggested she would make a good running mate on the Reform Party ticket.

“What our opposition has done,” comments Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal, “is taken over the radio and TV talk shows, preaching this very hard line. They are marketing themselves as psychologists and religious figures and people to counsel people in their time of need, but I think it is a well-orchestrated [political] strategy.”

The burden today is on Jewish groups, women’s groups and others to join gay and lesbian activists in voicing their concern about Schlessinger and the constituencies she represents. Schlessinger, whose “Dr.” title is not in the mental health professions but in physiology, has gone on the warpath against all those who benefited from the liberations of the past four decades. We should watch carefully what Dr. Laura, with her Jewish star dangling so prominently around her neck, is asking for. We all just might get it.

LILITH, the nonprofit Jewish feminist magazine, has been publishing quarterly since 1976. For information, or to order a sample issue, call toll-free 1-888-2-LILITH, go to www.lilith.com

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