Chasidic counseler Nechemya Weberman sentenced to 103 years for abuse

Chasidic counselor Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison for sexual abuse of a teenage female patient over several years.

Weberman, 54, a member of the Satmar Chasidic community in Brooklyn, did not speak during the Jan. 22 sentencing in New York State Supreme Court. He had been sent to Rikers Island prison without bail immediately after his conviction in December.

He was found guilty on 59 counts of sexual abuse. The encounters started in 2007, when his victim was 12, and lasted until she was 15. She is now 18.

Weberman had faced up to 117 years in prison.

The girl's parents sent her for sessions to Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, at the recommendation of the child's school. The girl was referred for not meeting her sect's strict modesty guidelines regarding women's dress and asking questions about the existence of God.

The victim reportedly gave a tearful statement in court.

“I clearly remember how I would look in the mirror. I saw a girl who didn't want to live in her own skin, a girl whose innocence was shattered, a girl who couldn't sleep at night because of the gruesome invasion that had been done to her body,” she is reported as saying.

The New York Daily News reported Jan. 19 that a new investigation conducted by the paper showed that Weberman had violated at least 10 other female patients.

At Weberman's trial, prosecutors said they were aware of six additional victims — four married women and two underage girls. The newspaper reported that it identified four additional women, who do not want to come forward out of fear of being ostracized by the community.

Weberman victims, according to the new investigation, include four married women, three of whom he counseled, and six unmarried women, all of whom were Weberman clients.

According to the paper, sources close to the women abused by Weberman said he used patterns of grooming and nurturing to lure them. He showered outcast teenagers with attention, taking them on road trips and buying them lingerie, they said. The unlicensed counselor also cited kabbalah when forcing his victims to have sex with him to convince them his acts were allowed, once telling a victim, “I learned kabbalah and we were a couple in another incarnation.”

“The intimate acts he was performing were intended as a form of repentance for sins committed in their previous lifetimes,” Rabbi Yakov Horowitz from Monsey, N.Y., in whom other victims had confided, told the Daily News.

Five others told the New York daily that they were aware of Weberman’s misconduct with clients years before he was accused of sexual abuse, and sources said the anonymous victim who put him on trial came forward after friends told her Weberman “was a known pervert.”

Rabbi Gafni Ousted for Misconduct

Mordechai Gafni, 46, a rabbi whose charisma and brilliance dazzled students and large audiences in spiritual renewal communities in Israel and America, even as he dodged rumors and accusations about improper sexual behavior for more than 25 years, has been dismissed by the leadership of Bayit Chadash in Israel, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group he co-founded and where he served as teacher and religious guide.

Gafni also has had a large following in Los Angeles, where he frequently preached and served as a scholar-in-residence at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. During one such stay, 1,000 people came to hear him even on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — traditionally a low-attendance day at Reform congregations — and hundreds more came to evening lectures during the week.

Gafni’s dismissal came last week after four women, including students of his and a staff member, filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Gafni with the police in Israel.

“We feel we were deceived,” Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Chadash, told The Jewish Week, which first reported on allegations against the rabbi in September 2004.

“He should not be called a rav [rabbi], his was not the behavior of a rav and he should not be in a teaching or counseling position,” said Ner-David, who noted that the incident “is my worst nightmare come to life.”

He added that Gafni is “a sick man, and has harmed so many.”

A statement issued by Ner-David and his Bayit Chadash co-founder Avraham Leader said “there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.”

Gafni achieved much attention here and in Israel as a leader of the New Age Jewish movement. He taught classes, led retreats, wrote several books and appeared in a PBS documentary about the quest for spirituality.

In a statement this week to his followers, he took blame for his actions and said he was “infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry” for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was “sick,” and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his “rabbinic teaching capacities.”

Gafni, who was divorced from his third wife about a year and a half ago, said in 2004 that he had “made mistakes in my life” and had “a sense of exaggeration” and was “too ambitious.” But he insisted he had done teshuvah (repentance) and was the victim of a longstanding “witch hunt” from a small cadre of women accusers and Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.

“I am moral and ethical,” he said during a series of conversations with this reporter in 2004, during which he asserted that he was sharing his “deepest truth.”

Ner-David said that one of the women involved with Gafni over the last 18 months came forward to Leader, and that soon after, another woman spoke out about her relationship with the rabbi.

“And then we discovered there were two more,” he said.

Leader and Ner-David asked the women to give sworn statements to an attorney, which they did. At this point the police have not acted on the complaints, which address the boundaries of relationships between teacher-student and employer-employee.

“We have no doubt that they [the women] speak the truth, and willingly risk our personal credibility and integrity in support of their testimony,” Leader and Ner-David said in their signed statement.

“For us it was a complete surprise,” Ner-David said, noting that as recently as a month ago he had a conversation with Gafni affirming that immoral behavior could never be tolerated within Bayit Chadash.

Ner-David, who first met Gafni when he was a 13-year-old at summer camp in the United States and the rabbi was his counselor, said he had long known of the allegations about the man born Marc Winiarz in the Midwest. Winiarz moved to Israel in 1991 and took the Israeli name Gafni after a series of controversies about sexual improprieties dogged him when he was a youth leader and later a rabbi in several U.S. communities.

He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City and now chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank. Riskin revoked his ordination in 1994 after his former student, in a lengthy interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.

Gafni’s response was that he had other ordinations and had moved beyond Orthodoxy.

Ner-David said he was guilty of having relied on information from others in seeking answers to questions about Gafni’s past. Several prominent Israeli educators hired the rabbi as a teacher despite complaints from some women and rabbis who asserted he was unfit to work with students. Those who hired Gafni said he was a gifted teacher, that he acknowledged past wrongdoings (though he was vague about them) and that they could find no current cases of women with complaints against him.

Some of the charges went back more than two decades.

Ner-David said he realizes now that Gafni was “a master manipulator,” but in the past he had felt justified in working with him because no one had come forward with recent complaints about the rabbi’s behavior.

Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of Edah in New York, has been an outspoken defender of Gafni. In a letter taking this reporter to task for writing about the controversy in 2004, Berman, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin said they had looked into past allegations and found them “totally unconvincing.” They described the article as “unfair” and “scandalous.”

This month, Berman said he is “deeply regretful” of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged the rabbi’s “predatory behavior against women.”

“I was clearly wrong in stating that Rabbi Gafni’s continued role as a teacher within the Jewish community constitutes no risk to Jewish women,” he wrote in a statement.

Berman said he had felt the earlier accusations “were not justifiable foundations for public disgrace and exclusion,” and noted that he will “continue to struggle with the ideal line between presumption of innocence and protection of potential innocent victims.”

He said the Gafni case underscores the ongoing need for a mechanism to investigate allegations against rabbis “in a way that the community has confidence in, so that when it’s over, it’s over.”

He said that rabbis are “not capable of enough objectivity to handle such matters themselves,” and called for a collaborative effort of rabbis, lay leaders and professionals in the health care field who deal with abuse.

Other institutions and individuals who had supported Gafni in the past also spoke out this month. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia said he felt “sad, angry and betrayed” by Gafni’s behavior, noting that it “raises questions once again about how to walk that thin line between spiritual ecstasy and the domineering frenzy that is not only damaging in itself but sometimes even leads to sexual abuse.”

One of the criticisms of the spiritual renewal movement is that its emphasis on charismatic teachers and the search for religious bliss lends its members to being emotionally manipulated.

Ner-David, acknowledging that he will be asking himself “for a long time what lessons can be learned” from the Gafni episode, said that Bayit Chadash “must make sure not to allow anyone to become a guru.”

He said the members of the group, which includes hundreds of Israelis who pray and study together, are determined to go on with their work even though Gafni, their spiritual leader, has been removed.

As for whether Gafni truly understands the pain he has caused and can be rehabilitated and return, Ner-David said it was too early to say.

“It is hard to tell if he really means it or not,” he said.

This article appears courtesy The Jewish Week.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.


L.A. Gafni Event Canceled

Revelations about sexual misconduct have led to the cancellation of an upcoming local event featuring prominent Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.

Gafni had been scheduled for a public talk at Stephen S. Wise Temple on June 9. Over the past two years, since being appointed to the Wisdom Chair in September 2004, Gafni has returned every few months to the Bel Air shul, where he’s had a loyal following.

Last week, four women in Israel — students and staff members at Tel Aviv’s Bayit Chadash, the Jewish renewal center that Gafni co-founded — filed complaints of sexual misconduct with Israeli police. In a public letter, Gafni, 46, admitted to being “sick” and promised to seek therapy. Leaders of Bayit Chadash immediately dismissed him.

Gafni was appointed to the Wisdom Chair at Stephen S. Wise two years ago — despite anecdotal allegations that he had a history of sexual misconduct. The temple’s senior rabbi this week issued a short statement denouncing Gafni.

“It is with a deep sense of shock and disappointment that I have learned of the sexual misconduct that has led to Rabbi Mordechai Gafni’s dismissal from Bayit Chadash,” senior Rabbi Eli Herscher said in a written statement responding to an inquiry from The Journal. “His actions, including vast deception, are indefensible.”

Herscher declined further comment, but the temple canceled Gafni’s June participation in a public conversation with commentator Dennis Prager.

Before being appointed to the Wisdom Chair, Gafni had been a regular scholar-in-residence at the 3,000-family Reform synagogue since 2002. His lectures and sermons attracted thousands.

Congregant Alan Finkelstein said he remembers Gafni’s 2003 Rosh Hashanah sermon as, “my finest moment in shul. He involved the crowd, He helped you connect with the person next to you. It was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.”

Finkelstein said he was moved to go back to hear Gafni on several other occasions.

But Gafni’s popularity was undermined by persistent rumors that he had, in the past, manipulated women into sexual relationships. In October 2004, The Jewish Journal reprinted a Jewish Week article exploring allegations that Gafni had inappropriate sexual contact with students when he was 19.

Attendance reportedly decreased at Gafni’s events following the publication of the article.

At the time, Herscher said he had discussed the rumors with Gafni and, after investigating them on his own, found them baseless. Herscher was in good company defending Gafni, as some of the country’s top Jewish thinkers, of all denominations, called Gafni a remarkable teacher who was the target of a malevolent campaign. Herscher also decried Jewish newspapers for printing lashon harah (malicious gossip).

“Rabbi Gafni coming to teach here makes a deeply important Jewish statement – that if rumors and allegations and innuendo are allowed to destroy someone who only wants to teach, Jewishly, that is tragic,” Herscher said in October 2004.

This week, Hersher’s sympathies lay elsewhere.

“I pray that all who have been misled and hurt by him — first and foremost the women he has harmed — will soon recover,” Herscher wrote.


A Roll in the Snow

The central theme of "Yossi & Jagger" is a love affair between two gay Israeli officers, but — straights please note — the film’s impact goes well beyond the sexual motif.

Seldom has the boredom, tension and camaraderie of men and women at war been portrayed more realistically and economically than in this film, which has been a surprise hit among Israeli moviegoers, soldiers and civilians.

Strikingly, the film takes place not in Israel’s hot, humid coastal plane, but entirely on a freezing, snow-covered mountaintop on the Israeli-Lebanese border, where a small IDF unit mans an isolated outpost against unseen infiltrators and terrorists.

Commander of the unit is Yossi (Ohad Knoller), a career soldier. His lieutenant is Jagger, so nicknamed because his buddies see in him the aura of a rock star. Jagger is played by Yehuda Levi, billed as the "Israeli Tom Cruise" and the nation’s number-one heartthrob.

Carrying on their secret affair in the macho and privacy-deprived confines of their platoon, Yossi and Jagger are limited to an emotional — but sensitively depicted — roll in the snow.

The situation is complicated by the arrival of a colonel, accompanied by two attractive female communication operators, one of whom falls hopelessly in love with Jagger.

The overbearing colonel (Sharon Reginiano) pulls his rank for sex with the other girl and to send the exhausted soldiers on a night ambush, despite Yossi’s protests.

Director Eytan Fox, who said the film was based on an actual incident, made "Yossi & Jagger" for an astonishingly low $200,000, barely enough to pay for a wrap party at a Hollywood studio.

Fox is a native of New York City and joins other American-born directors who have created some of the most challenging films to come out of Israel, including Joseph Cedar’s "Time of Favor" and, currently, "The Holy Land" by Eitan Gorlin.

"Yossi & Jagger" opens Oct. 24 at the Laemmle Fairfax Cinema in Los Angeles (323) 655-4010 and the Town Center in Encino (818) 981-9811. For more about the film, visit — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Luried Tales

Back when Rod Lurie was the meanest film critic in L.A., he used to gush about actress Joan Allen on his KABC radio show. The guy who once called Danny DeVito a “testicle with legs” lauded Allen as “the greatest working actor in the world.” “I’d manage to slip that in every other week,” admits the Israeli-born critic-turned-director, whose debut film, “Deterrence,” revolved around a Jewish U.S. president in crisis. Allen had heard all about the fawning critic, so she was receptive when he offered to write a screenplay for her in 1998.

The former Los Angeles magazine reviewer immediately set out to pen a script Allen couldn’t refuse; watching news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair gave him a juicy idea. “I thought, ‘We have such a double standard in this country,” Lurie, the son of famed Israeli political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, told The Journal. “We can stomach sexuality in our men, but not in our women. And I wondered, ‘How long would a female politician last if she were caught having sex with a male intern in the oval office?'”

The result was “The Contender,” a political thriller about a female U.S. senator who is nominated for the vice presidency, only to encounter allegations of sexual scandal.

Allen loved the screenplay, but there was fallout from Lurie’s old days as the most reviled critic in town. “Some actors I wanted for ‘The Contender” wanted nothing to do with me,” says the former reviewer, who once dubbed Whoopi Goldberg a race traitor for playing too many domestics. Fortunately, Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges, both Allen fans, eagerly signed on to the film. When studios pressured Lurie to drop Allen for a bigger-name actress, he declined and made “The Contender” as a low-budget indie.

Lurie was shocked, after production wrapped, when Steven Spielberg telephoned: DreamWorks was interested in purchasing the movie as its very first acquisition. Spielberg requested a private screening at his house, along with Lurie’s home telephone number. “I put ‘Schindler’s List’ on the VCR, so when he called me, he’d hear it in the background,” the director sheepishly admits.

By 8 a.m. the next morning, Lurie had a deal; now he’s been signed to direct another DreamWorks film, a prison thriller, and to develop an FBI-related TV series. He’s glad for the opportunity to work on something other than a political thriller, though he’ll no doubt return to the genre. “Maybe I’m there because I’m a coward,” he concedes, sounding a bit like Woody Allen. “Because not many other directors are working in the genre, there’s no competition.”

So can the tough ex-critic take what he used to dish out? “I’ll try not to read ‘The Contender’s’ reviews, because it will be too painful,” he admits. “Every barb will sting.”

Our Purim Story

Our family’s Esther was an 11-year-old girl, a petite and doe-eyed child with a profound sense of physical and temperamental modesty. She attended a large urban middle school, and this was her first year moving from class to class, her first year of boy-ask-girl school dances, her first year changing clothes in a locker room.

This story’s Haman was an unlikely candidate — another 11-year-old girl named Nadine, loud and brassy, who towered over our Esther. While other girls in the locker room self-consciously changed to gym clothes, hastily and with eyes cast down, Nadine undressed with a striptease, exposing herself to others when the P.E. teacher was out of sight, and commenting on other girls’ bodies.

Nadine’s behavior shocked her classmates. Too embarrassed to react, they responded with silence, and since Nadine mistook silence for consent, things became even worse. Over time, she began to make obvious sexual advances towards others, including our Esther, and began to touch and fondle smaller girls. She would shove littler kids into corners and onto the floor, trying to grope their bodies, loudly singing provocative rap melodies all the while.

The more disturbing Nadine’s behavior became, the deeper her classmates’ silence grew. There seemed to be nowhere to turn and no one to talk to, since the teacher patrolled the locker room only to hustle kids out to the playing field. And not one child wanted to confront the disturbed girl for fear of drawing attention to herself.

One evening, however, while taking a bath, our Esther called out to her mother for a towel. Her mother knocked on the door, and discovered her child sitting in a tub full of water, fully clothed, rubbing soap over herself and weeping.

“Mommy,” said our Esther, “I’m going to dress for bed, and then I have a story to tell you.”

Esther’s terrible tale did not come out all at once. Her story was revealed slowly and with reluctance, because victims are just as fearful of going to an authority — even a loving one — as the Biblical Esther was of approaching her king and husband. Only bit by bit did the truth come out that evening, like peeling the brittle, clinging layers of an onion skin to find something below that can only bring tears to your eyes.

We trembled with rage and pain for our child, and our first impulse was to act the part of Ahashuerus by publicly humiliating Nadine, and then hanging her from a high gallows. Instead we decided to be our Esther’s Mordechai, true counselors and friends.

To this Esther we said, “Let’s put an end to this problem first thing tomorrow morning. We will go together to talk to your principal and teachers.”

Our Esther demurred. “I can’t tell anyone again,” she said. “It’s too embarrassing. No one will believe me. And, when Nadine finds out who told, who knows what will happen?”

Who can argue against these truths? Each painful retelling might bring back the same horror as the experience itself, and the dangers of being disbelieved or more severely victimized were real.

On the other hand, how else to stop the terror for herself and her classmates?

Our Esther found her courage, and the next morning confronted her first Ahashuerus — a principal who immediately conducted an investigation and removed Nadine from the scene, to the jubilant relief of dozens of girls. Esther became their heroine and confidant. There were countless other Ahashueruses that followed in the weeks and months to come, administrators, teachers, police officers, and of course her classmates. Other children were emboldened, and also came forward telling similar tales to their own parents and teachers.

And what became of our little Haman, Nadine? Efforts of police and social workers revealed that several of her mother’s serial boyfriends had entertained themselves by abusing Nadine, and she was immediately removed to the safety of another home.

In the end, this is how we discover if our children have learned to redeem themselves. Indeed, the truest therapy for this Esther has been knowing that she spoke out not only to save herself, but also to save her classmates, and even to save Haman.

Lisa Morgan writes on Jewish family issues in Los Angeles. All names, including the author’s, have been changed.

Sexual Transactions

When Diane Arieff turned in her cover story on the best-selling “Kosher Sex,” I smiled with unquestioned approval. After all, opening doors and windows for Jews of all persuasions — observant as well as secular — seemed healthy and desirable. Especially for those who found it difficult to discuss or confront their own sexual preferences or inhibitions; or just plain curiosity.

Now suddenly we had an open and perhaps even daring rabbinic guide, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was simply trying his best to help individuals and couples in need of spiritual and sexual counselling. What was wrong with that? Any help for those with sexual dilemmas should be encouraged. But as I perused his book, “Kosher Sex,” doubts began to surface. Maybe it was just not right for me, I thought. Anyway, who was I to register a complaint?

This last question held more than a tinge of irony. In addition to being a journalist/writer, I had (for a 15-year period) maintained a clinical practice in Boston and had interned as a psychologist at several hospitals in that city. At one point, in one of the hospitals, a psychiatrist, who had observed some of my work, asked me if I wanted to work with her in a new program geared for couples with what was termed sexual dysfunction — in shorthand, sex therapy.

A whole new world seemed to beckon. How could I say no.

The first couple we saw were in their mid-20s. The woman was Jewish, shy, embarrassed, but eager to find some help; her husband was very macho and in complete denial. The problem was that while their courtship had been passionate and sexually overflowing, he had become impotent within two months of the marriage. Twelve months had now gone by. If he continued to deny and avoid help, she was going to leave.

I won’t bore (or titillate) you with the details. Suffice to say that at the end of six weeks, their sexual problem (but only the impotence, we explained carefully) had, for the time being, been resolved. When the couple, full of smiles, told us that they were “cured” and left the small office in which we met each week, my colleague and I jumped up and, without thinking, embraced. Our coming together like that was not sexual, but, oh, it was charged with excitement, spontaneity and wonder.

There was something exhilarating about that particular experience, for I was able to witness a change in behavior within a short space of time, and a change that clearly affected a couple’s way of life. Of course, the husband was not made whole, nor the marriage. We knew that and told the couple so. We made clear that there were very real and very deep-seated issues in the husband’s life that required attention, and urged him to enter therapy. Names of psychiatrists he might consider were suggested. But he believed his ordeal — which had appeared out of nowhere — had ended. If humility was needed, it was administered to the four of us four months later when the couple separated, and then divorced.

In the meantime, there were other couples, other remedies and other strategies. In one instance, we forbade a couple to engage in any sexual congress. Touching was all they were allowed. And we waited to see how long it would take before they challenged our authority and broke the rules. It took three weeks. In another, we sent a married couple back to the early days of courtship, had them start all over, and heard how they would steal out with pillows to their car parked in the driveway, and “make out” late at night.

The lesson I learned was that the path to sexual play and sexual pleasure could be different for each couple and that universal prescriptions were generally not very helpful, and not very true. I wish I could tell you that, at the very least, the insights opened all sorts of magical sexual doors for me, but that would be untrue, too.

Of course, Boteach does not hold himself out as a psychotherapist, or even as a sex therapist. Though he hedges a bit here. In “Kosher Sex,” he wants to prescribe for all of us: how to find a soul mate; how to have both a spiritual and a lusty sex life with our married partner; and how somehow to make it all “kosher,” by which he means, somehow to have it fall under the Jewish umbrella.

What could be wrong with that? Well, I think, as well-meant as Boteach is, everything. He is prescribing for everyone, and, therefore, for no single person or couple with very real life issues. He lists 23 questions and says if you answer 18 of them affirmatively, what are you waiting for — there is your soul mate. But, to take him seriously, the 23 questions might not necessarily be germane for you or me; or just one of the no’s will actually carry more weight than all 22 of the other answers combined.

To be sure, we are all alike in the broad-brush strokes we call our “humanity.” But we are also all different and separate in the specifics of identity, personality and biography. In times of stress, some of us seek help in the universal, some in the particular, and some of us grab whatever is at hand.

The pull of desire is very strong for some people, and the need for sexual play, sexual freedom and sexual congress are freighted with both intensity and prohibition for many of us. Those of us who seek help, sometimes even just plain instruction, are often willing to suspend disbelief. We follow the arrow, the voice of authority, wherever it may lead — to hushed whispers and fumbling under the covers of a blanket, to a parked car in our driveway late at night.

But before you buy the book, I would advise that you reach out to your partner, best friend and lover and, in the most vulnerable way you have at hand, make yourself heard. — Gene Lichtenstein

The Torah of Our Lives

Left to right, panelist Rabbi Elliott Dorff of University ofJudaism, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, moderator MarkLevine, panelist Rabbi Leila Gal Berner and lawyer and AIDS activistDavid Rephun, the panelist from an Orthodox background. Below,panelist Rabbi Allen Freehling.

In Leviticus, male sexual relations are considered an abomination,punishable by death. “A man shall not be with another man as if witha woman. It is an abomination,” reads one passage. But, as with allthings biblical and Jewish, the Torah passages are open tointerpretation. And interpret they did last week at UniversitySynagogue at a panel discussion on Orthodox, Conservative, Reform andReconstructionist views on homosexuality and bisexuality.

The event, which attracted about 150 people, was sponsored by BethChayim Chadashim (BCC) and was the second in a six-part seriescelebrating BCC’s 25th anniversary as the world’s oldest synagogueserving the gay, lesbian and bisexual Jewish community.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, University of Judaism rector, representing theConservative movement, characterized his position on homosexuality asmore liberal than his movement’s. He looked visibly pained at momentsas he described dilemmas he faced in applying Conservative laws thatgo against his personal beliefs. The movement has passed resolutionsthat prohibit discrimination against homosexuals, but hasn’tsanctioned commitment ceremonies and doesn’t permit openly gay menand lesbians to enter rabbinical school or to be ordained. When hewas dean of the UJ rabbinical school, Dorff said that he didn’t wantto know if someone was gay or lesbian, “because I didn’t want toenforce the policy.”

Still, there is hope for change in the future, the rabbi said. TheTorah only spoke of homosexual relations that were oppressive,cult-based or licentious, not about long-term, committedrelationships between people of the same sex. “We in the 20th centuryare free to legislate in favor of lesbian and gay relations,” hesaid, as the audience clapped in appreciation.

Personally, Dorff said, he supports long, monogamous relationshipsand believes that the Jewish community has practical reasons tosupport marriage between same-sex couples, as well as those of theopposite gender, since marriage encourages monogamy. He estimatedthat about 14 or 15 of the 1,400 U.S. Conservative rabbis haveperformed commitment ceremonies, which aren’t recognized by civillaw. Asked by an audience member whether he would perform suchceremonies, Dorff looked surprised. “I haven’t been asked,” he said.”But I don’t see why not.” Still, he added in a later conversation,he has some hesitation about performing them without the backing ofhis community.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner offered the Reconstructionist viewpoint. Aformer BCC member, she is the spiritual leader of Congregation BetHaverim in Atlanta, which describes itself as a Reconstructionistsynagogue formed for lesbians and gay men, and “embracing all Jewsand loved ones,” and is now about 30 percent heterosexual. “I thinkwe’re one of the few temples where bisexuals, lesbians and gays arewelcoming the straight folks,” she said.

The Reconstructionist movement has been in the forefront of changeon the issue of homosexuality. In 1983, it was the first to admitlesbians and gay men into its rabbinical college. In 1992, itaffirmed its support for full acceptance of gays and lesbians asrabbis, lay leaders and parents, and sanctioned same-sex marriage.

“As we look at the Torah, it isn’t a book of instruction but abook of interpretation,” said Allen Freehling, senior rabbi ofUniversity Synagogue, who represented the Reform point of view. LikeReconstructionism, the Reform movement has accepted homosexuals intothe rabbinical and cantorial schools, and, last year, the CentralConference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association,endorsed the civil right to be married of same-gender couples, butthey didn’t vote on rabbis officiating at such ceremonies, accordingto BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards. Many Reform rabbis do officiate,including Freehling and Edwards.

Freehling sparked a buzz of surprise when he expressed the hopethat he would live long enough that congregations such as BCC mightnot need to exist, because gays and lesbians would find a home inmainstream synagogues such as his own. Many people joined BCC becausethey had the experience of being mistreated at other shuls, he said.

But Berner politely disagreed, saying that there is a specificgay, lesbian and bisexual culture that the straight community doesn’trecognize, but which is worth preserving. “We have a lot in commonwith the heterosexual Jewish American community, but there arespecific elements of gay and lesbian culture, music, liturgy andpoetry that are distinct,” she said, as other panelists and membersof the audience nodded their agreement.

Although there are many different streams of Orthodoxy, frommodern to haredi, the movement is united on the issue ofhomosexuality, said David Rephun, a San Diego lawyer and AIDSactivist who was raised Orthodox, but, as a gay man, no longerconsiders himself to be part of the movement. (Moderator Mark Levinesaid that Orthodox rabbis he approached declined to appear on thepanel.) The Orthodox view, despite the fact that there are individualOrthodox rabbis who are sympathetic to the plight of gay and lesbianOrthodox Jews, is that it’s wrong to be or act homosexual, Rephunsaid. But what does the Leviticus prohibition really mean in themodern world? The 11th-century scholar Rashi interprets the passageas saying “anal intercourse is wrong,” Rephun said. “It says nothingabout being homosexual. Homosexuality didn’t exist as a concept untilthe 19th century,” he said, so those who say that the Torah forbidsit “must have some other agenda.”

Several panelists and others were optimistic that the future wouldbring change to the Conservative movement’s stance. “I really thinkit’s only a matter of time before the Jewish Theological Seminaryordains gay and lesbian rabbis,” Rephun said. Even in Orthodoxcommunities, there is change, he said. There are organizations forOrthodox gay Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York and here in LosAngeles, he said. Such developments spell progress, he said — slow,to be sure, but progress nonetheless.

In Support of Family

While liberal Jews may be supportive of gays and lesbians comingout of the closet, they often don’t give a lot of thought to theeffect that this open-door policy may have on straight familymembers, particularly spouses and children. With this in mind, TempleIsrael of Hollywood is sponsoring a panel discussion on the issue onTuesday, Jan. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The panel will include Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth ChayimChadashim; Onnolee Sullivan of the Straight Spouse Support Network;Tara Rose of Just For Us; Marcia Spike, LCSW, a clinical consultantto the Straight Spouse Support Network; and Gail Rolf, Impactcoordinator at Hamilton High School.

The event, which is free to the public, takes place at TempleIsrael of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., at the corner of MartelAvenue. For more information, call Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at (213)876-8330 or Phyllis Sewall at (213) 936-9526. — R.S.