West Coast Seminary Opens Doors to Gays

By Rebecca Spence

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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In the wake of Conservative Judaism’s historic vote to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, the movement’s West Coast seminary has accepted its first openly gay students.

Two gay applicants — one man, one woman — have been accepted for the fall by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The move reflects the school’s longstanding position that it would immediately begin considering gay candidates once the movement’s top lawmaking body — the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — sanctioned gay and lesbian clergy.

The decision comes as the movement’s flagship institution, the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary, is still weighing whether or not to accept gay and lesbian students. A decision, insiders say, could come within the next several weeks.

Last December, the 25-member law committee approved a rabbinic opinion, known as a teshuvah, in favor of gay ordination and same-sex unions. At the same time, the committee passed two opinions upholding the ban on gay ordination, leaving it up to individual congregations and educational institutions to choose which decision to adopt.

Advocates of the newly liberal policy, which was passed after a hard-fought battle spanning more than 15 years, say the move signals that the law committee’s decision is having an impact on the ground.

“It means that there wasn’t just a change in writing,” said Rachel Kobrin, a fifth-year student at the Ziegler School who serves as co-coordinator of the school’s pro-gay ordination group, Dror Yikra. “It’s a change that’s going to have some follow-through.”

Kobrin portrayed the admission of gay students at U.J., which launched its rabbinic training program in 1996, as a first step toward what she hopes will be the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in Conservative Jewish life. While Kobrin and other gay ordination activists took December’s law committee vote as a victory, they say that the rabbinic opinion that passed didn’t go far enough, since it upheld the biblical ban on anal sex.

Ultimately, pro-gay activists say, a more liberal teshuvah should be passed containing no restrictions on homosexual behavior. Meanwhile, traditionalists in the movement have criticized the liberal opinion that was approved.

An opinion that sanctioned gay ordination and lifted the ban on homosexual anal sex was first submitted to the law committee in 1992 by the dean of the Ziegler School, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. That paper failed to pass. The opinion that ultimately opened the door to gay and lesbian ordination was co-authored by another U.J. faculty member, Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

According to Artson, despite the passage of Dorff’s opinion, “not that many” gay and lesbian students have applied. Artson, citing federal privacy regulations, declined to say exactly how many applications were received from either gay or straight students. And the school refused to identify the two gay students who were accepted.

Dorff said the fact that the school was not inundated with applications from gay candidates simply reflected that gays are a minority. “The sheer number of gay and lesbian students who want to become rabbis is very small, because the population in general is very small,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Reconstructionist movement — a liberal breakaway from Conservative Judaism — is set to elect a lesbian rabbi, Toba Spitzer, to serve as president of its rabbinical association. Spitzer will be the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to head a national rabbinical body.


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