Conservative Rabbis Adapting to Ruling on Same-Sex Unions

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 03, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
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When Conservative Rabbi Francine Roston officiated at a renewal of vows this past April, the service was traditional, with a reading of the ketubah and the crunch of breaking glass. But the rite was also groundbreaking: Held in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., it was the synagogue’s first-ever commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple.

Six months after the movement’s law committee approved same-sex unions, Conservative congregants and clergy are testing the waters of change. While some of the movement’s clergy members performed same-sex unions before the December 2006 ruling and others remain staunchly opposed to officiating, a growing number of rabbis, like Roston, have been spurred to perform their first rites for gay and lesbian partners.

“I rely on the law committee when I make my halachic decisions for my community,” said Roston, 39, in an interview with the Forward. “The decision strongly influenced the ability I had to create a Jewish ceremony for these couples.”

Roston said she had long supported the allowance of same-sex commitment ceremonies, but was uncomfortable officiating without explicit approval from the movement. Although Conservative rabbis are deemed the ultimate authorities on Jewish law within their own congregations, many rabbis defer to the movement’s top legal panel, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

The law committee’s ruling last December capped 15 years of wrangling, which followed in the wake of an earlier decision, issued in 1992, that maintained the movement’s historical ban on homosexuality. In recent months, Conservative institutions and organizations have embraced a somewhat quicker pace of change: Both the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles are admitting their first openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students this fall, while the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recently announced a policy of nondiscrimination in hiring. Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Assembly has established a special committee, led by Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., to establish guidelines for the rituals and liturgy used at commitment ceremonies.

The movement’s longtime gay activists say the changes could not come soon enough. “I look forward to the day when we’re just any other synagogue,” Rabbi Carie Carter said. Carter, 38, leads Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has long been known as a spiritual home for gay and lesbian Jews. It was Carter who performed the original commitment ceremony in 2003 for the lesbian couple who recently renewed their religious vows with Roston at Congregation Beth El — and filed for a civil union recognized by the state of New Jersey.

One of the women, who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for potential job discrimination, said that she and her family — which includes her partner and two young sons — were drawn to Beth El because of the children’s programming and Roston’s warmth. When the couple decided to file for a civil union, she said, “it was important to us that this be a religious ceremony.”

For Carter, it is an exciting time personally and professionally. This summer, she and her longtime partner will have their own commitment ceremony, a move that, she said, was not motivated by the law committee’s decision, although it has “made a lot of conversations easier.”

Meanwhile, Carter has received dozens of inquiries from rabbis across the country, including one in Texas, seeking advice on performing their own commitment ceremonies.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who has long performed commitment ceremonies at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., said that in recent months, he had received anywhere from 15 to 20 calls from rabbis seeking advice.

Some rabbis are embracing change haltingly. One New York-area rabbi recently honored a soon-to-be-wed lesbian couple with a Saturday morning aliyah and blessing — his first same-sex aufruf.

“The couple was calling what they were doing a ‘wedding,’ and I told them in advance that I would not refer to it as a ‘wedding,’” said the rabbi, who did not want to be named. He demurred when asked if he would be willing to perform a commitment ceremony.

“I would really have to struggle with that,” he said.

Rabbi Dan Schweber, of Congregation Beth Israel in Andover, Mass. — the only state to allow same-sex marriage — also admitted to struggling with his decision: “My heart says one thing — I want to do one thing — but my allegiance to Jewish law makes me at least hesitate.” A 2004 graduate of JTS, Schweber said that his hesitancy is somewhat unusual among his younger rabbinical colleagues.

Faced with a difficult decision, some rabbis are opting to bring their congregations along for the decision-making ride. Kelman, who is stepping down from his pulpit this summer, involved his congregation before deciding to perform same-sex ceremonies in 1995, and others are now following his example.

Last month, members of St. Louis’s Congregation B’nai Amoona voted in favor of same-sex ceremonies within their synagogue. The proposal, approved June 4, was passed by 90% of 300 ballots cast by 800 member-households, according to Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose. The vote was the culmination of a year of study that began prior to the committee’s December meeting.

A 125-year-old congregation with several families that go back seven generations, B’nai Amoona “has a long history of being supportive of the positions of the movement and feels very proud of its affiliation,” Rose said, adding that he believes his congregants “were very much looking for the imprimatur of the CJLS” before moving forward with any change.

At the same time, he said, support for same-sex unions within the congregation was clearly building before the December ruling.

“By the time the movement rolled around,” Rose said, “we were really starting to get shpilkes.”


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