Showdown Set on Gay-Vows Rabbi

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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A showdown is set for next week between the Conservative movement’s rabbinical union and one of its younger members, who claims she is facing expulsion because of her activism on behalf of gay and lesbian Jews.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, acknowledges that one of his organization’s committees has recommended the expulsion of Ayelet Cohen, a 30-year-old assistant rabbi at New York’s Congregation Bet Simchat Torah — the largest gay and lesbian congregation in the world. But he vehemently denies that the recommendation has anything to do with her public efforts to reverse the Conservative movement’s policies prohibiting same-sex unions and the ordination of gay rabbis, instead citing Cohen’s alleged violation of union rules relating to job placement.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s administrative committee is slated to meet January 25 to consider Cohen’s expulsion. The organization’s executive committee could then take up the matter.

“She is a young rabbi who has consistently violated our placement policies,” Meyers said. “I believe she wants to become a hero by making this a gay and lesbian issue. It’s not a gay and lesbian issue.”

Meyers said that many rabbis have been forced out of the R.A. over placement issues. By contrast, he noted, several Conservative rabbis perform same-sex commitment ceremonies and none has been disciplined.

The dispute, reported in The New York Times last week, comes as the movement braces itself for a historic and potentially fractious debate over the religious legitimacy of homosexuals. The movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is considering proposals to end its restrictions on gays and lesbians. The 25-member body will debate the issue at its April meeting.

Supporters on both sides expressed bewilderment over Cohen’s failure to seek a waiver and the decision by the R.A.’s Joint Commission on Rabbinic Placement to recommend expulsion.

Conservative rabbis contacted for this story believed the recommendation of expulsion — the most severe punishment possible — is tied to Cohen’s outspoken gay advocacy and the intense emotions surrounding the debate over whether Conservative Judaism should reinterpret Scripture’s ban on homosexuality.

“It’s the background noise making the story,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminary in Los Angeles.

“Yes, what the R.A. is meeting to talk about has nothing to do with gays and lesbians, but there are very strong emotions people are bringing to it,” said Artson, who favors ending the gay ban. He added, “I know Rabbi Meyers to be a scrupulously fair individual, and I don’t think he would allow feelings about extraneous issues one way or another to influence how he treats an employment issue.”

Cohen, a daughter of Stephen P. Cohen, president and founder of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, could not be reached for comment. She is in Spain on vacation, according to an official at her congregation. The Times interviewed Cohen at the airport, just before she left the country.

In the article, which was published January 14, Cohen was quoted as saying that the R.A. was punishing her for openly performing same-sex wedding ceremonies. “I have made it clear from the outset that I plan to do it, and I have done it,” Cohen was quoted as saying.

Meyers dismissed this claim. He told the Forward that the R.A.’s placement committee recommended Cohen’s expulsion because she has refused to obtain a waiver that is required for her to continue serving Bet Simchat Torah, which caters to gays, lesbians and transsexuals in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Since the congregation was denied membership in The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Cohen is obligated to seek an exemption from the placement commission just like any other rabbi working in a non-movement synagogue, Meyers said.

According to Meyers, Cohen has twice flouted the placement rules by failing to obtain waivers: first in 2002, when she signed a two-year contract, and then in July, when she signed a three-year extension.

The crux of the dispute appears to be whether Cohen agreed to conditions set by the R.A. two years ago permitting her to work at Bet Simchat Torah, including a requirement that she seek a new exemption to extend her contract.

Cohen’s boss, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, praised her assistant and criticized the Conservative movement for its mistreatment of gay Jews. “She is a superb rabbi and pastoral counselor and educator,” Kleinbaum said. The congregation “absolutely supports her.”

Every rabbi interviewed for this article, including Meyers, described Cohen as an effective, caring rabbi. Some supporters contend that the R.A. has treated her in an arbitrary and capricious manner. “There’s a sense that different rules apply to different people,” one rabbi from the Northeast region of the United States said. “Some rabbis violate all kinds of procedures, and the R.A. turns a blind eye to it.”

Meyers defended the group, saying that while imperfect, it protects the rights of both its 1,600 rabbis around the world and Conservative congregations.

But even some of Cohen’s backers took issue with her failure to obtain an exemption, and with her apparently bringing the issue to the media. “She’s not acted smartly and taken bad advice,” a leading rabbi said. “She should have played by the rules, and all of this would have gone away. It’s not in the interest of the R.A. to make this a big public gay-lesbian issue, especially at this time.”

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