A Reform synagogue in Buffalo, N.Y., is boycotting the local Jewish newspaper after the Orthodox owners refused to print an advertisement for a synagogue concert featuring a gay men’s chorus.
Temple Beth Zion, which hosted the event in January, is withholding all paid advertisements and event listings from the Buffalo Jewish Review, according to a recent letter sent by synagogue leaders to the congregation’s 1,000 families. The letter did not urge readers to boycott the newspaper, but about 20 families are believed to have canceled their subscriptions.
The Orthodox co-owner and editor of the newspaper, Rita Weiss, reportedly has said that she rejected the advertisement in part because it could lead readers to adopt “life-threatening” practices that could expose them to AIDS.
The resulting controversy — which escalated after coverage in The Buffalo News last week — highlights divisions within the Jewish community on the issues of homosexuality and gay rights. Orthodox and Conservative leaders reject marriage and ordination for gays and lesbians, while the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept both. But given the Buffalo Jewish Review’s status as the only Jewish paper in Buffalo, the controversy is also raising questions about when it is appropriate for owners and readers to compromise on their principles.
The Buffalo Jewish Review is “the major communication vehicle to this Jewish community,” said Daniel Kantor, executive director of The Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. “The Orthodox point of view is certainly anti-gay marriage and anti-promoting anything that would appear to be gay. Is there an obligation for a paper like this, which is a pretty smalltime outfit run by basically a family? Is there an obligation to accept those kinds of things? I don’t know.”
Weiss, who co-owns the paper with her husband, Arnold, did not respond to the Forward’s request for comment. She told The Buffalo News last week that ultra-Orthodox rabbis “exhort all of us to deepest compassion for those who cannot seek opposite-gender partners. But we are a family newspaper and don’t refer to sex at all or identify anyone as homosexual or heterosexual.”
In The Buffalo News’s interview, Weiss said that the advertisement for the gay chorus was also rejected out of concern for readers’ health. “On a very practical basis, there is the possibility of influencing some young people whose sexual development is not yet complete,” Weiss was quoted as saying. “They could get AIDS. They could try out a lifestyle that is life threatening.” Weiss also said that she worries about the demographic impact of gay couples, since such pairings “can’t produce children” and “you can’t build a people with adoption.”
Stuart Lerman, president of Temple Beth Zion, told the Forward that board members were “dismayed and offended” by such statements but did not rush to take action against the Buffalo Jewish Review when the chorus advertisement was rejected this past December. “We spent a long time exploring,” he said, noting that the rabbi and cantor met with Rita and Arnold Weiss. The couple also made a presentation to the synagogue’s executive committee. Ultimately, the board took action when no compromise emerged from the talks. “We felt that the Jewish Review did what they thought was right, and we had to do what we thought was right,” Lerman said.
Several members of the Buffalo Jewish community who were contacted by the Forward said they disapproved of the paper’s policy but worried that the dispute might endanger the city’s only Jewish news source. Rebecca Ritchie — who is one of the Temple Beth Zion members who have canceled their subscriptions — said she felt “forced by the publisher into taking a stand” because the issue had become so overt, but did not want the paper to close.
Ritchie, a lawyer and playwright, said she had long been aware of the owners’ views on homosexuality. In the early 1990s, when she was a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Jewish Review, she submitted an article about award-winning late Jewish playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman (whose credits include “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “The Little Mermaid”), who was a homosexual. Ritchie said that an editor at the paper, who was also a friend of hers, warned her that the piece would not run. According to Ritchie, the person told her that the owners of the paper believed that “there are no Jewish gays.”
“I’ve been telling that story for years because it was so ridiculous,” Ritchie said.
Rob Eshman, editor of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, said he understands the difficulty the Weiss family faces in producing a one-size-fits-all communal publication. He said that when the Jewish Journal began accepting personal ads from gays and lesbians in the late 1980s, the paper faced complaints and boycott threats from Orthodox readers.
“The bottom line is, it’s hard to please every Jew,” Eshman said. “Papers have to meet the standards of their publisher and also of the community, and they often aren’t in sync.”