As a Conservative rabbi, I applaud the Jewish Theological Seminary’s decision this week to ordain openly gay and lesbian Jews.
Far from weakening the movement, this will strengthen the convictions of Conservative Jews to teach and live as Jews committed to the balance between tradition and change.
If history is any guide, however, the integration of gay and lesbian Jews into the rabbinical and cantorial schools will not be easy. These incoming students will face the increased visibility of being pioneers. They will be expected by others to be more pious, more confident of their identity and simply better in every way. And they will be expected to coexist with teachers and fellow students who adamantly disapprove of their very presence at JTS.
How do I know this? Because only a few short years ago, and perhaps still, this is what was expected of female rabbinical students at JTS. To this day, the Conservative movement continues to waver in its commitment to egalitarianism and to trumpet this ambivalence as a pluralism in which we should feel pride.
During the years I was at JTS, this created a difficult and painful day-to-day experience for many female rabbinical students. I can tell you firsthand that having to sit through a protracted vote by my male classmates on whether or not I and the other two women in my class should be counted in a minyan was not a proud moment — not for me, nor, I think, for the institution.
Today, as an ordained rabbi, I am certain that I would face that experience with more self-confidence. When that classroom vote came up 11 years ago, however, I had been in rabbinical school for less than one month. It took me many years to recover a sense of my own worthiness from this and from the many other instances in which some of my teachers or classmates felt it was their right to make it clear that women had no place in rabbinical school.
I do not believe that this is the ideal way to prepare anyone — male or female, heterosexual or homosexual — for the rabbinate. Rabbinical students are just that: students. Along with all the subjects that they must learn, they need to feel support and encouragement from their teachers about the decision to take on a career path as challenging as the rabbinate. That is all the more so the case when, as women or as gay or lesbian Jews, they have few rabbinic role models on whom to rely.
There will, of course, always be people outside the seminary who do not want to have as their rabbi someone who is female or gay. But within rabbinical school, students should be encouraged and made to feel proud of who they are so that they can face with patience and integrity those who do not accept them.
It is not enough to enroll women or gays or lesbians. All students must feel accepted so that the real work of becoming a rabbi can take place.
When I began rabbinical school in 1996, women had already been ordained for 13 years, yet this change was still very slowly making an impact on the environment of the institution. There was an egalitarian minyan, but when everyone at the seminary davened together, a man had to lead the prayers so that no one would be offended. (This policy was changed during my second year of rabbinical school.)
Our deans quietly steered women away from classes taught by teachers who were openly hostile to women, but it was only a few years into my tenure at JTS that such teachers were no longer teaching required classes. In six years of professional-skills seminars, I heard from exactly one female pulpit rabbi — who was invited to talk to my class about the difficulties of being single in the rabbinate.
I am delighted to say that my female colleagues and I are now invited more frequently to speak to students, and that more female rabbis are teaching in the rabbinical school. Things have indeed changed for women at JTS, but it took longer than it should have, and there is still a ways to go. The ambivalent atmosphere in which so many female rabbis of my generation were educated is no doubt reflected in the career paths of many women in the Conservative rabbinate.
I have great confidence in the leadership of JTS. Let’s learn from what did not go right in the past as the institution prepares for the gay and lesbian students who will be enrolled there.
Help the faculty to see themselves as rabbis to their students. Help the administration to guide the faculty members in leaving outside their teaching those opinions that will only cause pain to their students. Bring in to teach students gay and lesbian rabbis who are proud of who they are and the work they are doing.
I truly hope that the administration and faculty members at JTS who feel so inclined will find opportunities, publicly or privately, to express their pride in the ways that the institution is adapting to a changing world. It is surely something to celebrate — and the teachers’ enthusiasm will make a big difference to their students.
Rabbi Joanna Samuels is the spiritual leader of Congregation Habonim in Manhattan.