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Hoax Shines Light on JTS Policy on Gays

An anonymous Jewish women’s group threw a monkey wrench into a Jewish Theological Seminary celebration Tuesday when it issued a fake press release announcing that the Conservative movement was set to unveil a historic plan to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis.

The group, Jewish Women Watching, has claimed credit for the bogus press release, which plunged Jewish Theological Seminary officials into damage control mode as the institution hosted a bona fide lecture commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first woman to receive rabbinic ordination from the seminary in 1985. The fake press release said that JTS officials would unveil their plan for equal pay and gay ordination at the Tuesday night event.

The prank comes just weeks before the movement’s top religious authority, the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, is set to debate the future role of gays and lesbians in the Conservative movement.

The fake statement mimicked a genuine JTS release about the Tuesday night event, titled, “A Movement Transformed: Women’s Ordination and Conservative Judaism.” But within several sentences, the forgery calmly announced the fake news that the JTS would use the lecture “to unveil its plan to achieve gender and sexually equity in all ranks of the Conservative movement… by the year 2010.” Citing a legitimate, recently released Conservative movement study showing that women rabbis earn significantly less than men, the fake release claimed that the movement promises by 2010 to “fully eliminate the salary discrepancies between men and women rabbis.”

The forgery also stated, “As a part of our ongoing support for pluralism and forward-thinking, the Conservative Movement will begin ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis by 2010.”

Dozens of copies of the fake press release were distributed at the event, which drew hundreds of people. The program featured a screening of a video about women in the rabbinate, and a panel discussion on the issues facing women rabbis.

JTS spokeswoman Sherry Kirschenbaum called the press release “a hoax” and referred all questions to Elise Dowell, the JTS director of communications. Dowell did not return several phone calls.

At the lecture, a JTS aide admitted that Dowell was ducking a reporter’s questions. The aide also admitted that she had been assigned to “shadow” a reporter, observing where he went and to whom he spoke.

On Wednesday morning, Jewish Women Watching claimed responsibility for the hoax. A spokeswoman, who would only identify herself as “Molly Picon” — presumably referring to the late Yiddish film and theater star — said that the purpose of the months-long planned stunt was to prod the movement to “live up to its rhetoric of inclusiveness.”

“I think we accomplished our goal to start a conversation and have people question the movement’s sexist and homophobic practices,” the spokeswoman said.

The fake release marked the latest stunt by Jewish Women Watching, which, according to its Web site, “aims to rouse the public to challenge and change the sexist and other discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community” using “biting satire and real-life facts to criticize our community’s narrow-minded priorities.”

In the past, the group has mailed out condoms as part of an effort to protest the Jewish community’s growing alliance with pro-Israel evangelical Christians. It has also denounced the glass ceiling for women in Jewish communal life and blasted the high costs associated with being actively involved in Jewish communal life.

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