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UJC To Send First Gay Mission to Israel

As religious conservatives fight to block a gay-pride celebration in Jerusalem, the American Jewish community’s top philanthropic network has announced plans to send hundreds of gays and lesbians to Israel this summer.

United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local Jewish charitable federations, announced March 31 that it was organizing its first-ever mission to Israel specifically aimed at gays and lesbians. The announcement came the same day that The New York Times published a front-page story on the joint efforts of Orthodox rabbis and Muslim and Christian clergymen to stop Love Without Borders: Jerusalem WorldPride 2005, a gay-pride festival planned for Jerusalem this summer.

Participants in the UJC mission, which runs from August 14-21, are scheduled to take part in the opening session of the gay festival. They are also being given the opportunity to extend their stay for the rest of the festivities, according to the UJC statement announcing the mission.

UJC’s announcement comes as the debate over homosexuality is raging in several corners of the Jewish community. In addition to the fight over the Jerusalem event, members of the top lawmaking body of the Conservative synagogue movement met outside Baltimore this week to debate whether to lift the movement’s ban on same-sex religious unions and gay ordination. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements already accept both, while Orthodox religious leaders remain adamantly opposed to any approval of same-sex relationships.

UJC aims to unite all the synagogue denominations, a task proved nearly impossible by myriad reactions to its upcoming gay mission.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which works with UJC and federations across the country, said that his organization was “concerned” but had not yet formulated a position.

Julius Berman, former president of the O.U. and former board member of the UJA-Federation of New York, objected to the mission.

“I certainly don’t have a problem with taking a mission of Jews that includes gays and lesbians, but to relate to them as an isolated group” is wrong, Berman said. “My problem is that the UJC is allowing itself to be used to integrate the gay and lesbian movement as part of normative Judaism.”

The mission was also criticized by Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox organization that refuses to work with UJC because of its ties to the Reform and Conservative movements.

“A federation mission of [gay and lesbian] Jews… makes as much sense as a federation mission of shrimp aficionados or usurers and in the end it’s a mockery of the very underpinnings of the Jewish people, namely our Torah,” said Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran. “It’s just another piece of evidence that the UJC is totally out of sync with the traditional Jewish community.”

UJC officials did not return calls for comment.

A top Reform movement leader, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, praised the mission.

This is “another indication that the Jewish community is moving toward embracing gay and lesbian Jews,” said Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical union, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He argued that since UJC relies on financial support from all denominations, it should not promote any one particular doctrine on homosexuality.

According to UJC, joining the mission participants will be Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is a Jewish and openly gay member of Congress, and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, who was featured in the documentary “Trembling Before God.” The group is expected to meet with several Israeli lawmakers, including Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert of the Likud Party.

“There will be many different opportunities to engage with the land’s rich history, to deepen our roots, and to connect to the spirituality of the land and its people,” Greenberg was quoted as saying in the UJC statement. “And of course, the mission will provide a wonderful opportunity to meet new and interesting gay and lesbian people.”

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