Student rabbis in S.F.: Rebuffed as Conservatives, 2 lesbians look to Reform

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What made two promising rabbinical scholars walk away from a two-year fellowship, class honors, a tuition-free year of study in Israel and the prospect of lifelong careers as spiritual leaders in the Conservative Jewish community?

What shook their halachic loyalties enough to drive them from the Conservative movement to pursue a Reform pulpit?

And why, after a summer in San Francisco, did the students, who both aced their first year, resign to pre-empt a dishonorable expulsion from their rabbinical program?

These were once tough questions — even for the two students, Elizabeth Goldstein, 24, of New Jersey, and Tamar Malino, 25, of North Carolina. They spent more than two years reaching their decision that the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary was no place for lesbians.

Next week, one week after marching in San Francisco's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Parade, the recently engaged couple will depart for Hebrew Union College — they still do not know which campus — to resume their rabbinical studies. In so doing, they will end the specter of what they say is a witchhunt that has haunted them since they stepped into the JTS' world of social and religious ideals.

The year spent hiding their relationship and enduring torturous seminary discussions about homosexuals will not be missed, Goldstein said.

She recalled that seminary leaders once brought to class a panel of gay Jews to "alert us as future rabbis to be sensitive to the issues of gays and lesbians who are Jews. And some of them are even Conservative Jews who keep kosher; and hey, look at this hard thing they have to go through every day.

"And Tamar and I are sitting there just going nuts, jumping out of our skins. Basically, they are Jews and they're people, so we should be good to them, but they're not good enough to be rabbis."

In fact, there are gay Conservative rabbis, but they reached the pulpit before 1992, when the movement barred gays and lesbians from ordination.

Before then, gays and lesbians could become Conservative rabbis by keeping quiet in seminary about their sexuality until they matriculated and were placed in congregations. Gay students can still sneak through the seminary, but they would likely face an ethics hearing with the Rabbinical Assembly if they were to come out later, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

During a recent interview, Malino and Goldstein acknowledged that not everyone in the Conservative movement is homophobic, but that its leaders are caught between wanting to prove themselves followers of halachah, or Jewish law, to the Orthodox and to the traditionalists within Conservatism, and wanting to align with Jewish progressive movements.

The women-rabbis issue "put [Conservative leaders] over the dividing line [toward the Reform movement]," Malino said. "But [ordaining gay men and lesbians] is pushing them further than they're willing to go. They're stuck."

Hoping things would change for the better, the women buried themselves in their studies and quickly fled when classes were over. They were careful not to talk about themselves. They avoided making friends and dodged social invitations that would have exposed their relationship.

"The only place where we could be out was my room," Malino said. "You think New York City is this place that's so huge you can be invisible, but that's not the case. We couldn't be in the gay community because there was enough crossover that somebody would point us out."

Said Goldstein, "I kept thinking I was growing this big `L' on my head."

The two found themselves surrounded by people but without a community to call their own. "It's hard to be Jewish without community," Malino said.

While the couple's secret made them quietly miserable, seminary leaders considered them superstars. Both students received Crown Fellowships, a coveted merit award that would pay full tuition for two of their five years of study. Malino became a Wexner Fellowship finalist. And Goldstein was declared the student who had progressed the furthest in the school year. Her fair face and sandy curls graced the cover of the seminary magazine. "I loved getting all those prizes," Goldstein said.

But slowly, the sense of belonging gave way to isolation and despair. The couple couldn't drive out of New York fast enough when the academic year ended. Goldstein had accepted a chaplain's internship at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco. Malino tagged along to look for work.

They set up an apartment in the Castro District and Malino found a job at a Jewish summer camp. The couple's newfound freedom was overwhelming. Holding hands on city streets was a brand-new and liberating experience.

Goldstein let down her guard at the hospital. She came out to her peer group, and "was astounded at how much more I was learning. I had forgotten what it was like to really grow, and not just to read and memorize."

After that experience, she couldn't bear the thought of returning to the seminary that fall. Malino wavered at giving up the scholarship funds but agreed to postpone school for a year.

"I felt like I needed to be in a gay world a little bit because I needed to heal from the scars of having been closeted for so long," she said. "I needed to be part of community — gay Jewish community."

She took an administrative position at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a synagogue with gay and lesbian outreach. Goldstein became a part-time rabbi's assistant at Congregation Beth Sholom while continuing her internship.

Though they never gave up on wanting to become rabbis, the couple came to realize that they would never go back to Conservative theological study. Nor could they return to the closet and the constant fear of being discovered.

"What kind of rabbi would I have been in five years?" Goldstein said. "How could we offer spiritual support if we don't even know how to be good to ourselves? I would be angry and closed off."

Rather than quietly disappear, they returned to JTS in January for a final showdown — to come out to the dean of the rabbinical school.

"We wanted them to know that we weren't just happy little students. We wanted them to know that we didn't leave because we couldn't hack it or because we were more liberal than they were," Malino said.

Though he was shocked, the dean, Rabbi William Lebeau, told the two that he was happy they had found one another. But he was saddened that they could not matriculate. He asked them to stay on as doctoral candidates.

They declined.

The Rabbinical Assembly's Rabbi Meyers acknowledged the seminary's policy of refusing gays and lesbians admission to its rabbinical program, but stipulates that "celibate homosexuals" could be admitted and ordained.

Goldstein pulled shut the seminary's black iron gate for the last time when the two emerged from Lebeau's office. The afternoon was factory-gray. In the street, Malino turned to her and said, "Rabbi Lebeau has turned me into a Reform Jew."

The two had already applied to JTS when they met more than two years ago at a yeshiva in Israel. Neither was sure about her sexuality — until they fell in love. By then, each had received acceptance letters. And both were certain of their calling to the Conservative pulpit.

Before women were ordained as Conservative rabbis, Goldstein recalled her grandfather teasing her, saying, "Elizabeth could have done anything she wanted to in her life and the one thing she wants to do is the one thing she can't do."

Reflecting on his words, she said, "It took me a long time to feel like I could be a woman rabbi and now I had to be a lesbian. I thought: God, how could You do this to me?"

After their tumultuous year at JTS, spiritual maturation in San Francisco and the confrontation with Lebeau, the two women had grown to appreciate Jewish ethics in a new light.

"There's a point where ethics overrides the halachic process and that's what's really important to me. And social justice is the key to the Reform movement," Malino said, leaning forward from a recliner in her Castro apartment.

Goldstein played with a small African drum as Malino talked. Thumping its hide, she interjected that enough social pressure had been placed on Conservative leaders to make them seek Jewish texts that would support the ordination of women.

"If there was enough pressure to ordain gays and lesbians," she said, "they would be able to find it in the sources, too."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.