Lesbian rabbi to marry while colleagues debate issue

NEW YORK — When Sue Levi Elwell and Nurit Shein stand together under a chuppah on Sunday in their Philadelphia backyard, they will be sanctifying their six-year relationship as a marriage.

Elwell, a Reform rabbi, and Shein, the executive director of the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force, will sanctify their commitment to each other before 100 guests and at least 10 rabbis in a ceremony that the female couple is consciously calling a wedding, rather than a commitment ceremony.

Elwell and Shein, both 50, want to make a statement.

"It is unabashedly a kiddushin," said Elwell, using the traditional Jewish term for sanctified marriages.

"It's a marriage. The state hasn't recognized it yet, but we have," she said in a telephone interview this week.

But the Reform movement, which Elwell represents as assistant director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Pennsylvania region, hasn't recognized it yet either.

While the movement supports civil recognition for same-sex marriages, it has not taken a position on religious recognition for them.

And although the timing is coincidental, Elwell says, the wedding comes shortly before her colleagues gather at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to discuss this and other issues.

Six hundred Reform rabbis are expected to attend the June 21-24 meeting in Anaheim.

Its Committee on Human Sexuality will present a report recommending that the group endorse religious marriage for same-sex couples.

Other issues on the agenda include:

*How to communicate their concern to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding his plan to revive legislation that would cement into law Orthodox control over all conversions to Judaism performed in the Jewish state.

*Recommendations from the group's Ethics Committee to strengthen the impact of being suspended from the CCAR if a rabbi breaches sexual ethics.

The new guidelines would require those who have been expelled to demonstrate their repentance clearly before they can be readmitted, said sources who had seen an advance copy of the Ethics report.

Rabbi Jack Stern, chairman of the committee, said he did not want to discuss the guidelines before the conference.

But the rabbis in Anaheim won't be voting on the Human Sexuality Committee's recommendation supporting Jewish gay and lesbian marriage.

A scheduled vote was withdrawn after another CCAR subgroup, the Responsa Committee, published an opinion against sanctifying same-sex partnerships.

The vote was postponed for three reasons: Some Reform rabbis were concerned that establishing a position in favor of gay and lesbian Jewish marriages would create more of a problem for their colleagues in Israel who are grappling with an Orthodox establishment that already considers them outside the pale of Judaism.

For many Reform rabbis, the postponement was important because of the deep divisions among colleagues over the issue.

But for others, including eight of the 10 members of the Responsa Committee, it was an ideological matter.

In their opinion, they cited the Torah's classification of male homosexual relations as "to'evah," or abominable, and what they viewed as the impossibility of including gay relationships under the rubric of those considered "kiddushin" because the Torah includes it in the same category as incest and adultery.

Instead, the CCAR's approximately 1,800 members will study the matter for at least another year before voting on an official position.

Nonetheless, numerous discussions of the issue, formal and informal, are expected to take place at the convention.

In reality, the absence of an official policy doesn't stop any member from officiating at a same-sex wedding, and many Reform rabbis have done so, rabbis in the movement say.

But even among those who believe there is value to extending the discussion over gay Jewish marriage, there are some who say that the absence of any official stance sends a troubling message.

Without a position, "we're saying to gay people, `Either go someplace else, or hide. Be in our midst but hide your orientation or hide your family,' and that doesn't strike me as a moral choice," said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, a CCAR member who favors official sanction of such unions.

Friedman has personal experience with what can happen when gay people are not open about their sexual orientation.

Friedman was married for three years and had a daughter before her former husband came to terms with his being gay.

"I really believe that for him and for other people, if they feel they could live a whole life as a gay person, including having a family and a committed and sanctified partnership, then a lot of people would be spared a lot of pain," said Friedman, who works as director of the geriatric chaplaincy program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

In many ways, Elwell and Shein's wedding will be just like other traditional Jewish nuptial rites — the partners will both sip from the traditional two cups of wine and the officiants and other guests will sing the seven blessings offered to a marrying couple.

The pair will exchange wedding rings that were worn by Elwell's great-grandparents for the five decades that followed their nuptials in 1880.

Elwell's two children, ages 16 and 21, who were born during an earlier 20-year marriage, will be among those holding the chuppah poles, and Shein's father is coming from his home in Israel to participate.

But in many ways, it will be different.

Four people will officiate at the wedding — one from each of the non-Orthodox movements in Judaism: Rabbi Leonard Gordon, a Conservative rabbi; Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist rabbi; Phyllis Berman, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement; and Rabbi Richard Address, a Reform rabbi who is director of the UAHC's Pennsylvania office.

And instead of the ketubah, the marriage contract, Elwell and Shein, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, will sign a Brit Ahuvot, or Covenant of Love, that they composed. It focuses, Elwell said, on the mutual responsibilities of partners.

And in a departure from usual practice, they will have each of the guests sign the back of the covenant.

Having everyone sign it "is a reflection of the affirmation of the community that we are indeed being married in the eyes of the people of Israel," Elwell said.