Gay Jewish students protest exclusion by Conservative movement

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washington | Gay Jews too often have had to keep their identities in the dark, so during this Havdallah service, the lights were kept on.

About 50 gay and lesbian Jewish college students met at a recently restored synagogue in Washington’s Chinatown district Saturday evening, Feb. 14, and, arm in arm, chanted the prayers for the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath.

It was the culmination of a festive weekend of discussion and entertainment at the annual conference of the National Union of Jewish LGBTIQQ Students — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning Jews.

At issue was the current policy of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movements’ rabbinical arm, not to ordain gay rabbis or marry gay Jews.

The policy, the students said, is emblematic of their status as outsiders — as gays in the Jewish community and as Jews in the gay community.

“Knowing that you are not officially welcome provides a stigma that can last for years,” said Nathan Weiner, co-chairman of the conference.

The Conservative movement’s official policy is to bar declared homosexuals from its two main rabbinical seminaries, and rabbis are told not to perform gay or lesbian commitment ceremonies. Rabbinical students who have come out publicly as gay have been forced to leave the movement’s seminaries.

It is up to individual rabbis to determine whether gays and lesbians are fit to be community leaders in other capacities, as youth group leaders or trustees of a synagogue.

The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is expected to begin debate on the gay marriage issue at a retreat next month, and the movement has been holding forums on the issue over the past year.

Several students here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they are struggling with whether to apply to rabbi-training schools like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. It would mean a five-year commitment to hiding their true identity.

“I will not live a lie,” said one student. “Being a rabbi is about baring your soul, and how can I do that if I cannot tell my congregants who I really am?”

The Conservative movement’s policy for gays and lesbians is often compared to that of the U.S. military: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“The Torah cannot be used to keep people down,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb, a Conservative congregational rabbi who officiated at a gay commitment ceremony last year.

Speaking of his decision to violate knowingly the Conservative movement’s decree on gays, Loeb lauded the efforts of the students in Washington. He called their fight more significant than the anti-war and women’s movements he supported in the 1960s.

Conference participants are drafting a letter to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, that calls on Conservative Jewry to reassess the role of gays and lesbians, allow rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies and allow gays to serve openly as rabbis and community leaders.