We’re not quite sure to say this is the “feel good gay Jewish story of the year,” but news that gay American rabbinical students are being treated as equals at Jerusalem’s Machon Schechter, a Conservative outpost, is great news.
But add an asterisk.
It’s been three years since the Jewish Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to allow individual seminaries to appoint openly gay rabbis — but only if they wanted to.
And Ian Chesir-Teran and Aaron Weininger (pictured, R-L), two openly gay rabbinical students who are spending their third year studying at Jerusalem’s Machon Schechter institute (and profiled by the Times earlier this year), say they have yet to face any outward homophobia. And that includes the right to lead prayer services and read from the Torah.
This, despite Machon Schechter being among the institutes that refused to change its policies about permitting gay rabbis. Reports Beth Schwartzapfel in an excellent Forward piece:
The two American Conservative seminaries, JTS and Los Angeles’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, began admitting gay students the semester immediately following the change. But the movement’s two international seminaries—Machon Schechter in Jerusalem and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires—declined to change their policies.
Despite this disparity, “We certainly anticipated that all of our students would continue to study in Israel, including our gay students,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS Rabbinical School. After opening enrollment to gay and lesbian students, he said, “We promptly commenced conversations with our partners in Israel and were reassured that they would welcome all of our students.”
Still, some of the challenges they would face rose to the surface even during those discussions. Chesir-Teran, a former attorney who entered the seminary at the age of 36, recalled one meeting that he, Weininger and Nevins had in New York with Rabbi Einat Ramon, then dean of Machon Schechter’s Rabbinical School. Upon being assured gay students would be treated equally when they came to Schechter, Chesir-Teran said he told Ramon, “I’m assuming that means we’re going to be allowed to lead services and read from the Torah like everyone else,” Her answer, he recalled, was, “I don’t know. I have to get back to you.”
Ramon later confirmed in an email to Nevins that the gay students would, indeed, be allowed to do so. But the equivocation, said Chesir-Teran, was another “red flag” that made him leery about going there.
Which explains why the two gay students “pioneering” the new policy were more than aprehensive about heading to an institute that endorsed discrimination.
Heading into their year abroad with this history in mind, Chesir-Teran, Weininger, and several other students lobbied the JTS administration for alternatives to Machon Schechter.
“The very thought, frankly, of being told by my home institution that I have to study at a school that wouldn’t ordain me, that wouldn’t confer on me the title of ‘rabbi,’ is very challenging,” Chesir-Teran said.
But one option JTS never considered was allowing the students to study at another school. This is a route the Ziegler School took when it announced in January of this year that it would end its 10-year relationship with Machon Schechter. The shift, says Ziegler dean Rabbi Bradley Artson, is unrelated to Schechter’s stand on gay ordination. But Ziegler now sends its students to the Conservative Yeshiva, a co-educational, egalitarian school for Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem.
JTS, said Nevins, is committed to sending its students to an Israeli institution, where they can take classes, taught in Hebrew, alongside Israelis. “The other options out there were American environments, not Israeli environments,” he said.
Not that they regret the eventual outcome:
Now that they’ve settled into their time in Jerusalem, both Weininger and Chesir-Teran are taking stock.
“Having lived now in Jerusalem for almost four months, and really having adjusted well with my husband and three kids here, we’ve indulged a little bit in fantasies about what it would be like to make aliyah, to move to Israel, and to make a home for ourselves here,” said Chesir-Teran. “But I know that that’s really impossible, because I couldn’t continue my studies at Machon Schechter.”
That said, “having a place at the table is a blessing and a privilege,” he said.
Both rabbinical students say that simply being who they are and telling their personal stories has had a profound impact on many of their teachers and fellow students. Being at JTS and at Schechter, said Chesir-Teran, has meant “having opportunities to interact on a daily basis with future rabbis, and to let them see how I live my life, just as I see how they live their lives—to show that my life is equally as holy and equally as mundane as their lives.”
But there appears to be good news moving forward:
Though Schechter’s policy against gay ordination continues, the two rabbis selected to fill Ramon’s position this past July are seen as friends to the cause of gay students. Rabbi Moshe Silberschein, appointed dean, was ordained at JTS in 1981 and taught for many years at the Reform-affiliated Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which has admitted gay students since 1990. Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, appointed associate dean, is a member of Keshet, the Conservative group pushing for gay inclusion.
Well, good-ish news:
Nevertheless, Silberschein says, the school’s ordination policy is unlikely to change anytime soon. While Ramon was dean, she also served as Schechter’s posek, or halachic decision maker. When she stepped down, the two positions were split, and Rabbi David Golinkin was appointed posek. Golinkin decided that Schechter would continue to abide by the more conservative responsum. And Silberschein, whatever his personal views, defers to Golinkin. “I took this job knowing clearly that Rabbi Golinkin is the posek for Schechter,” he said. “But I wanted to once again build bridges with the movement and Schechter and the movement with JTS.”