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... NEWS FOR CONSERVATIVE JEWS ...
A High Holy Day Message from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, CEO of USCJ
USCJ Resolution on Targeted Divestment from Sudan
JTS Moves to Allow Gay, Lesbian Students
JTS Chancellor-Elect Announces that JTS will Admit Gay, Lesbian Students into Seminary
The Sale of the USCJ's International Headquarters in New York City
Conservative Rabbis Pledge Groundbreaking System for Monitoring Working Conditions at Kosher Plants
Conservative Schools Mull Admissions Policy
A High Holy Day Message from Rabbi Jerome Epstein
For Rosh Hashanah 5768
ANCESTORS AND LEGACIES:
PURPOSEFUL PLANNING OR NEUTRAL NEGLECT
By Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein
At this time of the year especially, we reflect on our ancestors - the ancestors we read about in the Torah, the figures who shaped our people's history, and our own families' forebears. Each contributed to our life, uniquely adding to our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual DNA.
Just as it is important to remember our ancestors, it also is crucial to remember that we too will be someeone's ancestors some day. What kind of role models will we be? What legacy will we leave to our children? What inheritance will our descendants be able to attribute to us? Will they do so with pride? And how will we transmit the legacy we would like our descendants to inherit?
We sometimes miss an opportunity to become the ancestors we want to be simply because we choose not to assert ourselves, preferring to be neutral in guiding our youth. We refrain from exerting influence on them. To become worthy ancestors, though, requires purposeful planning, not neutral neglect.
We transfer our nonmaterial inheritance from one generation to the next through education, both formal and informal. The Jewish community has a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to learning. That commitment is embedded in traditional Jewish values. Parents are obligated by Jewish law to teach their children a trade so they can sustain themselves and the families they will have some day. They are mandated as well to teach their children practical life skills. For instance, the Talmud teaches that parents are obligated, among other things, to teach their children to swim (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a).
Although it is essential to teach children how to earn a living and to function in the world, it is also vital for parents to teach their children how to relate to God and to nourish their souls. Indeed, this is what we read in Deuteronomy 6, and it has been canonized in our siddur in the v'ahavta prayer. We must teach our children how to love God - but we should not confine our educational efforts to our own children. The Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 6:6 mandates that we must teach not only our biologic offspring but anyone whom we can influence.
Each of us can make a significant contribution to make sure that our cherished values do not die with us. How do we do that? How can we prepare ourselves to become better ancestors?
First , each of us transmits that which is important to us by what we say and what we do, not by what we think but do not model. We cannot assume that our children or our community will know that we think Judaism is important unless we say and act it clearly. Feeling it in our hearts is not sufficient. Our children have to hear from our lips that we care that they live as Jews, and they have to see us live Jewish priorities so they can follow our example. We are their ancestors.
Living the Jewish calendar in our homes creates an ambience in which our children experience Jewish living as the way they live their own lives. Living the values of g'milut hesed (acts of lovingkindness), tzedaka (acts of righteousness), and derekh eretz (treating others with sensitivity) creates models to transmit those values to our heirs. Becoming an ancestor means accepting responsibility.
Second, Conservative congregations play an important role in transmitting our heritage. Quality formal Jewish education and dynamic informal Jewish education help to shape Jewish souls. Congregations must invest in highly qualified and committed educators and youth leaders. It is unacceptable to tolerate mediocrity. Our children deserve the best we can offer.
Rather than surrendering to those who request less education, parents must demand more. Instead of responding positively to those who call for diminished standards, we must require accountability. After all, we are the ancestors of tomorrow.
Rather than trying to reduce the congregational youth activities budget, we must find ways to invest more. Rather than viewing USY and Kadima as a burden on the congregational budget, we must learn from those synagogues that continually enrich the lives of their teenagers through stellar USY and Kadima activities. Instead of looking for subsidies for USY activities and considering USY advisers' salaries as a burden, we must seek ways to enhance our resources so that we can provide the best for our children. After all, we will be their ancestors.
Third, we must create vibrant experiences for our children and teens. Children learn best through living. Studying and discussing Judaism creates a background, but it is through the experiential that Judaism comes alive. With the help of the congregation, parents and grandparents can enrich the lives of future generations through enabling their participation in experiences that will further Jewish values and Conservative Jewish living. When we send our children on such USY summer programs as Israel Pilgrimage and USY on Wheels we provide an enjoyable summer experience - and much more. When we send our children to Camp Ramah, we provide a great camping experience - and much more. The experiences we provide our teens will influence and help determine the lives they will live. These programs inspire Jewish living as shaped by Conservative Judaism. Not all programs are the same!
We have a responsibility to provide for the future. After all, we are the ancestors of future generations.
Resolution on Targeted Divestment from Sudan
Adopted by the Board of Directors
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
June 3, 2007
Although the Jewish community generally seeks to avoid the use of politically motivated boycotts and other economic measures, exceptions for targeted divestment are made in those exceptional cases when discourse has failed to bring an end to the most egregious practices. The crisis in Darfur is an extreme case whereby a government is responsible for a genocidal campaign against part of its own population by supporting and encouraging the brutality of the Janjaweed militia. This campaign has resulted in the displacement of two and half million people out of Darfur's total population of 6 million, who have fled from their homes into internal camps and other squalid places of refuge, as well as the flight of 300,000 more refugees to neighboring Chad and the deaths of more than 400,000 from violence, disease, and other conditions related to forced displacement and insufficient access to humanitarian assistance.
A resolution supporting targeted divestment from Sudan was recently approved by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) meeting in plenum in February 2007. Many JCPA activists were concerned about passing a divestment resolution given JCPA’s 2003 resolution, which opposed the use of politically motivated boycotts and other economic measures in general unless all other means of resolving the situation had been exhausted. There is always concern that the divestment issue will be used as a pretext to support Israel divestment initiatives. However, the JCPA plenum determined that Khartoum has been largely impervious to political pressure, and that, given the severity of the problem and the failure of other efforts, divestment is an appropriate tool at this time. This position was further solidified when the JCPA resolution received encouragement at the plenum from Ambassador Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who agreed that there are circumstances for which divestment is a proper response.
A number of states, such as California, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, Maine, and Connecticut have passed legislation calling for state funds to be divested from Sudan, and a campaign is underway in more than 75 states, cities, and universities, calling for a targeted divestment of funds from companies doing business with the Sudanese government. Targeted divestment is the removal of investments in companies that are directly or indirectly helping the Sudanese government to perpetuate genocide. Since the ultimate intent of Sudan divestment is to protect the victims of genocide, it is important to tailor divestment to have maximal impact on the government of Sudan's behavior and minimal harm to innocent Sudanese (and to the financial health of institutional portfolios in the US). Divestment would therefore be targeted to those companies that have a business relationship with the government or a government-created project, impart minimal benefit to the country's underprivileged, and have implemented no significant corporate governance policy regarding the Darfur situation. Such targeted divestment implicitly excludes companies involved in agriculture, production and distribution of consumer goods, or engaged solely in the provision of goods and services intended to relieve human suffering or to promote welfare, health, religious and spiritual activities, and education.
WHEREAS The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is deeply concerned by the ongoing tragedy in Darfur, which the U.S. Congress, State Department, and President, as well as other world leaders, have recognized as genocide;
WHEREAS the crisis in Darfur is an extreme case whereby a government is responsible for a genocidal campaign against part of its own population by supporting and encouraging the brutality of the Janjaweed militia resulting in the displacement of two and half million people out of Darfur's total population of 6 million, who have fled from their homes into internal camps and other squalid places of refuge, as well as the flight of 300,000 more refugees to neighboring Chad and the deaths of more than 400,000 from violence, disease, and other conditions related to forced displacement and insufficient access to humanitarian assistance;
WHEREAS a number of states, such as California, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, Maine, and Connecticut have passed legislation calling for state funds to be divested from Sudan and a campaign is underway in more than 75 states, cities, and universities, calling for a targeted divestment of funds from companies doing business with the Sudanese government;
WHEREAS a resolution supporting targeted divestment from Sudan was recently approved by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs meeting in plenum;
WHEREAS the JCPA resolution received encouragement at the plenum from Ambassador Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supports the campaign calling for a targeted divestment from Sudan as led by the Sudan Divestment Task Force, which has identified the companies that will be targeted.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism calls upon its member congregations and its partner institutions and organizations in the Conservative Movement to participate in this effort by visiting the Divestment Task Force Website at for detailed information about divestment and to work with local Jewish agencies, including local Federations and Community Relations Councils, to support divestment locally.
With witnesses to the Holocaust thankfully still living among us, it is incumbent that we do all that is in our power to stop this generation's genocide so that we may actually live to witness, "never again."
From Chancellor-Elect Arnold Eisen:
I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.
This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.
Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators -- that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) -- but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed necessary.
First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is now complete. I will review its elements below.
Second, the announcement of JTS's decision would lay out our thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and complexity of the decision.
Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement closer together. To that end, we have launched -- and in coming months will help to lead -- a full-scale process of learning and discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices.
Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new process are outlined below.
For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.
The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple.
I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it to be so.
As I announced the day I was named Chancellor-elect of JTS nearly a year ago, the first responsibility for considering ordination of gay and lesbian students at JTS lay with the CJLS. If the CJLS ruled in a way that permitted this step, the JTS faculty would take up the matter. I pledged to take faculty opinion strongly into account if the time came for the JTS administration to make a decision.
The Conservative Movement has from the outset defined itself as bound by halakhah. This aspect of our tradition is precious to me, and it has always been determinative for JTS. It is one of the major ways the Conservative Movement navigates the complex path of change inside inherited tradition. Part of being a halakhic movement is debate over what that means: how halakhah relates to aggadah; how the authority of the rabbis relates to that of the communities they lead and serve; how change can be both adequate and authentic. But even as debate on these and other issues has proceeded, Conservative rabbis acting through the CJLS have for more than half a century considered how best to interpret and apply halakhah in particular circumstances. Their rulings have been all the more important, and more contentious, when circumstances were new and challenging. The decision concerning ordination of women was a case in point. So, too, is the question of gay and lesbian ordination. The CJLS first took up the question about fifteen years ago, debated it again over the past several years, and voted on it at its meeting this past December.
The Law Committee issued a split decision on December 6, 2006, a result in keeping with its commitment to halakhic pluralism. The teshuvah by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner permitting ordination of gays and lesbians received the same number of votes as the one by Rabbi Roth that prohibited it. This paved the way for the discussion at JTS to go forward, and the matter passed to the hands of the faculty.
Even before the December CJLS vote, JTS had initiated forums at which students could make their opinions known to one another as well as to the faculty and administration. These student forums continued after the Law Committee's vote. JTS administration and faculty explained to students what the CJLS had ruled and discussed with them what possibilities lay ahead for the future of the institution.
Administrative committees also began meeting before December 6. These committees convened with increasing frequency in the weeks following the CJLS decision. Their discussions are ongoing.
The Board of Trustees, at its meeting on December 7, discussed at length the process and its potential outcomes. The members of the board also aired questions and shared concerns and advice about the question at previous and subsequent meetings.
Immediately following the Law Committee decision, JTS, along with the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, commissioned an international survey of the opinions held by Conservative rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders regarding the ordination question. We also polled the student groups most affected by the decision: those at JTS. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen undertook construction and analysis of the survey for us pro bono. We were unable due to constraints of time and budget to include rank-and-file members of Conservative congregations. Nor did we reach every single movement leader. However, many who were not polled directly did fill out and submit the survey that was posted on the JTS website. I have personally heard from hundreds of Conservative Jews on the matter during my travels around the country this year and through correspondence, email, and the JTS website.
The survey findings showed consistent majorities of roughly two-thirds or more in favor of ordination. Rabbis and cantors endorsed the move by almost exactly that majority. Conservative educators, executive directors, and other professionals were in favor 76% to 16% (with others undecided). Lay leaders voted for it 69% to 22%. JTS rabbinical students did so by a much slimmer majority (58% to 32%), as did the cantorial students (58% to 21%). Clergy in Israel were split down the middle. Respondents in Canada were overwhelmingly against ordination.
We undertook this survey as one factor among many informing our decision, not in order to have it dictate policy. The choice to ordain -- or not to ordain-- gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis and cantors at JTS will, as I have noted, have immediate and significant consequences for the Conservative Movement. We wanted to learn how the leadership of the movement, lay and professional, felt about the matter. For the same reason, I spoke at great length in January with the heads of the other Conservative/Masorti seminaries. I reported on these conversations, as well as on the Cohen survey, to both the faculty and the Board of Trustees.
The Faculty Executive Committee, at my request, accepted the task of designing a process by which members of the Faculty Assembly could inform themselves and give their opinions on the matter. Each person weighed the factors involved -- including halakhah -- as he or she saw fit. The faculty's input would contribute significantly in JTS's decision, I told them, but their opinions would not be binding. I myself took no position in the faculty debate.
The Executive Committee, working with these guidelines, set up a series of faculty meetings. JTS administration assisted the process by arranging for two seminars led by distinguished guest lecturers on (1) recent developments in psychiatry and in its attitude toward homosexuality, and (2) philosophy of Jewish law. Several faculty meetings were devoted entirely to discussing and debating the matter.The voting members of the Faculty Assembly filled out private ballots and gave them to the Faculty Executive Committee, which then passed them on to me. The faculty asked, since their vote was not binding, that I report their response but keep exact numbers confidential. I subsequently reported the result of this ballot to the Faculty Assembly and to the Board of Trustees.
An overwhelming majority of those eligible to participate did so. A substantial majority of these favored the admission of gay and lesbian students to the rabbinical and cantorial schools. Quite a few, in keeping with my request, included detailed accounts of theirreasoning. I will draw on these letters below.
At no stage did we at JTS take up the question of gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies or marriages. That matter is entirely outside our purview; decision on it rests with the Law Committee and with individual rabbis and congregations. Our concern was ordination alone.
The final stage in the process of reaching our decision rested with the JTS administration. We wrapped up our discussions earlier this month. Ultimate responsibility for the decision rested with me. I turn now to the reasoning behind it.
Many participants in this process -- whether rabbis on the Law Committee, faculty and students at JTS, members of the Board of Trustees, or leaders of the Conservative Movement – have experienced and explained it as a tug of war between two goods: fidelity to Jewish law and tradition and our sense of conscience as contemporary American Jews. How does one remain true to the dictates of tradition and yet adapt that tradition in ways compatible with changing realities and convictions? Both imperatives compel us. Both are precious to us. Several faculty members explained in their letters to me that they felt this tug in opposite directions acutely. We in the JTS administration have certainly felt this way. The search for balance is what has made the decision difficult. It is also what has made the discussion rich and, by and large, respectful.
It has not been a matter of how "we" the community of Conservative Jews should treat "them" -- gays and lesbians. The latter are highly valued and respected members of our Conservative communities. Those opposed to the change, as much as those in favor of it, have taken pains to assert that this is the case.
That is why, even while denying gays and lesbians the right to ordination and commitment ceremonies in 1992 on the basis of its reading of Jewish law, the CJLS affirmed -- likewise on the basis of Jewish law -- that "gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools."
Those opposing ordination have done so, almost without exception, for one reason only: they believe that Jewish law forbids it. Modifying established law on this score, they maintain, would weaken or destroy the halakhic character of Conservative Judaism. Some are convinced, moreover, that a modification of this sort would open the way for other, even more radical changes. But still others are equally convinced of the opposite: that failure to make this change would declare the incompatibility of Jewish law and tradition with Jewish life today, discourage young people from joining the movement, and therefore negatively impact Conservative Judaism. As Conservative Jews, we all sought the middle ground between the demands of tradition and the demands of life that has long distinguished our movement.
We at JTS, as I said earlier, were not called upon to make a legal decision. Our task was to weigh all relevant factors and decide what the right thing was for JTS and for the movement we serve. I, like most of my colleagues, was uncomfortable with the notion of choosing between two teshuvot that had been adopted as legitimate by the Law Committee using time-tested procedures. To reject the propriety of the CJLS process in this matter would call into question, after the fact, the mechanism by which law has been decided in the movement -- and has governed JTS policy -- for decades. Nevertheless, halakhah had to be a major factor in our thinking. We are an institution committed to the teaching and practice of Torah. In order to decide in favor of ordination, the rabbinic decision allowing for it had to be credible or persuasive in our eyes. Let me explain my own thinking on these matters.
I begin by directly confronting the two major obstacles standing in the way of a credible stance allowing for gay and lesbian ordination.
The first is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22. "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is abomination (to'eva)." Is the text not crystal clear? Is it not God's word? Why, then, were learned rabbis (and the rest of us) even debating the acceptability of homosexuality? The question has been posed to me many times. It cannot be avoided by any Jew who takes the Torah seriously. No matter how complicated our relationship to the Torah, how much we move away from obedience to its rules, or whatever our views on the divine or human nature of its authorship -- one cannot cavalierly dismiss Leviticus and then claim faithfulness to the larger tradition of Torah of which the Five Books of Moses are the core. Integrity and authenticity require more than this.
Moreover, if one claims to be a halakhic Jew, the Oral Torah (as we call Jewish law and teaching over the centuries) also weighs in with serious objection to ordaining gays and lesbians. There is precious little legal precedent that can be invoked in favor of such ordination in the entire 2,000-year history of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. One finds instead either reaffirmation of previous opinion or utter silence on the matter -- though there are legal opinions urging welcome of and compassion toward homosexuals. To Conservative Jews, the weight of Rabbinic opinion is no less decisive than the words of the Torah, and it is arguably more so. As Solomon Schechter explained a century ago, "It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by tradition." That is why the fact of Leviticus 18:22 in and of itself did not free the CJLS or any other Conservative Jew from the need to debate the matter of gay and lesbian ordination.
Our sages found ways two millennia ago to limit the applicability of biblical statutes, one famous example being Deuteronomy's injunction to put the rebellious son to death. The Rabbis effectively rendered that injunction unenforceable. They have defined and limited the applicability of numerous other biblical ordinances, including some set forth in Leviticus. I am among the faculty members (including many rabbis and experts in Talmud) who are persuaded by the argument that established procedures of halakhah allow for and mandate revision of the legal limitations placed upon homosexual activity; or perhaps one should say that these procedures allow for and mandate expansion of the welcome and acceptance accorded homosexuals under previous Law Committee rulings.
We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society's changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God's image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.
For we are Conservative Jews. The question facing us now, as always, is what the tradition as a whole commands us to do. Members of our community disagree about the correct answer to that question and about the proper method of answering it but not, I think, about the nature or urgency of the question itself. As Conservative Jews, we know that halakhah has a history. The fact of its development and change over time, partly in response to altered circumstances, ways of thinking, and moral convictions, was proclaimed by Zacharias Frankel at the very outset of the movement. It is a given in scholarship on Jewish law as well. The CJLS debate and the discussion in its wake follow from these principles of Conservative Judaism.
The debate over ordination of gay and lesbian students has served to highlight the need for serious discussion and resolution of these key issues of principle concerning what halakhah means for Conservative Jews. Such disagreements are particularly vexing to Conservative Jewish laypeople frustrated at the movement's inability to decide this and other matters quickly and unequivocally. Others, myself included, while no less impatient at times, actually take pride in the fact that our movement struggles over issues such as these. We do so as the heirs to Frankel's founding declaration of our purpose: "the reconciliation of belief and life, the assurance of progress within our faith, and the refining and regeneration of Judaism from and through itself." Both sides of the current debate have acted in accord with Frankel's call for "maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress." This remains, as he wrote in 1844, "the essential problem of the present." We cannot, any more than he could, "deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution." But we must find a solution.
I believe, with the great majority of my colleagues on the JTS faculty, that the Law Committee, by voting in equal numbers for the two teshuvot, provided halakhic authorization for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students. That permission having been given, I believe that the nature of our communities in contemporary America, and the moral convictions we hold, argue strongly for accepting gay and lesbian students for ordination. So does the fundamental mission of JTS. I have in my head, as I make this decision, the faces of numerous gay and lesbian students, colleagues and friends who I know would make fine rabbis and cantors. Their moral character is unimpeachable, their leadership ability remarkable. I am confident that they would serve as excellent role models and guides for their communities. We have the responsibility to train qualified gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors as best we can so they can serve the Conservative Movement.
Moreover, the decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy at JTS is in keeping with the longstanding commitment of the Jewish tradition to pluralism. That commitment has been all the more central to Conservative Judaism. Pluralism means we recognize more than one way to be a good Conservative Jew -- more than one way of walking authentically in the path of our tradition and of carrying that tradition forward. It means, too, that we respect those who disagree with us and understand that, in the context of all that unites us, diversity makes us stronger.
I take heart from the fact that, despite continuing disagreement over other contentious issues in some quarters, JTS and the Conservative Movement are much stronger because of changes that have occurred over the years. Neither the institution nor the movement has splintered, despite predictions to the contrary. I do not believe that we will splinter now, particularly if we take the proactive steps that I will outline below. Nor do I fear the "slippery slope," used by some as an argument against the change we are adopting. Every choice brings unintended consequences in its wake. We never have control over what those who come after us will do with the legacy we have left them. We do all we can to set course in the proper direction. I trust my successors to act responsibly with the legacy I pass on to them, just as we have carefully weighed the relevant precedents, reasons, and implications before taking the step we are announcing here. We owe this precedent to our successors, this bridge to the reality in which they will be called upon, as we are, to build and strengthen communities of Torah. I am confident that, if they are educated in the principles that have long guided this movement and if they experience the special pleasures and obligations that come with membership in it, they too will make decisions in a manner that takes Conservative Judaism forward and helps its communities, and the Jewish people as a whole, to grow.
In sum: The CJLS has authorized the ordination of gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis and cantors. A solid majority of Conservative clergy and lay leaders supports it. The JTS faculty likewise strongly favors it. I am convinced this decision to ordain is right -- right not just on the basis of my experience as a North American who came of age in the latter part of the twentieth century, or as a Jew who seeks above all to remain true to the tradition we call Torah, but as an American Jew seeking wholeness and integrity in the combination of these to the fullest possible extent. That, I believe, is what Conservative Judaism is all about.
The Next Steps
Frankel was clear about the difficulty of this path. "Where is the point where the two apparent contraries should meet?" But he advocated that path nonetheless, as did Solomon Schechter two generations later. I am humbled by the long line of leaders and teachers, wiser and more learned than I, who have found the difficulties of charting this path formidable. But I am also encouraged by the fact that Schechter's resolution of the matter was not Frankel's, and that Louis Finkelstein's, too, differed from theirs in accordance with the unprecedented challenges that JTS faced in his day. The eminent historian Chancellor Gerson Cohen urged Conservative rabbis in 1972 to shape the movement in a way that was clearly and authentically Jewish but that would “also reflect our own formulation of Judaism, a formulation that will respond to our situation, our needs as Jews in America." That need is once again clear and urgent. How shall we undertake to meet it?
The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should cherish. They feel responsible for all these, commanded to do them, drawn to the discipline of which they are a part, privileged to perform them. They take on these tasks, in many cases, not only out of obligation but out of love.
It is my hope and belief that getting Conservative Jews to talk about these matters will be a step toward greater commitment and consensus.
Our communities will be strengthened by the very act of discussing our "obligations of the heart" honestly and face to face. We will come to realize in doing so how much unites us as Conservative Jews. The sense of what binds us together will grow still more if we can arrive at consensus about the norms of belief and behavior that should guide us. I believe we can.
JTS has already taken on the responsibility for leading this discussion. Working with the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet and with the RA and the United Synagogue*, we have set in motion a process that we hope will eventually include every arm of the movement as well as professional and lay leaders. Our faculty and students will be actively involved. Stage Two of that process -- logically and pedagogically dependent on the first -- will be reclarification of the place of halakhah in the movement: the nature, authority, and scope of Jewish law in relation to other sources of authority and guidance. We will embark on that stage in the upcoming two years.
Concurrently, we must and will reaffirm the legitimate place in our movement -- and at JTS -- of all who take part in this debate. Discussion of how and why we feel commanded, and to what, should reinforce the commitment to pluralism on all such points far more effectively than preachments by me or anyone else could ever do.
That discussion, face to face and heart to heart, will serve to remind us all how precious it is to be engaged in the ongoing conversation that defines us as members of the JTS community and as Conservative Jews.
Finally, because our ultimate goal at JTS is to serve Torah and the Jewish people, we will establish and maintain regular contact on the issues dividing us with Conservative clergy and lay leaders elsewhere in the world. JTS will intensify contact with the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in California, the Schechter Institute in Israel, and the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Argentina and encourage an increased number of joint missions of lay leaders and more exchanges among the faculty and students at these institutions. We will also take special steps to strengthen the relationship between Canadian and American Conservative Jews. All these actions would have been undertaken to some degree by JTS in any case. They form part of our basic mission as an institution. The decision we have just reached renders them urgent. We will respond appropriately in the coming weeks and months.
In closing, I want to thank the many individuals who took the trouble to write to or meet with me, and in particular those who carefully and honestly explained why they were opposed to the move we have now taken. I hope that all will now join me in focusing on the great deal of work ahead of us. As always, I invite your comments, concerns, and assistance.
Arnold M. Eisen ,
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
New York, NY
Conservative seminary moves to allow gay, lesbian students
By Ben Harris
NEW YORK (JTA) -- After months of deliberation, the Jewish Theological Seminary has decided to accept qualified gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial schools.
The move was enabled by a December decision by the Conservative movement's legal authorities to reverse the movement's traditional ban on gay clergy.
Arnold Eisen, the seminary's chancellor-elect, announced the decision March 26 in an e-mail to the JTS community.
The change comes after months of consultation, including the commissioning of a movement-wide survey that found support for the move among a majority of Conservative rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and seminarians.
Also Monday, the seminary announced it would extend the application deadline from Dec. 31 until June 30 to accommodate new applicants as a result of the policy change.
The change in admissions standards follows a similar one enacted by the movement's West Coast seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which recently admitted two openly gay students for the fall term.
Monday's decision follows a long and often divisive debate over Conservative Judaism's attitude toward homosexuality.
That discussion culminated with the decision by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to overturn centuries of legal precedent by allowing for the ordination of gay rabbis and for movement rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.
In keeping with the movement's commitment to halachic pluralism, the committee also endorsed two contrary opinions, or teshuvot, upholding the traditional position. Two additional opinions, both of which would have removed all restrictions on homosexual activity, were not adopted. Still, four committee members resigned to protest the permissive ruling.
Though Eisen's leadership on this issue won broad praise for its transparency and inclusiveness, the challenges ahead may be formidable. In addition to pacifying elements in the movement that oppose the change, the Conservative leadership also faces resistance from those uncomfortable with an understanding of pluralism that tolerates the exclusion of gays and lesbians.
Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, a JTS graduate and associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a synagogue for gays and lesbians in New York City, took issue with the paeans to pluralism issuing from the seminary Monday.
Cohen said welcoming people of all sexual orientations should be "a value and not an option."
"I think that we're dealing with a very long tradition of Jewish text and scholarship, and in the scope of Jewish history the movement toward equality and celebrating Jews of all sexual orientations and gender identities is fairly new," she said. "There's a lot we need to do to start teaching that as a value, just as there's a lot the Conservative movement needs to do to teach egalitarianism as a value."
Among the movement's international affiliates, some of which had warned that they might split from the movement in the wake of the December decision, the announcement was greeted with dismay.
Rabbi Wayne Allen, president of the Ontario division of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement's rabbinic association, told JTA that some Canadian synagogues already were contemplating their long-term association with their American counterparts, and Monday's move only affirms the wide gulf between them.
"I do not think this decision is going to have a great impact on whether synagogues are going to be more inclined to progress with these decisions or less inclined," Allen said. "What is going on now is a process that is larger than any one issue."
In Israel, the board of the Schechter Rabbinical School has placed authority for the issue in the hands of the school's dean, Rabbi Einat Ramon, an acknowledged opponent of gay ordination. Ramon is said to be working on a position paper on the issue that will be released shortly.
According to the movement-wide survey, released in January, Israeli rabbis were divided evenly on the question of gay ordination. Canadian rabbis overwhelmingly opposed the change, 82 percent to 18 percent.
Sensitive to the ramifications of the decision, Eisen on Monday also announced a series of steps to contain the fallout, including a dialogue within the movement regarding the principles of Conservative Judaism and intensified contact with its international arms.
"I think we need to take steps to affirm again that more unites us than divides us,” Eisen said. "That disagreement, if it exists, is accepted in a spirit of halachic pluralism and mutual respect."
The debate over homosexuality for years has been a lightning-rod issue in the Conservative movement, with both sides warning of the dire consequences if the other position were accepted.
Opponents warned that a permissive ruling would undermine the movement's claim to be halachic, or committed to Jewish law, and would render it indistinguishable from Reform Judaism.
Proponents of change argued that a failure to liberalize would further weaken the movement – once American Judaism's largest, but now second to Reform – and drive would-be rabbis to other streams.
"People are thrilled," said Elizabeth Richman, a rabbinical student and co-chair of KeshetJTS, a student group advocating for the equality of gays and lesbians. "We really believe that this decision is going to strengthen and grow the Conservative movement."
December 22, 2006
To: Synagogue Presidents
From: Raymond B. Goldstein, PhD, International President
Jay Wiston, Chairman, United Synagogue Real Estate Committee
CC: Rabbis, Synagogue Executive Directors, United Synagogue Board Members
It is our pleasure to announce that with the approval of United Synagogue's board of directors, the attorney general of the state of New York, and a New York state judge, we have entered into a contract for the sale of 155 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, New York, now the home of our international headquarters, Rapaport House. We are in the process of establishing a date for the closing early in the next quarter.
At the same time, we are working to establish a closing date for the purchase of two floors of office condominium space at 820 Second Avenue in Manhattan. The new headquarters will continue to bear the Rapaport family name.
The decision to sell the property at 155 Fifth Avenue represents the culmination of years of internal discussion, a comprehensive survey of needs and security concerns, and consultation with space planners, architects and realtors. It is our belief that the new facility will provide United Synagogue with operating and management efficiencies. It had become clear that the building offers a less-than-desirable working environment to our employees, who are dispersed over seven floors. We considered renovating the building, but the cost of doing so made a move a more desirable outcome.
The board resolution requires that the balance remaining after payment of the purchase price and relocation expenses be placed into a restricted account, used only for extraordinary expenses beyond the purview of the normal operating budget in the upkeep of this or other new property. The interest from that restricted account will be available only for improvements of the premises and other budgetary items for the premises that were not part of the usual and ordinary expenses at 155 Fifth Avenue.
The resolution also provides for a limited portion of the balance in he net proceeds to be placed into a separate restricted account under the same terms and conditions as the other account, with the interest of that fund to be used for United Synagogue’s programming and/or building expenses. Until we complete the transition, it will be difficult for us to determine how the funds that are available for programming will affect our operating budget. We anticipate that it will be about two fiscal years before we can be certain of that impact.
We look forward to announcing the opening of the new Rapaport House at 820 Second Avenue within the next two years.
Nathaniel Popper | Mon. Dec 18, 2006
Leaders of Conservative Judaism are planning to create a new ethical certification system for kosher food in response to the findings of a special commission that investigated working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.
The five-person commission, formed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, was created following an investigative report in the Forward, which detailed a series of allegations about the treatment of workers at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa. Members of the Conservative panel, who visited the Iowa plant in August and September, recently issued a report stating that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”
A spokesman for AgriProcessors did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment, but the company has previously defended its practices and insisted that it maintains a safe work environment. The AgriProcessors plant, which produces meat under the Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best labels, employs close to 800 workers, a significant proportion of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.
Conservative movement leaders said that they plan to establish a “tsedek hakahsher,” or a justice certification, that would ensure kosher food producers “have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers rights.”
The new certification appears be the first effort by an Jewish religious movement to provide oversight on labor issues. It would also be the first time that the Conservative movement would be involved in certifying food producers on a national level. Currently the Conservative movement has a kosher committee — and some rabbis provide kosher supervision on a local level — but national certification has been left to Orthodox entities.
When allegations about the working conditions at the AgriProcessors factory first arose some Orthodox kashruth authorities came to the plant’s defense. The largest Orthodox kosher supervision agency, the Orthodox Union, said that labor issues were a matter for federal regulators, not kosher authorities.
Reached this week, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, applauded the Conservative movement for looking at labor issues, given the weight of Jewish law dedicated to the topic. Genack also said he had spoken with AgriProcessors and the United States Department of Agriculture about the working conditions at the plant. But Genack said that the Conservative movement should be careful not to blur the line between Jewish law regarding worker rights and Jewish law regarding the kosher standard of food.
“There are lots of social issues that are really important that could be subsumed under some sort of super certification,” Genack said. “But if we just move away from strict concerns about kashruth — if we talk about what they pay workers — these kinds of standards can be less than 100% clear.”
Genack also said that a major priority for the Orthodox Union was to make kosher food more widely available. “For us to set up a new amorphous standard in certain plants,” Genack said, “parts of the kosher industry are very fragile and could be adversely affected by this.”
The head of the Conservative movement commission, Rabbi Morris Allen, said that any certification system would be a supplement — not a replacement — for current kosher supervision. Allen said the additional level of scrutiny is necessary for the religious bona-fides of the industry.
“We have reached a point where it not sufficient to teach and promote the whys of keeping kosher,” Allen said. “It is necessary to ensure we talk about how our kosher food is produced.”
AgriProcessors is the only kosher meat company in America producing both beef and chicken, and it is among the two largest producers in both categories. The company also has a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.
The company found itself in the national spot light two years ago when an animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released video footage from the cattle kill floor. The footage showed animals standing up and walking after having their throats slit. AgriProcessors has since taken steps to assure consumers that its slaughter process is as humane as possible.
The Forward wrote its report about labor issues in May after speaking with many workers who alleged that they received virtually no safety training, something that they said contributed to accidental amputations and other health problems. Industry experts also told the Forward that wages paid to workers at AgriProcessors are among the lowest in the slaughterhouse industry, despite the premium price at which AgriProcessors sells its kosher meat.
The company responded with a full-page advertisement in the Forward denying that the working conditions at the plant were remiss.
The Conservative movement put together a commission to investigate the Forward’s allegations and made three trips to the plant. The report that came out of these visits said that the commission came across a number of concerns in speaking with workers and management.
The list of problems included: “Inadequate or non-existent worker safety training”; “concern about unsafe chemical use,” and “unclean and unsafe lunchroom conditions.”
Several members of the Conservative movement’s commission also visited the Empire Kosher Poultry plant in Pennsylvania, where they found “working conditions, safety conditions and general worker welfare and community relations not to be issues of concern.”
After these visits, the Conservative commission entered into negotiations with AgriProcessors to improve working conditions. According to the commission, AgriProcessors agreed to make certain changes, including the hiring of a Spanish-language safety coordinator, and the retention of a consultant to “review the health and safety procedures in the plant.”
But Allen said the negotiations have been somewhat slow moving and eventually the commission wanted to take action.
“We should not be in a situation where people are keeping kosher with a sense that the product is kosher but the means with which it was produced are less than honorable,” Allen said.
JTA (www.jta.org) - December 14, 2006
Conservative Schools Mull Admissions Policy
The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools are considering a more flexible admissions policy.
The 76 Schechter schools currently admit only children who are Jewish according to halakhah, o Jewish law; or those with non-Jewish mothers, provided the students agree to convert within one year of admission. (Executive Director's Note: In Empire Region, the Hebrew Academy of the Capital District belongs to the Solomon Schechter Day School Association.)
At the national convention of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, which concluded Tuesday (December 12, 2006) in Boca Raton, Fla., delegates considered a draft that would extend the time limit for a student to convert.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, reaffirmed the movement’s support for marriage between two Jews, and conversion of the non-Jewish spouse in cases of intermarriage.
But when the non-Jewish mother in an intermarriage doesn’t convert, Epstein urged Schechter schools to admit her children and allow them “maybe a year or two” to convert, he said, but definitely before bar or bat mitzvah age.
The association’s board of directors will discuss feedback on the issue from convention delegates, said Elaine Cohen, national consultant to the Solomon Schechter schools.
Read the USCJ's Draft Framework on Welcoming Interfaith Families into our Congregations, Schools, Youth Groups and Camps called "EDUD"