Some stories have been floating around the media with varying levels of accuracy, but Jewschool has obtained the full (or fuller) story from reliable sources. The real story here isn’t about gay and lesbian rabbis in the Conservative movement (that was last year’s story); it’s about the lengths to which people and institutions will go out of fear, demonizing their own students and losing all perspective.
The story begins a year ago this week, when the Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it would begin admitting openly gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial schools. (The American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism, is now also admitting gay and lesbian students.) One year later, to mark the anniversary, JTS held a program on Wednesday called Hazak Hazak V’nithazek: Celebrating Strength Through Inclusion, a full day of study, conversation, and celebration.
Several JTS students studying this year at Machon Schechter (the Conservative rabbinical school in Jerusalem where American Conservative rabbinical students are required to spend a year) wanted to participate in the celebration going on in New York in some way, and since they couldn’t attend physically, they organized a small parallel event in Israel. According to email invitations sent to the Conservative Yeshiva and other rabbinical students in Jerusalem, the students invited Yonatan Gher, former Director of Communications for the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) movement, incoming director of the Jerusalem Open House, and a member of Masorti congregations his whole life (and recently profiled in the New York Times because he and his partner are having a child via a surrogate mother in India), to speak over lunch about his personal experiences as a member of a GLBT family in the Masorti movement.
The email announcing the event makes clear what this event was not: It was not intended as a proposal for an official Schechter event. It was not a discussion of Schechter’s admissions policy. (Schechter does not admit gay and lesbian students.) It was not a protest or demonstration to advocate for change in Schechter policy. It was not a halakhic debate, nor was it an exposition of a particular halakhic position. It was not an event manufactured for the media. It was not a “ceremony,” as the media has incorrectly reported it. It was simply a lunch-and-learn with an opportunity for students to listen to Mr. Gher’s personal story and to participate remotely in JTS’s anniversary event. The email says that outright.
About two weeks before the event, the JTS students emailed the Schechter administration asking for permission to hold the event in the Schechter building. They were told that they would first have to meet in person with Rabbi Einat Ramon (dean of the Schechter Rabbinical School) a week later (one week before the event). (Why a week later? We report, you decide.)
Since one week would not be enough time to publicize the event, the organizers sent a save-the-date email to the student body about the lunch-and-learn, saying “location TBA”. (They were prepared to have the event either in the building or outside, depending on whether permission was granted.) This is nothing out of the ordinary; students use the email list quite frequently to publicize events that are not sponsored by Schechter and are not held at Schechter.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the students, an international incident was brewing: the Schechter deans were on the phone with the dean of JTS, telling him how terrible his students were for organizing this event and sending an email about it.
According to numerous people close to the students organizing the event, the meeting between the students and Rabbi Ramon was extremely unpleasant. She raised her voice at them as if they were children and questioned what kind of rabbis they were going to be. She made various threats, including threatening to host a rival event at the same time, and calling the media on the students if they even commented to the media on the JTS event in NYC. She said that if they had come to her first before sending the save-the-date email, she would have been willing to have the event at Schechter if the students would compromise by putting together a “balanced” program on a different day in the future that featured speakers on “both sides” (the students explained that this wasn’t the purpose of the event– the event was specifically in parallel to the JTS program marking the admission of gay and lesbian students), but now forget about it — there was no way this event was happening in the Schechter building, or on the lawn outside, or on the sidewalk, or anywhere near Schechter’s property. With no choice left, the students decided to move the event off campus and and agreed with Rabbi Ramon that neither party would contact the media, especially since that had never been the students’ intent in the first place. Rabbi Ramon promised the students she would not, without their consent, send out an email about the event to all the students at Schechter explaining why the event could not be held there. She invited them to call her at home to say whether or not they gave her permission to send out such a letter; the students called and could not reach her, and never gave her permission.
It apparently didn’t take long for this agreement to be violated. Late that Thursday afternoon, as everyone was preparing to celebrate Purim, Rabbi Ramon sent out an email (in Hebrew) to the Schechter student body. Jewschool has obtained a copy of this email, and it pulls out all the rhetorical stops. She told all the students that the event organizers had asked permission to hold the event at Schechter and been denied, referred to the event as a “chagigah” (celebration) and a “mesibah” (party), emphasized Schechter’s “legitimate halakhic policy”, and chastised the students for transgressing the “ethical-halakhic principle” of respecting minhag hamakom (local custom).
Let’s pause and consider some alternate scenarios of what might have happened if Schechter had handled this differently.
Students: Can we hold this event at Schechter?
The event happens at Schechter. Some students attend, and others don’t (mostly because they have other work to do). No one outside of Schechter hears about it, and the next day everything is back to normal.
Students: Can we hold this event at Schechter?
The event happens outside of Schechter. Some students attend, and others don’t (mostly because they have other work to do). No one outside of Schechter hears about it, and the next day everything is back to normal.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, students who previously had no strong feelings about the gay issue were so angered by Schechter’s treatment of its students and its disregard for academic freedom that they began emailing JTS with their grievances. (If Schechter considers it disrespectful to its policies for a gay person to tell his personal story, what will happen in a couple years when the first openly gay JTS and AJU students arrive at Schechter?) Students who had had nothing to do with planning the event started meeting to talk about what they would do next. Rabbi Ramon had apparently been afraid that something insidious was going on, but in the end it was she herself who galvanized the student body with her behavior.
The lunch-and-learn took place on Wednesday in the woods, and, according to numerous attendees, most of the American rabbinical students at Schechter and a number of the Israeli rabbinical students were there (including some students who had no classes that day and showed up just for the lunch-and-learn). Yonatan Gher’s actual remarks about the Masorti movement were entirely positive.
This should have been the end of the story, but it goes on.
After the event, the student organizers were apparently contacted by several media outlets that had heard about the event. The student honored their agreement with Rabbi Ramon, and, despite what had happened, did not speak with any member of the media. To make sure there was no misunderstanding, the students immediately emailed the deans of Schechter and JTS to notify them that this had happened, and to tell them that they didn’t know how the media had heard about the event, but they were not the ones who had told them — they had kept their side of the agreement and refused to speak with anyone.
It turns out Rabbi Ramon had not kept hers.
On Wednesday night, the students heard from a reporter who asked if they wanted to comment on the story. They said again they weren’t commenting. The reporter then told them that Schechter had sent out a press release and asked if they wanted to clarify anything in it.
That’s right, Schechter had sent out a press release simply to say that students had requested permission to have this event at Schechter and were denied — an event that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. The press release appears to be an expanded version of Rabbi Ramon’s email of the previous Thursday, and is full of factual misinformation about what happened; rather than repeat the misinformation here, we’re just posting the version of the events we’ve heard from a number of sources The press release also made no mention of the content of the lunch-and-learn, and characterized it instead as the students’ “own personal celebration with their friends”. The press release frames the controversy in terms of pluralism and equality, saying “The request by [Schechter] to give equal expression to both opinions of the Conservative Movement draws upon the pluralist tradition of the Rabbis,” and again attacks the students for disrespecting Schechter’s customs. It states that students were offered the option of holding a “balanced” event that represented “both sides,” even though that option had been taken away from them (see above). (What exactly is the “opposing side” of a gay man’s personal narrative anyway? The heterosexual coming out story of a straight man?!) It also says “Rabbi Ramon offered assurances that no rival event would be held at that hour at SRS,” a statement that only makes sense if you know she initially threatened the students with holding exactly that kind of event.
That night, an article appeared on the Jerusalem Post website. The article was mostly cribbed from the Schechter press release, with a quote from a Masorti rabbi who opposed Schechter’s decision, and a quote from an Israeli Schechter student who was “hurt” by the existence of the event. Now one possibility is that the Jerusalem Post reporter just happened to know an Israeli rabbinical student opposed to the event. Another possibility is that after the JTS students and Rabbi Ramon agreed that neither of them would talk to the press, Rabbi Ramon not only sent out a press release herself, but provided reporters with the name of a student who would support her position.
Another article appeared on Thursday in the JTA, with more context, including some of the more outlandish statements that Rabbi Ramon has made on this subject in the past. The original version of the article appeared on the website of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. The article on the JTA website itself has since been edited, removing those paragraphs. Was someone connected to Schechter pressuring the JTA to remove the parts that would reflect poorly on Rabbi Ramon?
Here are the relevant paragraphs, just in case anyone tries to push them further down the memory hole:
Ramon is a well-known critic of the liberalizing tendency toward gays within Conservative Judaism. She has said she views homosexuality as a choice and, in a speech last year to a conference in Israel, reportedly said the family is endangered by gays with an agenda who seek to destroy it.
Ramon said further that the Conservative movement must protect the family against these homosexuals, who already have succeeded within the Reconstructionist movement.
So that’s where things are right now. If we find out more, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, regardless of your stance on ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis, think about whether this is the right way for an educational institution to relate to its students.