Culture, Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

Jewschool Exclusive: Machon Schechter slams its students

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?
Schechter: Ok.
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?
Schechter: No.
Students: Ok.
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.

41 thoughts on “Jewschool Exclusive: Machon Schechter slams its students

  1. (What exactly is the “opposing side” of a gay man’s personal narrative anyway? The heterosexual coming out story of a straight man?!)
    Wouldn’t that be nice! The day I see that! I’d be fascinated to know. If that’s the idea of balanced, then shoot, I’m all for it. It’s not like there aren’t a number of sex acts I’m sure straight folks engage in that would raise a few eyebrows! And damn if I wouldn’t love for the stereotype that all queer people do is talk about sex to be flipped! After sitting with all my sister’s straight girlfriends for dinner one night, I have to say it–damn y’all talk about sex, a lot! LOL…OK, but in all seriousness, we all know that isn’t what is meant by balanced in this scenario. We know that “of course” the balance would be to condemn queer folks.
    Thanks for posting this. Hopefully we’ll have a bit up on JVoices soon as well, but this is the most in depth piece I’ve read so far, and very helpful for getting a fuller context.

  2. yikes. seems like some institutional transparency training is in order for Ramon. After she finishes that she could graduate to a competent leadership certificate program.

  3. Did Rabbi Raman receive her training to become dean at Oral Roberts University?
    For God sake-even if she is against Gay ordination I would hope she is for inclusion of all Jews within our congregations. I woud hope that discussion may take place without demanding all views at all times.
    Are the anti-woman’s ordination rabbis asked to be at Schechter during the woman’s study days? Since they are not-maybe that event should be banished too.
    Kol HaKavod for students willing to stand up for what is right.

  4. Thanks for posting this account – it’s much fuller than the JPost and JTA stories. A few questions, that I’m hoping can be answered without further jeopardizing the students who planned the lunch-and-learn: how have JTS and AJU responded to the student planners, to the students who wrote emails, and to Ramon? What kind of fall out are the student planners facing from their home schools? Have the students gotten a response from Ramon, as to why she broke her promise regarding the media?

  5. Also,
    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?
    Forget a couple years, this could be a reality next year. JTS allows students to go to Israel in 2nd year, meaning that this year’s gay students could be there in 5 or 6 months. Scary.
    -Feygele, the family destroyer

  6. I’d be fascinated to know what the fallout is for the students right now in Jerusalem, both institutionally and personally. Will they continue their years? Will they (or future students as per Desh’s question) be allowed to fulfill their requirement at another institution (although I’m not sure where would be better in Israel)?

  7. I think they should have been allowed to have the event on the Schechter campus.
    Everyone knows that Conservative Rabbi’s aren’t real Rabbis anyways, so let them do what they want.

  8. (I posted this over at mah rabu, too):
    “why does machon schechter not understand they are completely irrelevant to the ISraeli public: the datiim think they’re in there naked (except for talitot on women) eating pork cheeseburgers, and the chilonim think they’re inauthentic backward half-religious idiots.
    They issued a press release to placate a public that doesn’t exist.”
    Oh yes, and for the record, if gay people are family destroyers, so are women who have careers. And that includes a certain woman with a job as a dean of a rabbinical school. Go care for your kids or something, OK?

  9. Good freakin’ grief. Thanks so much for this report and please keep us updated. I am seeing red right now that this woman can be in charge of a seminary – A CONSERVATIVE one at that.

  10. Is this the image the Conservative Movement want to portray?
    Was this not the Movement that had Mordecai Kaplan, Heschel, and Leiberman on the same faculty?
    There may be two sides to the issue of Gay ordination. But there is only one side to the issue of academic freedom of thought and expression. I hope that American students who come to Israel will think twice about studying in such a place – or that their host institutions will help them find alternatives.

  11. excellent, accurate reporting from Israel. For a Dean to act as such with her students was completely inappropriate, and I hope at the very least, this can be a lesson in how not to be an effective leader.

  12. “Are JTS/AJU students allowed to opt out of the year at Schechter for ideological reasons?”
    I can speak for the AJU (and I presume JTS functions much the same in this regard) that exemptions from the year in Israel are given reluctantly (because of the schools’ ideological reasons) and students are given that requested exemption for practical reasons, and not ideological reasons.
    This, however, I might speculate, could present a situation when the committee might be more sensitive to such an ideological request. (If any of that committee read this comment, would you please be more sensitive if a request of this nature comes up?)
    Great reporting, Jewschool. This mirrors the account I hear from my AJU classmates in Israel.

  13. This seems to be further evidence that Dean Ramon wants to turn gay inclusion into a Jewish culture war, not just an area of disagreement. From what I know, even Rabbi Joel Roth, the author of the main teshuva that opposed gay inclusion (and the one Ramon claims to be supporting), publicly makes it clear that although he opposes ordination for gays he is in favor of doing as much as possible to diminish the pain gay and lesbian Jews may feel in our communities. I have no doubt that other prominent Conservative/Masorti leaders privately share Ramon’s views about gays as the new Molech, out to destroy the family and the Jewish tradition as we know it. But only Ramon has taken this on as a grand cause.

  14. I have no doubt that other prominent Conservative/Masorti leaders privately share Ramon’s views about gays as the new Molech, out to destroy the family and the Jewish tradition as we know it. But only Ramon has taken this on as a grand cause.
    I actually do. I think Ramon is more or less alone on this crusade. The others who would refuse ordination to “out” gays would stick to the old halakhic claim. I still don’t understand Ramon’s argument, though: how is a working mom different from a man from the “family values” point of view?

  15. Schechter’s (Ramon’s?) press release also mischaracterizes Rabbi Roth’s stated position. The press release says “The Halakhic ruling adopted by SRS is the one that was issued by Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Halakah at JTS. His position ratifies the Halakhic status granted exclusively to marriage between a man and a woman in Judaism and, therefore, teaches that only rabbis who are committed to this life style should be ordained.” The actual Roth teshuva doesn’t say anything about heterosexual marriage or a heterosexual “life style” – it’s too busy talking about why homosexuality is wrong.

  16. Adam – I asked you this elsewhere, but didn’t get a response. Care to expand on your comment?
    Everyone knows that Conservative Rabbi’s aren’t real Rabbis anyways, so let them do what they want.
    …Because I’d bet that most of the people reading this, many of whom are Conservative rabbis, would disagree.

  17. Adam’s comment may well be representative of the way that many Israelis view the liberal movements (as Amit mentions). And therefore this underscores how futile and pathetic is Schechter’s continued quest to position itself as “halakhic” in the eyes of the Israeli Orthodox establishment. It’s never going to happen. No matter how many lines they draw in the sand, the rabbanut will still see them the same way Adam does.

  18. I would call on those who feel that students who would feel uncomfortable studying at Schechter under the current circumstances to contact the deans of the schools in America. They are Rabbi Brad Artson ([email protected])at Zigler and Rabbi Daniel Nevens (maybe [email protected] or [email protected] Try both in case one fails).
    Change can happen at Schechter if we all make it happen.
    But is it our business? Yes. All Jewish institutions must practice hachnasat orchim – here they have failed.
    Rabbis must learn tolerance- here they learn the opposite.
    Just as we criticized Rabbi Herschel Schachter (YU dean) for his suggestion that Olmert be killed – so too (L’Havdil) Schechter must be criticized.

  19. The Schechter Institute website notes the following about its dean: “Rabbi Ramon was the first Israeli woman to be ordained as a Rabbi.” Rabbi Ramon’s response to this issue reminds me of minority groups that struggle to make their way into a community and once having done so oppose the admission of others. Of course, they use precisely those arguments against prospective newcomers that had been used against them. As we approach Pesach, only one text comes to mind. “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). Alas, easier said than done!

  20. I personally would love to see a large group of JTS students walk into the dean’s office and refuse to go to Machon Schecter next year unless they are given assurances, from Ramon and the JTS administration, that they will be treated in accordance with basic academic freedoms. JTS students give up a great deal of money, time, and family/community contact to be in Israel for the year at the Seminary’s request; they go there to learn, not to be abused and patronized.

  21. I think Adam’s comment about the illegitimacy of a woman rabbi was a joke (right?). The point being that a female rabbi’s standing is not much more secure than a gay rabbinical or cantorial student’s.

  22. A split in the Conservative movement [which is what Gher seems to propose when he suggests American students go elsewhere] is the worst possible outcome. That appears self-serving by Gher, but would weaken Masorti/Conservative forces.

  23. Hmm, to me it seems perfectly reasonable that the rabbinical school should determine some people to be unfit to be rabbis. In their considered and informed opinion, those people are too sexual, too irrational, and too uppity to be spiritual leaders. Besides, women can become Reform rabbis if they want.
    Hey queer friends – join us at the Nehirim Retreat in Connecticut, May 30-June 1. Straight allies and multifaith families welcome. Gut shabbes.

  24. Does JTS teach a course in Rabbinics. If so, perhaps Rabbi Ramon should take a refresher course. Since when is lying a rabbinic value? Rabbi Ramon’s behavior reflects poorly on JTS and the Conservative movement.

  25. Yes, they may accept as rabbinical students whomever they want. But if they make life difficult for those coming from the States – then tell them in advance, “We think you may feel uncomfortable here and we suggest you study elsewhere.”
    Schechter does not ordain Out Gays and Lesbians as rabbis. But they should make them feel welcome. Women used to study at Schechter, overseas students, before Schechter began to ordain women. Those women did not have to shut up and hide their thoughts. They did not have to conference in the woods.
    Gher is not,it seems to me, suggesting a split. He would like to see the students at Schechter but not at any, and all, cost.
    If they were to study somewhere else for the year in Israel-exactly how would that split the Conservative Movement?
    It is not the refusal to ordain Gays that is the issue here. The issue is the failure to allow students to celebrate inclusiveness, without also celebrating exclusion, and the failure to promote a free exchange of ideas.

  26. Last year when Ramon’s position was made clear, I suggested a petition directed at her, or Machon Schechter. The response I got was – hey, movement is in the right direction, don’t get involved, don’t make it personal.
    This has strengthened my conviction that action is often a better course of action, as opposed to a wait and see approach. Let a group of students, some allies and their queer friends go on the offensive against R. Ramon. Let her be publicly shamed, demoted, removed from her position of authority. Let her name be synonymous with the victory of human rights for all over the ghosts of an intolerant past.
    *pause for breath*
    This hysterical, half baked over-reaction, this deeply unethical dis-honesty, there should be a black flag on it calling for the rabbis of tomorrow to distinguish themselves in being outspoken today. Show us, o rabbis of the future, that the guild system of protecting the office of rabbi in your own movement isn’t more important that promoting truth and honesty in the leadership of your own movement. Take a stand, with your names, and do it in the face of elders who may be immobilized at this very moment with indecision. Earn your right to be a leader today, when it counts, not tomorrow, when it won’t.

  27. BaruchAdam writes:
    A split in the Conservative movement [which is what Gher seems to propose when he suggests American students go elsewhere] is the worst possible outcome. That appears self-serving by Gher, but would weaken Masorti/Conservative forces.
    There are hundreds of Orthodox yeshivot in Israel, and Orthodox Judaism in Israel seems to be doing quite well. Maybe the liberal movements would also benefit from greater competition, so that the institutions would have an incentive to be the best they can be, rather than treating their students the way Schechter has been while knowing they can get away with it since there are no other options for Conservative rabbinical students in Israel.

  28. Jew Guevera writes with wisdom. But it is very difficult for students in a small institution to stand up to people who control their future (scholarships, job opportunities, independent study,etc).
    But Ramon is not the face of Masorti Judaism in Israel.Schechter is not the face of Masorti Judaism in Israel. The school, it would seem, is a reflection of Ramon and Rabbi Golinkin. A study taken last year shows that 50% of the Israeli Conservative rabbis in Israel are open to full Gay participation.After the Law Committee ruling I presume that number to be higher.
    I am told that the majority of Israeli rabbi congregational rabbis are pro-inclusion.
    I know that there are Conservative rabbis who perform same-sex ceremonies.
    What happened at the Schechter Rabbinical School is a shanda. A public apology to the students is in order. It will never come from an administration that blames the students, the press, those who they assert went to the press (even as Jewschool has shown that Schecter themselves turned to the media), in short everyone but themselves.
    Schechter needs corrective lenses. But they will not let the doctor in the door. They need to be hit where it hurts – in the pocketbook. Donors must know about the Schechter approach. American Conservative Rabbinical students must be given options. American synagogue groups ought boycott and refrain from visiting Schechter.
    Ramon is turning off the worldwide Conservative world for the sake of her myopathy. She may feel the price is worth while. But don’t the people at JTS and AJU get it?

  29. Is the Conservative Yeshiva not a viable option for a year of study in Jerusalem for North American Rabbinical students?

  30. The Conservative Yeshiva could be a very good option. It has a big down side- all English speaking (students and classes).
    I would suggest, if I had a say, a program that combines university and special seminars. Maybe Hartman (but we may have to see how its rabbinical program develops).
    Maybe the Masorti rabbis in Israel could put together a series of seminars to supplement Hebrew University courses. There could be daily Minyan at a local Jerusalem congregation.
    Hey, why limit the Israel experience to Jerusalem?

  31. Is the Conservative Yeshiva not a viable option for a year of study in Jerusalem for North American Rabbinical students?
    It could be if things were changed, but JTS doesn’t currently grant credit for study there.

  32. The CY doesn’t – at the moment – have the academic level required for a year of study at a graduate school. Mostly because they aren’t geared toward those kinds of students.
    Also: why should it necessarily be a Conservative seminary?

  33. I don’t fault JTS and AJU for wanting their students to be studying within a Conservative framework. They are, after all, trying to train up the next* generation of movement leaders. But there needs to be appropriate and viable options within that framework.
    * Were I feeling catty, I might say “final.”

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