JERUSALEM — South Orange rabbinical student Ian Chesir-Teran has opted out of a Conservative movement program in Israel, saying it “discriminates against openly gay and lesbian Masorti Jews by not ordaining them.”
Traditionally, rabbinical students at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary have spent their Israel year at Machon Schechter, the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement’s rabbinical seminary.
Unlike JTS, however, Machon Schechter does not ordain openly gay students.
At the urging of JTS administrators, Chesir-Teran and Aaron Weininger, JTS’ first two openly gay JTS students, began their Israeli studies at Schechter in September 2009.
But they and three heterosexual students opted out of the program for the spring semester for “reasons of conscience,” Chesir-Teran told The Jewish Week.
Their exit highlights the differences between American and Israeli Conservative rabbinical schools and the students caught between them.
“One of the main reasons I left Schechter is because it discriminates against openly gay and lesbian Masorti Jews by not ordaining them,” explained Chesir-Teran, a 39-year-old who lived in South Orange before moving to Israel with partner Daniel Chesir-Teran and their three children.
Though fully aware of Schechter’s policy ahead of time, Chesir-Teran decided to “give them a chance” because “JTS didn’t give us another option.”
Soon after arriving in Israel, the former lawyer met Masorti-affiliated gays and lesbians who aspired to become rabbis.
“One person told me he intended to move to America to study at JTS in order to receive rabbinic ordination, because he can’t do it here,” Chesir-Teran recalled. “At the time I said to myself, ‘The only reason I’m being allowed in the rabbinic program is because I’m a foreign exchange student here for the year. If I was Israeli, I’d be refused ordination.’”
Ironically, Chesir-Teran now finds himself in this exact position because he and his family have decided to make aliya. He’s hoping that JTS will find a way to ordain him, despite the distance.
Although Machon Schechter permitted the openly gay students to receive aliyot to the Torah and to perform all other rituals, Chesir-Teran and Weininger said they could never forget the Israeli school’s official policy on homosexuality.
The policy, as outlined by Rabbi Einat Ramon, Machon Schechter’s former dean in a 2007 essay in the Washington Jewish Week, is to accept “only students who believe in the importance of the intimate relationships between a man and a woman in the confines of the Jewish institution of marriage and to serve, to the best of their ability, as role models in that regard.”
The former dean, who also served as the school’s “posek,” or decisor of Jewish law, made her ruling after the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 2007 voted 13 to 12 to accept gay rabbis. The committee’s ruling empowered the movement’s rabbinical schools to decide for themselves whether to accept homosexual rabbinical candidates.
“Ramon’s ruling speaks of how gay and lesbian Jews are causing the destruction of traditional family values and refers to [the need for] reparative therapy,” Weininger said.
Yosef Goldman, one of the three straight students who left Schechter, said he and his fiancee, Annie Lewis, believed staying would betray their “core values” of equality for all people.
Unlike Chesir-Teran and Weininger, whose alternative studies this semester (at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Conservative yeshiva) are being paid for by JTS, the three other students said they have been forced to pay for non-Schechter courses from their own pockets.
In an interview from New York, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, said that while Machon Schechter will continue to be the main address for future visiting JTS students, other courses will be offered, for the first time, at the Schocken Library in Jerusalem.
Nevins made a point of saying that “not all of our gay students chose to leave Schechter,” but added that JTS has tried to accommodate the students who did.
Nevins said that JTS “is proud” of Chesir-Teran’s decision to make aliya and that it is “working with him [to help] him complete his course requirements for JTS.”
While Nevins acknowledged the discomfort some of his students feel at Schechter, he himself called the year there “an opportunity.”
“I think studying together with people with a different point of view is a fundamentally healthy situation,” he said. “I think it’s good for the Israelis and the Americans to study together, despite different points of view. If you look at the Talmud, there are different points of view on every page.”
Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, said all Jewish streams have had to contend with the generally conservative nature of Israeli culture.
“JTS started ordaining women in the mid-1980s, but it took eight or nine years before Schechter began to do the same here in Israel,” he said.
Asked whether Schechter could be on the same trajectory with regard to gay ordination, Golinkin replied, “I’m not a prophet.”
A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Week and is used here with permission.