Gay Men Breaking Ground at a Jewish Seminary
From the NYTimes .........
Gay Men Breaking Ground at a Jewish Seminary
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Published: April 19, 2008
Aaron Weininger stood in the ballroom of a Florida hotel last April, a college senior given the compliment of leading the Passover Seder for an audience of university administrators. He reached the sentence in the Hagaddah that implores each generation to feel that it was the one liberated from Egypt. There were few passages in the liturgy he had known better or longer.
In this particular moment, though, the words rippled with new meaning. One week earlier, the leading seminary of Conservative Judaism had dropped its longstanding ban on admitting, teaching or ordaining openly gay students to be rabbis. Ten days later, Mr. Weininger had his interview at Jewish Theological Seminary, seeking to be the first person to break those barriers.
“That line of the Haggadah spoke so directly to me,” Mr. Weininger, 23, recalled in an interview. “To feel what it was like to be liberated from a narrow place. Egypt can mean different things in different generations. And I felt like I was on the threshold of crossing the sea, of leaving that place of narrowness. I hadn’t reached the Promised Land yet, but I was on my journey.”
As Passover of 2008 commences Saturday night, Mr. Weininger, along with Ian Chesir-Teran, is one of two gay rabbinical students at J.T.S., as the seminary is routinely known. Their presence has essentially, if not always easily, settled decades of roiling debate within the Conservative movement over homosexual members of the clergy.
While the centrist Conservative denomination in its middle-of-the-road way operates with three different policies on ordaining gay men and lesbians — two opposed and one in favor — the facts have been established, probably irreversibly. Even before J.T.S. made its decision, the Conservative movement’s other major seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, had done so.
Conservative Judaism reached a similar juncture a generation ago when it first admitted women as candidates for the rabbinate. Mr. Weininger was born in the same year, 1985, when J.T.S. ordained its first female rabbi, Amy Eilberg. In the months just before he won admission to the seminary, he happened to bump into Rabbi Eilberg at a synagogue in Jerusalem and solicited her advice.
“I encouraged him to remember that since he is a pioneer, some people will project onto him feelings and assumptions that they have about ‘the cause,’ ” Rabbi Eilberg recalled of their conversation in an e-mail message. “As hard as it is not to take others’ criticisms and attacks personally — since they are personal — it is essential to work at remembering that this is about the larger issue.”
Interestingly, the seminary chancellor who permitted gay rabbinical students to enroll, Arnold Eisen, spoke of Mr. Weininger and Mr. Chesir-Teran in almost an opposite way. “Face to face,” Mr. Eisen said in an interview, “you get to know the people and you get to like the people, not as representatives of a cause or an ideology.”
The tension between being an individual and being an emblem animates both Mr. Weininger and Mr. Chesir-Teran. Both had staked out public positions as advocates of gay equality in the Conservative movement even before being allowed to apply to the seminary. Both were involved last month in a major conference at J.T.S. about issues of inclusion, provocatively titled “Adam and Eve, Meet Adam and Steve.” Mr. Chesir-Teran’s taste for the limelight even includes his current stint in an Israeli reality-TV series in which the parents of two gay households swap families.
However visible both rabbinic students have been, and however necessary a certain boldness may be for any groundbreaker, the public stance followed years of private struggle. Mr. Weininger and Mr. Chesir-Teran each grew up deeply religious, attending Jewish day school. And as each reached his teenage years, the insistent reality of his homosexuality put him on the scorned periphery of their cherished faith.
“All the stages of my life, I had to compartmentalize,” Mr. Chesir-Teran said. “Because of this message I’d received, both implicitly and explicitly, that being Jewish and being gay were irreconcilable. What I wanted to be able to do was live Jewishly in an integrated way. But I felt I had to leave Judaism behind to explore life as a gay man.”
Now 37, Mr. Chesir-Teran earned a law degree and built a practice defending lawyers facing disbarment, not exactly pastoral preparation. Then, in the mid-1990s, he met and fell in love with someone he thought could not possibly have existed: a gay man who was the product of an Orthodox yeshiva. The men went on to become partners and the parents of three adopted children, overseeing a household that keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.
Before J.T.S. changed its policy, Mr. Chesir-Teran considered entering the Reform or Reconstructionist seminaries, but never applied for the simple reason that he considered himself a Conservative Jew. Yet he also recoiled from the option of gay J.T.S. students before him: stay in the closet just long enough to be ordained and get assigned the first pulpit.
Even now, he said, “there’s a cost to being in a place that simultaneously legitimizes contradictory views.” In a 2007 survey of Conservative Jews’ attitudes toward ordaining gay members of the clergy, the highest degree of opposition (31 percent) came not from rabbis, lay leaders or educators, but from J.T.S.’s own rabbinical students, the future classmates of Mr. Chesir-Teran and Mr. Weininger.
Through their first year in the seminary, both have sought out skeptics and outright opponents in the student body, inviting rather than avoiding inevitably tense conversations. “It’s a blessing to be here,” Mr. Chesir-Teran put it. “And it’s also a challenge.”
Change comes, does it not, one step at a time......
Be the love you seek.