Dec 9, 2011

"We Have a Problem" - An Open Letter from Bay Area Masorti

"We Have a Problem" - An Open Letter from Bay Area Masorti
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, chair

It was reported, in the Jerusalem Post ("Rabbi quits seminary over exclusion of gays", Dec. 9) that Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, former associate dean at Machon Schechter's Rabbinical School, resigned this week because Schechter allegedly reneged on a promise to ordain gay rabbis. ( took the article down, and so it is currently posted it to the Bay Area Masorti blog.  It is also pasted below this message.)

Machon Schechter's Rabbinical School describes itself as "the international rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism, serving Israel, Europe and the Americas, prepares spiritual leadership for the Jewish people."  Though there is clearly more context to this story than is currently known, there's been no secret about the disconnect between Dr. David Golinkin, President of Machon Schechter, and the Israeli Masorti Movement. This has been true for a long time, and is manifest in:
  • the long-standing banning of Va'ani Tefilati (the Masorti siddur, a bestseller published by Yediot and which features a powerful introduction by Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum) from being used for prayer at Schechter, 
  • the non-engagement of Schechter with Israeli Masorti communities (one recent exception being the Schechter base in Tel Aviv, though it is a heavily-funded exception),
  • the non-integration of the Masorti Movement and its North American Masorti Foundation within Schechter's fundraising for the Tali School System which Schechter purports to represent, let alone support.
Schechter is trying to avoid this painful conversation by claiming that this has nothing to do with gay ordination.  But Schechter's ongoing loss of amazing potential Israeli-born, Masorti-raised rabbis to HUC (the Israeli Reform Rabbinical Program) demonstrates that not only is Machon Schechter out-of-sync with the Israeli Masorti Movement, but it is also out of sync with its sister institutions, Ziegler and JTS. (This led to Ziegler moving its partnership program for its students to the Conservative Yeshiva, a move I believe JTS should make as well.)

Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum's departure points to a window of opportunity to make a change at Schechter - one that will bring it into line with the Masorti Movement.  Schechter's new program "Mishlei", created by Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum as a way to bring in new, Israeli students who saw in her Rabbinic vision the future of a Yehadut Yisraelit, a Masorti Judaism - born in Israel! - not as a slightly modified and antiquated American import. These Mishlei students would not have come to Schechter without her, and the intention that they would transfer into the Schechter Rabbinic program with their accumulated Mishlei learning is now likely complicated. Rabbi Elad Appelbaum's departure signals what might be a final blow to Schechter's claim of Israeli Masorti rootedness. 

JTS rabbinical students have, for a long time, been deeply disappointed in the Schechter experience. There have been financial, academic, and spiritual gaps in the experience that are not due to how difficult it can be to make a year abroad work.  Much of the disappointment is due to the deep disconnect between current thinking at Schechter and the real needs of emerging Masorti leaders in Israel and beyond. 

Now is the time to push - wherever possible - to make a change in Schechter for our Masorti Youth (NOAM and elsewhere) to learn religious leadership.  If this moment passes with no significant change at Schechter, there will be a great weakening of our Movement in Israel, with severe ramifications in the political pursuit of Israeli Jewish Pluralism.  Israeli would-be Masorti rabbis are going to HUC, and Conservative/Masorti rabbis from outside of Israel are, simply speaking, not Israeli Masorti leaders. We can learn, adapt, but each cultural translation is one more example of what Bialik called "kissing through a veil."  

Machon Schechter brought in Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, a revered spiritual and academic leader, to change the appeal and culture of Machon Schechter, it knew there was a problem.  With her departure, we all do.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Photo by: YouTube "Rabbi quits seminary over exclusion of gays"
"Masorti seminary rejected gay applicants, wanted to expel gay students."
A Masorti (Conservative) rabbi has quit the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in acrimony over the exclusion of openly gay students from its rabbinical studies program, The Jerusalem Post learned on Thursday.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, former associate dean at the seminary, resigned this week because it allegedly reneged on a promise to ordain homosexual students, a source said.

"She was promised two years ago when she entered the position that they will ordain LGBT students," the source said. "She learned this was not going to be the case two weeks ago and quit."

Elad-Appelbaum did not answer her phone on Thursday but several sources verified the story.

The Schechter Institute issued a response expressing regret over the rabbi's decision to leave, without elaborating on the circumstances of her departure.

"The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary received Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum's resignation with great regret," said Rabbi Prof.

Hanan Alexander, chairman of seminary's board of trustees. "Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum contributed enormously to the seminary during her tenure and we wish her every success in her future endeavors."

The row between the seminary and the rabbi is part of a larger debate taking place within the Conservative Movement over its policy toward homosexuality. During the 1990s some of its rabbis embraced the gay community and welcomed its members into its ranks while others adhered to the traditional halachic ban against same-sex relations.

In recent years two of its most important religious schools, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, have opened their doors to LGBT students. But the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem under the presidency of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin has refused to ordain openly gay students.

Sources said Elad-Appelbaum decided to step down after Golinkin "rejected openly gay students who applied for admission next year and wanted to investigate the sexual identities of those already enrolled at the seminary."

Amichai Lau-Lavie, an openly gay student at JTS and the scion of a renowned rabbinical family, sent an e-mail calling Elad-Appelbaum a "courageous and inspiring leader whose commitment to human dignity, tikkun olam and halachic progress is of international renown."

Lau-Lavie said her departure presents a "painful reality check" but that he was optimistic it would eventually bring change to the Conservative Movement's policy toward gays in Israel and in general. The rabbinical student said he considered applying for admission to Schechter in 1997 but was advised against it "because of my sexual orientation."

Other members of the movement on Thursday said the expected backlash over the resignation of Elad- Appelbaum – who they said was the third senior official to leave Schechter in as many years – may undermine Golinkin's position at the helm of the Masorti seminary in Jerusalem.

"The news may hurt the institute's image and its appeal in the eyes of students, who may not want to go there, as well as donors," a source said on condition of anonymity. "Golinkin will either give in or have to leave."

Golinkin on Thursday chose not to comment on Elad-Appelbaum's departure, saying "I have no response."

Posted By Rabbi Menachem Creditor to Bay Area Masorti: Supporting Masorti. Supporting Israel. at 12/09/2011 12:09:00 PM

Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.