Israel's Conservative Rabbinical Seminary Votes to Accept Gay and Lesbian Students

Since 2006, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles have been the only two Conservative Rabbinical schools to accept gay and lesbian students. This decision put them at odds with Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, both of which had voted to uphold their ban on admitting gay and lesbian rabbinical candidates. On Thursday, April 19, the board of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies voted nearly-unanimously to reverse this ban and will start accepting gay and lesbian students beginning next year. Rabbi Mauricio Balter, President of the Israeli Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly, is supportive of the vote:

I see it as a very important development in Jewish law […] it is the right thing to do. We were all made in the image of [G-d], and as such we are all made equal. For me this is a very important value. I always said we should admit gay and lesbians into our ranks. I’m glad we had the vote and that it went the way it did.

To some, the move may seem symbolic, since the Schechter Institute has never directly asked incoming students about their sexual orientation. To others, however, it is a huge victory and a step toward repairing the tensions that began six years ago when the two United States seminaries decided to accept gay and lesbian students. Amichai Lau-Levine, an openly gay rabbinical student, says that the decision is “an important statement about Halachic change, evolving social-legal norms and the courage to make progress.” D'ror Chankin-Gould, who attends the American Jewish University (of which the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies is a part) and is currently studying in Israel, says that the policy change creates the “opportunity for more committed, wonderful teachers to rise up in Israel and to teach their Torah and to model for Israeli society and for the Jewish people what it means to include all of our voices.”

The Conservative movement is typically seen as a middle ground between Orthodox Judaism, which follows a strict interpretation of halacha (Jewish law) and very progressive branches, like Reform and the much smaller Reconstructionist movements, which do not believe in the binding authority of halacha. The Conservative movement sees halacha as binding, but also allows for multiple interpretations of the same passages, which can lead to tensions, particularly in regard to the ordination of gay men and lesbians, as well as the role of women in ritual life. Typically, individual rabbis and congregations are allowed to decide which interpretations they choose to follow. This means that in the United States, where Conservative Judaism has a much larger following than in Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, or South America, rabbis and congregations tend to have made greater strides toward LGBT inclusion.

GLAAD congratulates the Schechter Institute of Rabbinical Studies on this momentous decision. Although Masorti Jews (as the Conservative movement is called outside North America) make up just a small part of Israel’s population, this decision is a huge step forward and will hopefully lead to even greater acceptance of LGBT Jewish people around the world.