Temple of Aaron Synagogue will become Minnesota’s first Conservative synagogue to perform commitment ceremonies for gay men and lesbians in its sanctuary. The St. Paul shul’s decision follows the guidance of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group of Conservative congregations in the U.S., which, in December 2006, sanctioned same-sex commitment ceremonies to be performed in its synagogues, and also approved the ordination of gays and lesbians as rabbis and cantors.
In a Dec. 6, 2006, memorandum, Dr. Raymond B. Goldstein, the USCJ international president (and a Rochester, Minn., resident), and rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, then-USCJ executive vice president, announced that the group’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved responsa that would allow individual synagogues to decide whether or not they would hire openly gay rabbis and cantors, and allow same-sex commitment ceremonies to take place.
In a fortuitous stroke as this story was being prepared, Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, visited the Jewish World offices.
Rabbi Wernick explained that the 2006 ruling of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards allows each Conservative shul to devise a policy based on their own needs and values. The responsa, according to Wernick, neither ban same-sex ceremonies, nor alienates those congregations that would choose to maintain their traditions in this area.
“If one studies Jewish history, one understands that every Jewish community responded to the issues in its own way,” Wernick commented. “[Years ago], every community really decided based on its own needs how to apply Jewish practice and halacha [rabbinic law] to a circumstance; so I think that what the law committee did is really, intellectually, in keeping with that. By approving both teshuvot [Jewish legal opinions] that are seemingly in opposition to each other, they left a status quo for individual communities to decide what’s appropriate for their makeup.”
Rabbi Wernick said that it’s likely that more congregations will allow same-sex ceremonies to occur; but there is still a ways to go on deciding the right way for these ceremonies to take place.
“[There] are questions that remain to be seen, and I’m sure with great confidence that we will address them with the same seriousness and respect for each other, and for all those that were created in b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image, to arrive at a meaningful conclusion,” Wernick concluded.
In the case of the Temple of Aaron, congregants knew some months ago that the synagogue’s board was considering the issue of same-sex commitment ceremonies; their input on the issue was solicited.
However, most Jews in the Twin Cities learned of the St. Paul congregation’s decision when they saw an engagement notice in the July 24 edition of the American Jewish World, announcing that the first gay couple had scheduled a commitment ceremony. Alex Locke and Chad Hewitt have a ceremony planned for Oct. 10, 2010.
Locke told the AJW that he and Hewitt met with Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, senior rabbi of Temple of Aaron. From there, the rabbi took the issue to the ritual committee of the synagogue to approve the ceremony. Then, it went to the board of directors, which overwhelmingly approved the decision to allow the synagogue to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies.
According to Locke, Rabbi Shavit-Lonstein was on board from the beginning. “[Rabbi Shavit-Lonstein] has been absolutely wonderful and he was in favor of it from the get go,” said Locke.
The ceremony itself will be very similar to a traditional Jewish wedding. “The differences are going to be small, and it’s really going to be in the language, the things that the rabbi says, but there‘s still going to be the chupa and the glass stomping and the seven brachot,” Locke explained. “It will look like a traditional Jewish wedding”.
Temple of Aaron’s decision to allow these ceremonies is seen by some as a major step in the movement for equality in the gay and lesbian community. Amy Johnson, the director of OutFront Minnesota, a statewide homosexual advocacy organization, and a Jew herself, was very happy with the decision.
“I’m very proud that they are offering the dignity and respect that our families deserve. I would expect nothing less of Temple of Aaron to embrace the fact that love and a commitment to have a Jewish household is worthy of celebration,” said Johnson. “I hope [other synagogues] embrace the same tikkun olam [as Temple of Aaron].”
Steven Rosenbaum is an editorial intern at the American Jewish World.
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