Sign In Forgot Password

How We Did It 

02/21/2020 09:43:42 AM

Feb21

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

A Model for Drafting, Debating, and Adopting  a Gay and Lesbian Inclusion Policy in an Orthodox Shul 

Over a period of 15 months, our shul, B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, conducted a process of communal thinking and learning in order to adopt a policy which we named: Keeping Our Families Whole. 

In June of 2017, at the conclusion of a Board of Directors meeting that nobody left despite the meeting’s being well into its third hour, our shul formally adopted a policy called “Keeping Our Families Whole”.  The policy set forth the rules and guidelines by which our shul would welcome and include gay and lesbian Jews and their families, and included a short preface describing the religious values that the policy was intending to express. The policy was accompanied by a short essay that I had written, which I titled “The Halachic Scaffolding of our Policy”, which we agreed would serve as the resource and reference point as we implemented our policy in the coming years. The atmosphere in the Board Meeting was intense, focused, polite, and honest as wordsmithing, adding, and subtracting were undertaken.  And by the time the final vote was taken, this relatively diverse group of Orthodox Jews were in accord that we had crafted a policy that was wise, proper, and necessary.   

As the rabbi of the congregation, I played a pivotal role in creating and shepherding the process that culminated that evening, and I am eager to share my experience in the hope that it will enable others to do something similar.  The process was a long and methodical one that began more than a year before the culminating vote. Long though it was, I have no doubt whatsoever that it was essential to our ultimate success. This is the process that I will here share. 

Foundations: 

Before we ever began any kind of formal synagogue process, two events occurred that laid the foundations, respectively signaling that something needed to be done, and that something could be done.   

The first, in June of 2011, was a Shabbat afternoon gathering at which my old friend from our YU days, Rabbi Steve Greenberg and two guests whom he had brought with him, simply shared their stories of being Orthodox gay or lesbian Jews – stories filled with anguish, joy, religious devotion, and humanity. This was shortly after Rabbi Greenberg and Miryam Kabakov had  founded a new organization called Eshel, intended to support Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews and their families. To my great surprise, the private home in which we convened the event was so jam-packed with attendees that dozens of people unfortunately had to be turned away at the door. And it wasn’t only members of my own shul who were there; it was people from all over the Orthodox community. This groundswell of interest was profoundly eye-opening.  

The second, was the coming together of a group of rabbinic colleagues committed to thinking through the relevant issues. In the Fall of 2015 I invited fellow members of the IRF (International Rabbinic Fellowship) to deeply process the central Halachic and policy questions pertaining to gay and lesbian inclusion, and I am very grateful to the group who accepted my invitation and worked hard together over the course of a half dozen conference calls spanning several months. I am especially grateful for the participation in this group of Rabbi Dov Linzer, whose guidance was invaluable. I also benefited greatly from the opportunity I was given to present our group’s deliberations at a session of the May 2016 Conference of the IRF. Processing with colleagues is an indispensable piece of undertaking a project of this nature, and I am thankful for their willingness to engage.     

Establishing the Need: 

“Keeping Our Families Whole” is not the self-evident choice of title for this policy, but it is a choice that speaks to the project’s foundational dynamic. My hope going in was that the entirety of the membership – or as close to the entirety as possible – would understand the need to craft and adopt a formal policy. As such, I did not broach the topic of gay and lesbian inclusion as an abstract religious or ethical imperative. I rather did so very specifically and deliberately in terms of the most practical  - and potentially wrenching - challenge that we would invariably face as a community. The day was not far away, we all knew, when (at least) one of our children – a child who grew up as an integral member of our shul -  would go off to college, return to the community with his or her partner, and very naturally desire to join his or her childhood shul family together with this partner. The prospect of our stammering and hesitating in response because we had no policy in place, would obviously be unacceptable, seeringly painful, and potentially destructive of our communal fabric as people lined up to take sides.  As a congregation that always seeks to act responsibly, we all could agree that we needed to be prepared with clear guidelines, not drawn up in the heat of a moment, but thought out in a deliberate and principled way. We knew that we wanted to and needed to “Keep Our families Whole”. The only question was how precisely to go about this, what sort of process to construct. 

We began formally by putting together a Shabbat afternoon program (August 2016) which featured the headmaster of the Yeshiva high school that most of our children attend, and two of “our own” who had come out, including one born-and-bred child of our shul who, now a high school senior, was working together with his headmaster to develop school policies that established safe space for all students, straight or gay. At the program’s conclusion I explicitly made the case that we needed to begin the policy-crafting process, a conclusion with which few in the audience could disagree. At the Board Meeting several weeks after the program, I secured the authorization to convene a group that would initiate a policy-drafting process.  

The Process: Who 

In broad terms, the people at the core of the thinking and drafting process needed to include both clergy and laity, as the policy would need to be informed both by religious/halakhic and practical/political wisdom. In consultation with our Board of Directors I nominated a half-dozen lay leaders to work on the project. The primary criteria I used for my nominations were that these needed to be people who agreed on the need to have a policy (though not necessarily on what it should state), who were not opposed in principle to gay and lesbian inclusion, who represented a gamut of political views generally, who had a track record of being able to articulate their thoughts clearly while listening closely to others, and who were admired and respected within the congregation. The group was demographically varied, and - crucially – included one of our members who is gay. It was to our special advantage that this member had grown up within the Orthodox shul/school system. 

The Process: What 

The first meeting of our working group had two goals. First, I would present the religious/Halachic framework within which our project would proceed. After that we would brainstorm in a free-ranging way about issues pertaining to membership classifications for same-sex couples, how various lifecycle events in the lives of same-sex couples could be observed, and what political consideration  - both in terms of our own membership, and in terms of our greater Orthodox neighborhood  -  we would need to be mindful of. (The central metaphor in the latter discussion became the old board game “Operation” in which the nose of the patient would illuminate red and buzz it a sensitive nerve were hit.)  

In terms of the religious / Halachic framework, the appended “Halachic Scaffolding” document represents this framework in its fully developed version. The rudiments were clear though from the beginning. These were that: 

      (1) we had the full range of standard interpersonal obligations of kindness and fairness and menschlechkeit (a very important word, despite its resistance to easy translation) to all who enter our doors to daven and learn and “commune” with us 

     (2) our most basic mission as a synagogue was to open opportunities for Mitzva observance and Torah study to all Jews who wished to partake, not to close them, 

     (3) our commitment to Halacha meant that we could not Jewishly recognize the validity of same-sex marriage, and that without extreme clarity around this point, our policy would lack integrity. 

The brainstorming portion of the meeting was dynamic and open, as numerous possibilities were raised and debated. When the meeting wound down, and we came to the “next steps” part of the conversation, I pledged to turn my copious notes into a draft policy proposal, which the group would then critique, edit, amend, or even trash altogether at our next meeting.  

The Process: Using the Draft as a text 

 By the end of the group’s second meeting, we had a draft policy that addressed membership and life-cycle issues, along with a preamble expressing the religious / Halachic framework. We decided that this draft would make an effective educational tool, as we broadened the process to include the wider congregation. Each of the members of the working group was assigned the task of inviting members of his or her shul social group to a living room meeting that would be scheduled within the next 3 weeks. We would take care to not duplicate invitations, to make sure that among us we invited all of the members of the board, and to invite people whom we thought would appreciate and value the opportunity to participate in the process. While our plan ought to have resulted in a half-dozen separate meetings within a three-week period, we actually ended up consolidating into four meetings over the course of two months. This change resulted from the sheer difficulty of coordinating people’s busy schedules, and also from the recognition that the members of the groups slowly came to that I – as the senior rabbi – would need to be personally present at each of the meetings, to frame and to answer questions.  

The living room meetings were a great success. Participants read the document in “havruta”, and in preparation for group discussion, to formulate responses to three questions: 

     (1) Is this what you expected to see? Are there elements that are surprising? 

     (2) Do the preamble and the policy details that follow seem consistent? 

     (3) What potential concerns or objections do you think we should anticipate? 

This exercise yielded not only thoughtful and helpful discussion, and not only engaged a larger group in the process, but also provided an unplanned but crucially important additional result. It created an opportunity for people with strong feelings to see and appreciate the fact that others of their friends had equally strong but differing thoughts and feelings. These mutual revelations significantly contributed to the ultimate success of our work, as everyone understood that the policy we’d eventually arrive at would not be perfectly suited to anybody’s individual vision, but would be a community project, with all of the sacred imperfections that this implied.  

As the living room meetings proceeded, I continued to tweak the draft in response to the feedback we received (for example that the “preamble” be a separate document, with only a one paragraph synopsis at the top of the policy document.) I shared each new iteration with the working group, so that the process was transparent and collaborative. I also regularly updated the board as to how the project was progressing, inviting any board member who wished to meet with me or with any of the working group’s members for more insight and information.  

The Process: Expanding the Circle 

As the drafting process picked up steam, I shared versions of the draft with rabbinic colleagues whom I trusted, and I eagerly listened to and often incorporated their feedback. I also reached out to my close Orthodox rabbinic colleagues in the neighborhood, to apprise them of what would soon be unfolding. As a general rule it is crucially important to ensure that one’s colleagues do not hear of your potentially controversial policies through the rumor mill. Direct communication is both a way to pre-empt inaccuracy in reporting, and a way of demonstrating genuine kavod for one’s colleagues.  

The living room meetings soon ran their course, and the draft was approaching completion. Yet, even at this point much of the congregation was not yet directly involved in the process. And while the board was fully authorized to pass a policy without the input of the general membership, this seemed like a very poor strategy in this sensitive case. It would be the general membership after all, who would be the people who would be engaged at Shabbat tables and in the aisles of the Kosher grocery store by community members not in our shul who had heard that we had passed a gay and lesbian inclusion policy. In response to this concern, I scheduled a Shabbat afternoon shiur and discussion to which all members (and only members!) were invited. While so large a gathering obviously didn’t provide nearly the same opportunity for discussion as the living room meetings did,  it afforded me the opportunity both to highlight the main points in the draft proposal and to answer as many questions as I feasibly could in that setting, and also to describe the thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and integrity of the process.  

During this same period, I was reaching out personally to members who – according to helpful and discrete information sharing – had concerns. I invited people to coffee specifically for the purpose of a one-on-one meeting to talk about their concerns. The resulting handful of meetings were candid and forthright in nature. I could not fully satisfy all of the concerns, but I was able to at least partially ameliorate some of them, and was able in all cases to convey that I was hearing them. And I believe that they were hearing me as well.  These coffee meetings prevented potential conflicts down the road, and also prepared me for issues that might arise at the final turn – the Board meeting at which the final draft would be voted upon.  

The Board Meeting (June 2017) 

The mood was serious and somber, but there was also a sense of history in the air. The members of the board tangled with the text as if it were a page of Talmud, raising multiple possible interpretations of various words that were in the text, as well as multiple interpretations of the words that were absent from the text. Some members were intent on making sure that the policy would not be utilized to permit things we had said were beyond what we could do, and some were intent on making sure that the policy did not preclude practices that we were pledged to enact. As the rabbi I remained silent except to answer questions that were posed to me. By this point, I had either succeeded or failed in my educational work, and responsibility was now properly placed in the hands of the lay leadership.  

As the deliberations proceeded it became clear that the two sides were going to need to compromise a bit here and there, accepting the replacement of one particular word in exchange for the replacement of another in a different paragraph. Probably the most important technique the board decided to utilize was the acceptance of some phrases that were ambiguous in their ultimate practical meaning, and explicitly (in the policy) leaving certain granular decisions to the discretion of the clergy.  

The final barrier ultimately was the question of how this policy would – or wouldn’t – be made public. How could we be sure that the people whom we are intending to welcome could become aware of the policy’s existence without the shul generating what might be unwanted attention from some sectors of the Orthodox community. This deliberation sent the meeting into extra innings, but with the same sobriety, seriousness of purpose, and determination to make it over the finish line, the members of the board squeezed out a suitable compromise on this final issue as well.  

The fruit of this long and labor-intensive road is the formally adopted policy document, which I will be happy to share with you upon request. (Please email me at ravyosef@bnaidavid.com)  You may be envisioning something somewhat different for your community, and even a document composed only two and half years ago may already seem out-of-sync. I am hopeful though that our process, the process of consensus-building and community education will be helpful for you regardless.  

Wed, November 25 2020 9 Kislev 5781