Ontario’s Conservative rabbis pave the way for easier LGBTQ conversions

Rabbi Jarrod Grover (Paul Lungen/The CJN)

The organization that represents Conservative rabbis in Ontario has adopted a policy that will allow the official Conservative beit din (religious court) to offer conversions to candidates who identify as homosexuals.

The decision was taken by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) Ontario Region, which represents around 25 Conservative rabbis in the province, and announced early in June. The announcement coincides with Pride Month, the period during which the impact LGBTQ people have had in their communities is celebrated.

The rabbis adopted the new policy by consensus, said Rabbi Jarrod Grover, president of the RA’s Ontario wing and spiritual leader of the Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto.

He said “younger more progressive colleagues” are influencing the movement. As older rabbis retire, “new colleagues are coming in and some are surprised to hear that our regional beit din was not accommodating LGBT individuals,” he said.

Although the number of gay and lesbian conversion candidates may be small – maybe one or two in a given year – the decision sends a signal that people of varying sexual orientations will be welcomed into the Jewish fold in the Conservative movement.

“It will preserve the dignity of our LGBT candidates. What it will do is make them feel included and more welcome,” Rabbi Grover said.

“The message is: we have a strong and growing group of Conservative rabbis who have re-evaluated their positions on the acceptance of LGBT individuals.”

In the past, some Conservative rabbis had found a way to offer conversions to people who identify as gay or lesbian: instead of referring conversion candidates to the official beit din, which might well have rejected their candidacy, they convened religious courts of their own and applied the relevant halakhic considerations to the candidates.

“We would evaluate gay and lesbian candidates with rabbis who did not consider homosexuality as precluding conversion and we’d give them a fair hearing,” Rabbi Grover said.

If candidates met the criteria for conversion, they would undergo the conversion process and their acceptance into Judaism would be complete, he said.

According to Rabbi Grover, the official beit din likely would have rejected gay or lesbian candidates over the concern that they would not abide by halakhic principles. “To convert, you need to agree to abide by all the commandments and if you believe that engaging in a homosexual relationship is a violation of the commandments, then if someone tells you they are in, or intend to be in, a gay or homosexual relationship, that ends the discussion,” he explained.

The same principle would apply if the candidate were to say that he or she did not intend to keep Shabbat or eat kosher food. Those are negations of the law of the Torah and would eliminate the candidate for conversion.

“Some colleagues still feel homosexuality precludes conversion,” Rabbi Grover said.

The question regarding homosexuals, however, is, “What constitutes a violation of the laws of the Torah and what does not” given the varying approaches to this issue in the Conservative movement.

“Up until now, we had never had an open discussion among colleagues on the issue of homosexuality and its impact on the requirements for conversion,” Rabbi Grover said.

Rabbi Wayne Allen, who heads the Conservative beit din in Toronto, confirmed that under the new RA policy, he will appoint rabbis to the court who won’t automatically eliminate candidates because of their sexual orientation.

At that point, the prospective converts will undergo the regular conversion process and would have to meet the criteria set by the Conservative movement.

Over the years, the Conservative movement, both in Canada and the United States, has been moving towards greater acceptance of homosexuals.

In 1990, the RA’s committee on Jewish law and standards stated its desire to “work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life.” And in 2011, the committee called for a safe and welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ individuals.

Four years ago, Beth Tikvah hosted an aufruf (being called to recite blessings during the reading of the Torah) for a gay couple before their “commitment ceremony” at Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue.

Rabbi Grover suggested that the previous conversion policy sent a message to homosexuals that they were not fully welcome in the Conservative movement.

However, one of his conversion students this year “just loves Israel and is committed to Judaism more than some Jews who are born Jewish. He feels a calling to become Jewish, is fulfilling the commandments and he’s gay. His sexuality, the way God made him, should not distance himself from the community,” Rabbi Grover said.