LGBTQ Inclusion: How welcoming are Conservative shuls?

Justine Apple

When she first came out, at 21, Justine Apple contemplated talking to her then rabbi.

“But then I thought, given he’s Orthodox and probably believes that having same-sex attraction is an abomination, there’s no way he’ll accept me for who I am.” 

Apple, now 37, is executive director of Jewish LGBTQ social and cultural group Kulanu Toronto and an active member of the unaffiliated, queer-inclusive synagogue Shir Libeynu. 

In her late 20s, she veered away from what she describes as her “Conservadox background” and her parents’ Orthodox shul.

“The members there are lovely and welcoming… the rabbis have ultimately been accepting,” Apple explained. “I just didn’t feel I could completely be myself – ‘gay’ is not a topic openly acknowledged there.

“I wanted to belong to a synagogue where my sexual orientation and my religious orientation were acknowledged.”

She found this at Shir Libeynu, where she’s comfortable bringing partners to services and appreciates the insertion of queer references into the liturgy.

Apple’s longing for a synagogue in which being gay is not simply tolerated but treated as a matter of pride speaks volumes to the ambiguity of the mainstream Jewish community’s attitudes towards – and inclusion of – gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.

Over the past decade, there have been sweeping, cross-denominational developments, but the matter remains fraught for many Jewish institutional leaders.  

On the progressive end, Reform and other liberal strands of Judaism have, by and large, embraced LGBTQ Jews as fully equal members of their communities and congregations in the way of both rights and rituals – including access to rabbinically ordained weddings. 

Within Orthodoxy, homosexuality is undeniably deemed a halachic violation, but the liberalization of societal values, coupled with a 2010 plea by a group of Orthodox rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America for greater compassion towards homosexual Jews, has made Orthodox rabbis more sensitive to the destructiveness of stigmatizing or trying to “make straight” queer Jews. 

Increasingly, they’re welcoming LGBTQ congregants, encouraging them to perform what mitzvot they can.

That change is permeating even Judaism’s stricter corners speaks to the issue’s resonance and complexity. 

Particularly complex are the shifts and splits in the middle realm of Conservative Judaism. 

In 1990, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association of Conservative rabbis, passed a resolution opposing violence against gays and lesbians, stating support for LGBTQ civil equality and encouraging LGBTQ inclusion in synagogues. 

But it wasn’t until 2006 that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which guides halachic policy for the movement, addressed whether Conservative rabbis could perform same-sex weddings, revealing profound divisions. 

Two contradictory rabbinic rulings were passed with equal support: One prohibits same-sex marriage and the other permits gay and lesbian Jews to “have their committed relationships… recognized” by a rabbi.  

The upshot is that it’s left up to the individual Conservative rabbi to decide if he or she is comfortable marrying a same-sex couple. An alternate ritual ceremony, which accounts for the specificity of a same-sex union, was constructed for the purpose.

But leniency from the movement’s authorities on this front has not, it seems, translated into substantive change on a practical level – at least, not in Canada.

In 2013, the RA’s affiliate, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, surveyed its North American congregations regarding inclusion of LGBTQ Jews.

According to the survey’s author, Rabbi Paul Drazen, close to 80 per cent said they perform life-cycle events, such as aufrufs, for gay members, but that, although 60 per cent said they would perform a same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony, “it wasn’t clear… if they were just answering philosophically.” 

The responses weren’t separated by country, but Rabbi Drazen said a rabbi’s choice is likely informed by culture.

“In red [Republican] states there are probably fewer rabbis doing it than in blue [Democrat] states… In L.A., say, most Conservative rabbis will officiate at gay weddings.”

Yet, this theory doesn’t apply in Canada’s larger, more progressive cities. 

Rabbi Alan W. Bright of Montreal’s Conservative Shaare Zedek Congregation said Montreal Conservative rabbis aren’t comfortable marrying gay couples at present, as they grapple with how to apply kiddushin – the component of a wedding signifying divine sanctification – to the union of individuals whose sexual activity is considered contrary to Halachah.

“I’m fully accepting of all sexual orientations. I just have to find a way of making [the marriage ceremony] fit with Jewish law.” 

He suggested Montreal’s Conservative rabbis are more traditional than their American counterparts because the Montreal Jewish community has strong  Orthodox roots, while American Jewry has a much larger Reform influence. 

“On one hand, Canada is more progressive regarding gay rights than the U.S.,” said Rabbi Adam Cutler of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, Canada’s largest Conservative synagogue. “On the other, Canada’s Conservative Jewish community…is more conservative on a number of issues, including this one.” 

He added: “To my knowledge, none of the Conservative rabbis in Toronto officiate at same-sex weddings.” 

Kulanu recently compiled a list of “LGBT-friendly Jewish congregations” in Toronto.  Of the 22 they listed, five are Conservative, three are Orthodox, seven are Reform and one is Reconstructionist (the remaining are unaffiliated, traditional-egalitarian or secular humanist).

Of the 11 that said they perform same-sex weddings, none are Conservative.

Rabbi Kliel Rose of Edmonton’s Conservative Beth Shalom Synagogue said he hasn’t been asked, but would happily perform same-sex weddings.

“I would be happy to do it but I haven’t yet been approached to,” he said.

In Vancouver, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of the Reform Temple Sholom said it’s his understanding that he and a temple colleague are the only congregational rabbis in the city who will marry LGBTQ couples. 

A recent transplant from California, he speculated: “My experience in the States was it was very much a social justice issue. Here, where gay marriage is legal, [Conservative rabbis] perhaps feel the social justice component less.” 

The bottom line is that LGBTQ Jews might well be welcomed in Canadian Conservative shuls, but the boundary of inclusion is typically drawn at marriage.

“I think we need to disassociate the [welcoming of an] individual person from a ceremony we’re not comfortable performing at this time,” said Rabbi Cutler.

Whether this is a sufficient level of inclusion continues to remain, at least for now, up to individual rabbis and LGBTQ congregants to decide.