Congregation B’nai Amoona will allow same-sex commitment ceremonies

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

Just one day after celebrating its 125th anniversary, Congregation B’nai Amoona overwhelmingly voted to permit same-sex commitment ceremonies during a special congregation meeting on Monday night.

About 250 congregants, family members and guests turned out for the meeting, and 226 people voted on the measure, which allows commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples to take place on the grounds of B’nai Amoona.

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Of the 226 votes, 89 percent, or 204 votes, were in favor of permitting commitment ceremonies and 11 percent, 22 votes, were against the measure. B’nai Amoona is the first Conservative congregation in the St. Louis area to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies, and only one of a handful in the country.

“We’re in the midst of making history,” said Senior Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose. “This is one step, but it’s monumental.”

Rose said that the congregation’s Ritual Committee, headed by Dr. David Kantor would take the next step, and determine what a commitment ceremony will entail.

Rose said one thing is for certain: commitment ceremonies will not be the same as kiddushin, or marriage ceremonies.

“Our committee on Jewish Law and Standards did not approve Jewish marriages yet,” Rose said. “One way or another, what we will ultimately have is a ceremony that will be strongly and significantly, consciously, different from our marriage rituals.”

Karen Grossman Tabak, president of the congregation, said the motion to allow same-sex ceremonies was careful to remain within the Conservative Movement’s halachic rules-and within state law.

“We were very careful to stick to commitment ceremonies,” she said. “There is a pattern in Jewish tradition to be respectful of the laws of the community, so we weren’t working to change Missouri law, we were working within the framework of the law. “

Rose said he predicts that the congregation will have its first same-sex commitment ceremony “by this time next year. “

Discussions on the congregation’s policies were prompted by a December, 2006 ruling of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, a part of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional association of Conservative rabbis. The committee passed three, conflicting teshuvot, or halachic rulings on homosexuality.

Two rulings were in favor of the status quo, forbidding same sex commitment ceremonies and preventing homosexuals from being ordained as rabbis or cantors. The third ruling allows for gay and lesbian Jews to be ordained and for homosexual couples to have their relationship recognized by a commitment ceremony.

A previous 1992 ruling by the committee encouraged communities to permit homosexuals to become members of Conservative congregations, but it did not allow rabbis to sanctify those relationships.

The conflicting teshuvot released in December allow individual congregations and rabbis to decide which rules to apply for their community.

However, the committee’s ruling maintains the ban on anal sex between men, and it specifies that commitment ceremonies will not be the same as weddings.

Tabak said the congregation knew the committee would be discussing the issue, and began almost a year ago, preparing for what B’nai Amoona would do if the committee decided to release a halachic ruling allowing commitment ceremonies.

Earlier this year, B’nai Amoona held a “Shabbat of Inclusion,” where the committee’s decision was discussed, and lesbians and gays shared their stories of feeling disconnected from the Conservative Movement.

In March, the congregation brought up the motion to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies, and held a discussion about the topic, in advance of the June 4 meeting where the vote took place.

At the meeting on Monday, congregants were allowed to discuss the issue once again, before the voting took place. Only three people spoke at the meeting, and all three were in favor of the motion.

Rose and Tabek said they have heard some opposition to the policy, but that overall, support for the measure was strong.

“We’ve had a few people express some strong dissension privately, but it certainly not overwhelming,” Tabek said.

“This decision is fraught with all kinds of challenges,” Rabbi Rose said, “and as with any change, there’s always the possibility that some people are going to be disaffected.”

“I don’t mean as a rabbi of this institution to suggest that somebody who does not see the halachic reasoning of the position paper permitting commitment ceremonies as a person who is wrong or bad, or homophobic or closed-minded,” Rose said.

“We remember that the traditional view has 2,000 years of precedent, and there are, legitimately, people who do not see the argument as persuasive.”

Tabak echoed that sentiment, saying that the congregation leadership would “be sensitive to the positions of people who are not comfortable with all aspects of the commitment ceremonies.”

Tabak, who has only a few days left as congregation president, said the decision follows a precedent set by past leaders of B’nai Amoona.

“We have a history in this congregation of being progressive, being on the forefront of controversial issues, and this is an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of some really remarkable people,” Tabak said.

“I think the founders of the congregation, who had the bravery 125 years ago to found the congregation, would be extremely proud,” she said.

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