Jewish Federation embraces inclusive approach

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is  President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

By Andrew Rehfeld

The United States Supreme Court’s ruling last Friday to extend marriage equality to all people was a landmark decision. It came in the same week that public opinion turned decisively against the display of the Confederate flag. After the horrific shootings in Charleston, South Carolina earlier in June, the flag became a recognized symbol of slavery, oppression and racism that even its strongest defenders could not ignore. These two events, coming within days of each other, seem to signal a dramatic shift in public opinion in favor of institutional equality and justice for all. After a year of disheartening news focused on discrimination and racial inequity, both achievements were broadly welcomed.  

Based on public pronouncements by major Jewish organizations that represent the vast majority of American Jews, our community was enthusiastic about both of these changes. Indeed, many people noted with pride that all three Jewish Supreme Court justices voted to approve the decision — Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan — and many of the advocates who contributed to the marriage equality movement over the last 20 years were Jews as well. 

Sadly, the Jewish identity of some leaders of the marriage equality movement and the three Supreme Court justices has caused some to “blame” Jews for what they see as the desecration of the traditional institution of marriage. 

And yet our community is diverse with some still opposing the extension of marriage equality to gays. The Orthodox community, for example, in its commitment to Torah Judaism and tradition, stands by and large in opposition to homosexuality and in particular gay marriage. In statements by at least two major Orthodox organizations, the decision was viewed as a further assault on traditional values and western civilization. These were not fringe groups, but rather groups that embrace what they see as the unchanging ethical demands of our tradition.


But the Orthodox community is not monolithic and parts are struggling with how to respond. Recognizing the changing understanding of human sexuality and identity, it is seeking to embrace tolerance and acceptance. One prominent Orthodox rabbi posted an important statement that Orthodox communities will have to figure out a way to welcome a new generation of families that exist in our midst, ones with gay married parents. These families will be looking for the beauty, grace and moral foundations that so much of Jewish life provides to so many. The question for him was how do we do this without giving up a commitment to Torah Judaism. He did not have the answer, but he was certainly struggling with what will be a critical question for traditionalists in the years to come.   

Jewish Federation of St. Louis remains here to support our entire Jewish community. We proudly marched with other local Jewish organizations and congregations in the St. Louis Pride celebration last weekend. But we also recognize that for a portion of our community, this decision is one that will remain challenging. We hope that the approach of inclusion will be embraced by all, even those who view these relationships as contrary to the fundamental spirit of Orthodoxy.  And we hope that everyone will recognize and appreciate the difficulty with which others are struggling to maintain their commitment to traditional values in the face of enormous societal change. 

Jewish Federation of St. Louis will continue to monitor any prejudicial backlash against our community for our public support of the decision. Right now, we take a moment to appreciate that for many, justice has come, and their right to live and love whomever they want is guaranteed by law. We celebrate and embrace that fact, and continue to welcome everyone into the tradition, beauty and values of our inclusive St. Louis Jewish community.  

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.