Metro Views: A community polarized to a pulp

How a gay wedding announcement exposed the animosities between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in northern New Jersey.

By MARILYN HENRY
October 23, 2010 22:23
Two grooms at a gay wedding.

New Jersey homosexual_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Let’s shoot the messenger. It is much easier than confronting the pain and polarization unleashed by the message. The messenger in this case is the Jewish Standard, an independent weekly newspaper that has been serving the affluent Jewish communities of northern New Jersey for 80 years.

One might think that the newspaper was the official decisor of Jewish values, and suddenly had forced its readers to the religious left. How else can one explain the relentless anger, ill will, the frenzy in the last month since the paper printed an announcement of a gay wedding, illustrated with a photo of two good-looking young men?

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The Standard quickly apologized for printing it, which was seen as kowtowing to the offended Orthodox rabbis. Days later, the newspaper said that maybe it apologized too quickly, bowing to other rabbis, some of whom may have been offended by gay marriage but all of whom seemed more offended by the perceived kowtowing to the Orthodox.

Full disclosure: This is my local newspaper, and I like the editor and her staff. I live in Teaneck, frequent the Orthodox establishments and know most of the local rabbis. I am wed to one of them.

It would be easy to assail Jewish newspapers in the US, but it would miss the point. What matters is that a 250- word simha announcement of a gay wedding in a Jewish newspaper led to muscle-flexing, hand-wringing and exposed many animosities between the demographically powerful Orthodox and generally indifferent non-Orthodox communities here in northern New Jersey.

The Orthodox feel reviled. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, representing the Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement on October 12 that seemed deeply personal. “The rabbis of our community have been vilified in the most insulting, defamatory and obnoxious of terms,” it wrote, saying its members had been labeled on blogs as “thugs, ayatollahs, mafiosos, Taliban and who knows what else.”

Then the non-Orthodox community woke up and seemed to feel simultaneously energized and disenfranchised. They are represented by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis – Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist – whose members are divided but insist that everyone get along. “We recognize the Jewish Standard as our community newspaper and as such we do not expect to approve of or agree with everything you publish. That should be true for the Orthodox community as well. You need to serve the entire Jewish community, not just one segment or another,” the board said in a letter to the editor of the newspaper.

That’s all very nice, but preaching to the paper doesn’t bring the Orthodox to the table with their neighbors to determine how to resuscitate moribund relations among the religious streams.

The only ones who must heed religious sensitivities are the commercial institutions. In Teaneck, that means kosher restaurants. The Orthodox may be their bread and butter, but they do not make the meal. The restaurateurs know that in a town of 40,000 with more than a dozen kosher eateries, the observant alone cannot support them; a variety of consumers are required if the restaurants are to succeed.

The main communal institutions are the Jewish federations, which collect money for local Jewish agencies and organizations abroad. They seem to ignore religious sensitivities. Instead there is a tendency to refer sentimentally to klal yisrael, as if unity exists or as if communal polarization doesn’t affect them.

Federations cannot behave like ostriches in these tight financial times. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported this month that charitable giving to the 400 biggest donor-funded nonprofit organizations in the US fell 11 percent last year. In the Jewish world, income was down 10.1% at the New York Jewish federation, down 15.1% in Chicago, down 23% in Los Angeles and a stunning 44.3% in the San Francisco Bay area. Only the Baltimore federation had an increase in income, the Chronicle reported.

The brouhaha in New Jersey has given donors, large and small, reason to ask where the communal money comes from and where it goes. It is generally known that the federations get significantly less income from the Orthodox community, but dole out a significant percentage to it. When institutions serving the Orthodox (who do have a higher cost of living from day-school tuitions alone) seek funds from the federation, do they say: “But not from gay Jews”? Guess.

The denominational financial divisions are not public. “We do not track these data and do not organize allocations in this way – in fact, to the contrary, we are a community- wide organization and do not allocate based on what any segment contributes, whether it be geographic, age cohort, religious stream, etc.,” said Howard Charish, who is concluding his term as executive vice president of my local philanthropy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “This kind of distinction is counter to our values and responsibility of meeting needs.”

One would think that the federation, as the main communal institution, would lead efforts to bridge the Great Jewish Divide. Not yet. It is in for a painful awakening. Past schisms in the Jewish world (one thinks of “who is a Jew”) prove that people vote with their wallets. Given the difficult financial times and judging from the painful reactions in the aftermath of the wedding announcement, it is hard to believe that the non-Orthodox community will be generous to the Orthodox without a sense of reciprocity. They may become more like Orthodox donors, overlooking the “community chest” of the federations and choosing designated charitable giving to ensure that donations flow to like-minded folks.

The Orthodox world is struggling to deal with homosexuality. And here in the US, times are changing for gays – for better and for worse. According to the Pew Research Center, for the first time in its 15 years of polling on the question, fewer than half of the Americans surveyed opposed same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, a federal judge in California ordered the US military to stop enforcing the law known by the childish term “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Last week, a federal appellate panel reinstated the law, but the genie was out of the bottle.

That law, which prohibited openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces, violates service members’ rights of due process and free speech, Judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled.

And on the horrific side, in the last month, a Rutgers University student killed himself after other students posted on the Internet a video of his encounter with another youth. And in the Bronx, three men were tortured by a gang who believed them to be gay.

The Jewish communities in the metro New York area have successfully skirted public discussion about gay rights. But the commotion over the wedding announcement has forced many issues to the forefront. The most important is not gay rights. It is whether the Jewish denominations can live together respectfully, despite their differences. So far, that happens only at kosher restaurants.


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