Omaha World-Herald, June 8, 1999

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Same-Sex Rite Renews Omaha Synagogue's Debate


A "commitment ceremony" performed by the senior rabbi at Temple Israel on Sunday for two Jewish men came as no surprise to his congregation.

The issue of whether rabbis at Temple Israel could officiate at a same-sex ceremony had been under discussion for a year. But now that Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has gone ahead with the service, opposition that had simmered for several months broke out anew.

Synagogue member Michael Marcovitz of Fremont said he is among a sizable number of people upset by Azriel's actions.

Phil Wolf, who was on the task force that examined the issue, doesn't disagree that many people are upset. He said, however, that he hopes Marcovitz and others can set aside their feelings and look at the ceremony from the perspective of the two men and their families.

"If we try to look at the positive in it for them and then let that influence how we react, it will keep things in balance," Wolf said. "I don't want bad things to come of this. I don't want a fracture in the congregation. I don't want a set of problems to arise over something that was a simple, positive thing for the people involved."

The two men live in Kansas. One is a member of Temple Israel.

Azriel convened the task force last year after the men asked him to perform the ceremony at Temple Israel.

The task force and the Reform synagogue's board of trustees did not endorse commitment ceremonies. But they did conclude that Azriel has "freedom of the pulpit" the authority, in other words to decide whether to perform any life-cycle ceremony, including a commitment ceremony.

Azriel said Monday that he wouldn't comment on the ceremony. He said he was proud of his 810-family congregation at 7023 Cass St. whether it agreed with him or not.

Mimi Waldbaum and Carol Farber, who were on the task force, said they had no objection to the ceremony.

Farber said she had had many telephone calls about it, but "frankly, that's not my business."

"My business is to take care of my own spirituality and to live up to my own principles," she said.

Farber and Wolf said they hoped that Temple Israel would not experience the controversy that convulsed its neighbor, First United Methodist Church. The Methodist congregation split after its pastor at the time, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, performed a covenant ceremony for two women in September 1997. Creech and Azriel were friends.

Unlike the Methodist Church, the Reform Movement of Judaism does not prohibit its clergy from performing such same-sex ceremonies.

The issue, however, has caused considerable controversy within the Reform movement among lay people and clergy alike.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has been unable to reach a consensus on the matter.

Temple Israel leaders formed a task force last June. Temple leaders met twice, held a panel discussion and invited input from the congregation. The letter affirming Azriel's pulpit privileges went out in October.

Marcovitz said that the panel was stacked and that debate was quashed in the months after the forum. He said he supports civil rights for gays and lesbians and would give "lukewarm support" to civil marriages for them.

Religious sanctioning is another matter, he said. "It seems rather clear to me that this wasn't God's intention."

Marcovitz said he also doesn't understand why Azriel won't marry a Jewish man and a gentile woman, or vice versa, yet will conduct a ceremony for two Jews of the same gender.

"How do you justify that?" he asked. "It seems to me a very warped interpretation of what marriage means."