Photo Credit:
The Stanton Street Shul / Photo credit: Afshin Darian

If things go according to plans, the Stanton Street Shul, which has been hosting Jewish worshipers on the Lower East Side since 1913, will be participating in the Eshel Downtown Shabbaton this coming Shabbat. According to the shul’s email, received by JNi.media, Eshel’s mission since 2010 has been to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The theme of the Shabbaton is Creating Welcoming Communities.

This event has been denounced in benign but clear language by local Orthodox rabbis, and as things stand, should the Shabbaton take place, the Stanton stands to be cut off from the mainstream Orthodox community, with possibly devastating consequences.

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A later email from the shul reflected the discomfort some congregants may have felt regarding the Shabbaton. It read: “In preparation for the Shabbat, we would like to invite you to an open forum tonight, May 31st at 7:30 PM at the Stanton Street Shul on the topic of ‘Why we are hosting the Eshel Shabbaton.’ At this time, we will hear from [shul Rabbi] Rabbi [Aviad] Bodner what the goals of the Shabbaton are and why we are hosting it. This will be an opportunity to express support, voice concerns, and ask questions.”

Although many of its regulars reside in the Grand Street Co-Ops near the East River in downtown Manhattan, and are part of the Orthodox community there, the Stanton Street Shul since the 1990s has charted a somewhat different path than the largely Haredi community south of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Stanton is located north of the bridge, in the hip/Hispanic community of Alphabet City (named after its north-south Avenues A, B, C, and D). As such, the Stanton, which at some point was salvaged by its congregants from being sold and converted into a church, caters to the unaffiliated Jews scattered in the neighborhood. On the high holidays and on a few other key dates during the Jewish year, the Stanton is packed with Jews, from Israeli NYU students to fallen Hasidim, to secular folks who miss that bit of traditional sweetness in their lives.

Needles to say, the Stanton Street Shul has also been more accepting and tolerant than most. Shabbat morning services often start at 10:30, Friday night kiddush includes a sampling of quality whiskeys, and the congregation has integrated several gay and transgender members with the kind of ease one doesn’t easily find outside New York City and Tel Aviv. The LGBT Shabbaton was another step in that direction of affiliating the shul more with uptown than with the Lower East Side.

On its website, Eshel writes that “through community gatherings Eshel helps LGBT Orthodox people pursue meaningful lives that encompass seemingly disparate identities while also fulfilling Jewish values around family, education, culture, and spirituality.” On that part, regarding the definition of Jewish values through the spectrum of the LGBT lifestyle, the Stanton Street Shul received its stern rebuke from the local rabbis.

The signatories at the bottom of a letter titled “An important Message to the Community” are well known beyond the Lower East Side: Rabbis David and Reuven Feinstein, the sons and spiritual heirs of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the universally accepted halakhic authority in North America; Rabbi Yeshaya Siff, of the Young Israel of Manhattan, possibly the sweetest and easiest going man of the cloth in downtown Manhattan; his son, Rabbi Azriel Siff, whose Chasam Sofer synagogue stands next door to the Stanton, but is well to the right of its hipster neighbor; and Rabbi Zvi Dovid Romm, whose Bialystoker synagogue hosts the largest congregation this side of 42nd Street.

“All Jews, whatever their challenges or levels of observance, are welcome in all of our shuls,” write the exulted rabbis. And they’re right, for an ultra-Orthodox community, the Lower East Side is probably the most open and accepting on the planet. Some have suggested that the reason for the sense of comfort that is so typical of this community has to do with the nature of the co-op apartments: everybody in the neighborhood is living in the same Soviet-style, square, low-ceilinged apartments — there are no secrets, no really rich and really poor. Things may have changed since privatization, people have been buying up and connecting strings of apartments, but the community is still humbler than most. But we digress.

“However, the basic mandate of the Orthodox synagogue is to promote fidelity to our Torah and our mesorah,” the letter continues. “Sadly, Eshel demands that we change the Torah’s timeless standards to accord with prevalent secular attitudes.”

Notice how instead of saying they’re furious, the rabbis stress their sadness, many times: “We are saddened that the Stanton Street Shul and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue have unilaterally chosen to associate our community with an organization which we cannot consider to be Orthodox, one whose stated aims are at odds with the verses of the Torah itself.”

Next, the rabbis deliver the only threatening line in their letter. It may not sound like one, but it’s a herem, an excommunication, as unmistaken as the herem that was imposed on Baruch Spinoza and Uriel da Costa in 1656 by the Amsterdam rabbinical court: “No Jewish institution that allies itself with such a group can rightfully claim to be Orthodox.”

That’s heavy. It means that many of the committed Orthodox members of both shuls, who preferred them over the Grand Street shuls for a variety of political and emotional reasons, are likely to leave. Excommunication is serious stuff. The letter calls on both shuls to disassociate themselves from the Eshel group and cancel the Shabbaton. We’ll keep you posted, if we can.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. It's not a threat it is a warning. People have to be warned of consequences before they are carried out. It was true with capital offences and with lashes too. You can't punish people assuming their violations are intentional rebellion. You have to warn them that they are committing such and such which carries the penalty of such and such. Theoretically the shul could be ignorant of the fact that their actions are not acceptable.

  2. There is nothing in the letter, as reported here, that suggests or hints at excommunication. I don't understand why the author thinks there is. This is bizzare.

    Saying something is "not orthodox" is not a hint of excommunication by any standard. Would the author characterize all Reform, Ccnservative or unffafiliated Jews as being treated as excommunicated?

  3. I am of the opinion that a motivating factor for anyone to join a particular shul besides the cost…is a feeling of feeling “comfortable”. Why one shul meets that comfort and another doesn’t has many layers…some of which are… congregants with whom they feel an affinity, a rabbi that espouses the thread of Judaism with which they are comfortable, their views are mostly aligned with general congregation, and feeling this could be a second “home”.
    Not wanting to join, align, or otherwise be forced to join a shul one is not comfortable is hardly a shanda. Attempting to describe someone in less than desirable terms for making deliberate and thoughtful choices in what shul they choose … or for choosing the company they keep is bigoted in its own right.
    IF shuls that adhere to certain principals, and make a concerted decision that they do not want to alter, change, or in anyway appear as if they have backtracked on their principals…can they be faulted for upholding their beliefs??? Would they be faulted for stating that regardless of pressure…they will not give up insisting on a mechitzas be present when davening??
    I think we are forgetting that both sides of an issue have rights. However, in today’s society, it seems as though if you (group A) are mad enough, feel insulted enough, feel rejected enough…it opens the door for group A to insist group B cave in to their demands.
    We better be very careful regarding giving up our rights to free association…..I want to be considered for the priesthood….so what if I am not Catholic…it is bigoted to keep me out JUST because I am a female, not Christian, and do not have similar religious philosophies.
    I want what I want. How 21st C that is!
    Laurie Dinersetin-Kurs.

  4. I remembered a saying and not from where, but one should encourage people to do as many mitzvois as possible. I remember that another says that our mitzvois and aveirois are like on a weight scale. By doing this, the cherem, you make our people less strong, you know. And you cut people off from the tradition we are bound to uphold, our birthright.

  5. We have enough enemies. I don't care what any two consenting adults do Just leave my children and family alone, Who are we to judge? I don't think anyone should tell someone who can be Jewish or not. Love each other mind your own business not theirs

  6. My gay grandson was born to my Jewish daughter who according to our mtdna we are Askenazi how can we change that. I will always love him. He is 100% Jewish. Who gives any Rabbi any right to dispute his Judisam? It is who your mother is that makes you Jewish. Enough with the mishagaus.

  7. Shimmy Braun The purpose of the homosexual agenda is not to achieve greater accepance etc. People who kept their problem secret were accepted. The purpose of the publicity is to ruin normal society, to make normal society over in their image. "We shall sodomize your sons, emblems of your feeble masculinity, of your shallow dreams and vulgar lies. We shall seduce them in your schools, in your dormitories, in your gymnasiums, in your locker rooms, in your sports arenas, in your seminaries, in your youth groups, in your movie theater bathrooms, in your army bunkhouses, in your truck stops, in your all male clubs, in your houses of Congress, wherever men are with men together. Your sons shall become our minions and do our bidding. They will be recast in our image. They will come to crave and adore us." rerad a little more. The place for homosexuals is first: in the closet, and second: in a treatment program, like Alcoholics Anonymus.

  8. The Jewishness of one born to a Jewish mother is not a matter of dispute. One born to a Jewish mother is Jewish. But male homosexuality is still a to`evah and a chayyav mitah according to the Torah. The Torah will never change.

    There's more to Yiddishkeit than merely being a secularist opponent of Xianity. What did Jews did for the thousand years between Moses and the birth of Xianity? They were THEOCRATS!

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