New York Jewish Seminary Refuses to Ordain Gay Rabbinical Student

Daniel Atwood's ordination was denied just three months shy of graduation.

A gay rabbinical student has been denied ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox Jewish seminary in New York City.

Daniel Atwood, 27, was in his fourth year at the Bronx yeshiva. Despite criticism from students, alumni, and Jewish LGBTQ groups, YCT leaders stand firmly behind their sudden decision to cancel Atwood's ordination, or semicha, Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports.

“Four years ago I came out as gay during my first year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and it was decided that I would receive semicha as their first openly gay student," says Atwood in a statement to The Jewish Week. "After four years of study and my completing almost all of the program’s requirements, YCT decided not to give me semicha, news delivered to me only a few weeks ago, three months before my graduation, without any prior conversation on the matter.”

"I always knew that being in the position that I am in would be a difficult process," Atwood continues. "I was always willing to navigate those challenges and work with YCT throughout this process. And I have always been fully committed to living my life according to Orthodox halacha. At the same time, I refuse to live anything but a dignified life, something I was always transparent about, including not being closeted or secret about my Torah, my identity, my beliefs, or my relationship."

Neither Atwood nor Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT's president and rosh yeshiva, have publicly commented on any specific reasons given for why the ordination was denied.

While Orthodox Judaism prohibits same-sex marriage, progressive Orthodox institutions like YCT have become more accepting of LGBTQ Jews and same-sex partnerships. The International Rabbinic Fellowship issued a statement in 2010 that “Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community.”

YCT, which ordained its first class in 2004 and has ordained more than 100 rabbis, prides itself on balancing traditional Orthodox tenets with progressive values. “We accept all students regardless of sexual orientation, provided that they are fully committed to Orthodox halachic observance,” Linzer says.

“Rabbi Linzer has always been at the forefront of respecting and advocating for the gay community within Orthodoxy—to suggest otherwise is not fair and not true,” YCT founder and liberal Orthodox community leader Rabbi Avi Weiss tells JTA. “I—like many others—am pained that Daniel will not be receiving semicha, but am in full agreement with Rabbi Linzer’s decision.”

In an email to YCT alumni, Linzer explains that Orthodox rabbis are held to higher standards than lay Orthodox people, noting that no Orthodox institution has sanctioned same-sex marriage or ordained openly gay rabbis.

“One of the big challenges for us as a rabbinical school is that there is a difference between communal inclusion, and between what it means to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi,” he writes. “So much more is expected and demanded from our rabbis than from our laity.”

“He came out to us in the end of his first year and we were fully prepared to give him semicha until certain circumstances arose over a few months ago,” Linzer tells JTA of denying Atwood's ordination. “Because this is such a sensitive issue, it took us a few months to come to the decision that I came to. I was trying to figure out if there was a possible way forward. I came to the conclusion there was not.”

As for possible "certain circumstances," Atwood and his partner, Judah Gavant, got engaged six months ago onstage at a Troye Sivan concert. They currently live together.

Linzer admits that “the yeshiva could have handled the process of informing Daniel, and coming to a timely decision, in a much better manner, and we are sorry for the hurt that was caused as a result.”

YCT is expected to release a clearer policy on the admission of gay students by May 2020 following consultation with rabbis and LGBTQ community leaders.

Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of LGBTQ group Jewish Queer Youth, is critical of the yeshiva's unclear position on LGBTQ Orthodox Jews. “They’re inviting us to a house that’s unfinished,” he says. “The floors are not secured. And they don’t have to worry because they’re not the ones at risk. We’re the ones at risk.”

A fundraiser for Atwood, set up by Jewish Queer Youth, raised more than $8,000 in its first day. Atwood plans to use the donations to receive ordination in Israel.

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