Whiplash Can Follow a Car Crash or a Wedding Announcement

By Peter Applebome

Teaneck’s tale of love, money, sexual orientation and Torah began innocently enough.

A young couple, who grew up in Conservative Jewish congregations, who met at a Jewish day camp and whose lives have been dominated by Jewish interests, sent a wedding announcement to The New Jersey Jewish Standard.

It said that Avichai Smolen, 23, and Justin Rosen, 24, planned to be married this month by Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y.

After much deliberation, the newspaper ran the announcement — the first in its 79-year history for a same-sex marriage — in its Sept. 24 issue. Then, in its next issue, citing complaints from Orthodox rabbis and a “firestorm” that resulted, it issued an apology for the “pain and consternation” the announcement had caused members of the Orthodox community. It promised not to run similar announcements again.

Then, after firestorms from other corners, the newspaper released a statement on Tuesday reconsidering its reconsideration. It said the paper may have acted too quickly and listened to only one segment of its readership, which includes Bergen County and beyond, Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

What it says about Teaneck, a community with a history of diversity, a contentious civic culture, a Muslim mayor and an increasingly dominant Orthodox Jewish community, is worth an entire rabbinical commentary in itself. But coming at the same time as the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, it played out like a Talmudic variation on contemporary themes.

Jews may have a reputation for tolerance, but they are splintered on gay issues. Reform and Reconstructionist communities tend to be supportive, Conservative ones conflicted but generally not hostile, and Orthodox leaders, if not all congregants, usually staunchly opposed.

So there was some sympathy for The Standard’s plight.

“This is one where they almost couldn’t win,” said Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of The New Jersey Jewish News, which serves a much less Orthodox readership. Mr. Silow-Carroll said his publication ran its first same-sex wedding announcement in January and received no response. “The Orthodox community has huge economic clout,” he said. “If they put out the word that their members shouldn’t be reading or advertising, it could be crippling for a newspaper that size.”

Many others were surprised that the paper didn’t figure out the politics in advance and show more resolve.

“The news that your paper will no longer publish gay marriage announcements reflects craven cowardice,” one reader wrote on the paper’s Facebook page. “Some letters from Orthodox rabbis changed your mind? What did you expect Orthodox rabbis to say?”

“You didn’t realize you’d have to have a little backbone when you made the decision to publish the announcements in the first place?” the reader added.

Neither the Orthodox rabbis contacted nor the newspaper responded to phone calls. And on the streets of Teaneck, businesspeople preferred to speak anonymously, rather than risk offending. Still, there was widespread speculation that the economic clout of the Orthodox gave them outsize influence.

“This decision didn’t reflect the whole Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, of Temple Emeth, a Reform congregation in Teaneck, where nearly all the other Jewish congregations are now Orthodox. “It looks like the newspaper was held hostage in some way by a small group of Orthodox leaders.”

Another rabbi, David Kirshner, of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative congregation in Closter, said that while critics of the same-sex announcement couch their argument in terms of Scripture, the newspaper contains numerous elements that can be seen as impious — like ads for nonkosher restaurants.

“Make no mistake about it,” Rabbi Kirshner wrote in a public letter. “This is homophobia masquerading as religious piety. Pure and simple.”

Mr. Smolen and Mr. Rosen have felt more than a bit of whiplash, but they figure that, in a distinctly Jewish way, maybe controversy could lead to greater understanding, particularly of the way being marginalized or excluded can have tragic consequences. They will sign papers for a civil marriage in Greenwich, Conn., on Thursday and have a traditional wedding ceremony Oct. 17. “We’re very happy about the conversation this has engendered,” Mr. Rosen said “and think it’s incredibly important both inside the Jewish community and without.”

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