By Ron Werner | Guest Columnist
I am writing today about the situation brewing in Atlanta regarding JNF Atlanta’s decision to honor Dr. Charles Stanley with the Tree of Life Award. From what I have read and heard, there is a sandstorm that has been blown out of proportion. Emotions are running high, which is affecting the ability of those involved to step back and look at the larger picture. For the record, I feel I can offer a unique perspective on the subject as a both a JNF regional president and a married gay man.
We live in a complicated world. In my life I have been marginalized as a Jew and a gay man. My husband and I were married under a chuppah by a Conservative rabbi over a decade ago. At that time the movement had not officially condoned same-sex marriage. A welcoming rabbi who respected us ordained our commitment to each other and our desire to build a strong Jewish home. Even finding an appropriate ketubah was a challenge.
Our road to freedom and equal rights has not been without setbacks, compromise and disagreements. We have often supported leaders (political and spiritual) with whom we were not 100% in sync, yet we worked to achieve our goals. At the time we stood under the chuppah, the state of Vermont offered us only the civil union certificate. We believed we deserved full marriage equality, but we were forced to accept the lesser option. It was in the moment standing under the chuppah, hearing the hazzan adjust the Sheva Brachot to masculine and masculine, that we understood the importance of the full marriage equality we were denied.
It pains me to hear the discourse coming out of Atlanta. Trust me when I say I fully understand the issues at hand, the levels of emotion and the debate. However, I have learned to find balance in an imperfect world. I have learned through my years of activism working for LGBT rights and equality, the homeless, and our people that we do not achieve all of our goals overnight and that sometimes we need to compromise as we forge our way up the mountain.
JNF is an amazing organization that is doing the most incredible work for Israel. As a Jew, as a Zionist and as a gay man, I love JNF and our accomplishments for Israel and the Jewish people. I especially love that I live as an openly gay man who is embraced by JNF and am given the opportunity to lead a region as the JNF regional president.
At a time of unprecedented anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric in the world and in America, we need all the friends we can get. Sometimes we say the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and other times we say that the friend of my friend is my friend. JNF Atlanta made a decision to recognize a man for his support of Israel — nothing more and nothing less. I was not part of the process and cannot weigh in on it. All I can say is that it pains me to see the baby thrown out with the bath water as I think of the potential damage to a great organization and to Israel that is occurring in Atlanta.
JNF’s decision was based solely on Dr. Stanley’s and his congregation’s longtime and continuous support for Israel. JNF merely followed the lead set forth by the Atlanta Jewish community, which came out in force to Dr. Stanley’s church just two years ago in salute of Israel. Present with the Jewish Federation were Israel’s consul general to the Southeast, Opher Aviran, and many local rabbis, including Rabbi Neal Sandler of Ahavath Achim Synagogue.
In the weeks since JNF’s event was announced, I have become pained by the hurtful comments coming from the Atlanta community. I believe that we as a people are stronger when we stand together as opposed to the fractured mess now raising its ugly head in Atlanta. I believe we need to stand together in our support of Israel, which so badly needs our help.
That does not mean that I oppose discussion and debate. To the contrary, I advocate for good discussion and discourse. However, I do not see it as healthy for the community and certainly not healthy for Israel when these differing views cause important community members to boycott an event that is so beneficial to Israel. Perhaps you will hold back on your applause, but please do not hold back on your support for Israel and JNF. Please do not harm the land you love so much. Your presence and commitment are crucial.
I understand the feelings and arguments that SOJOURN supporters have made. Trust me, I am sensitive to the subject. I have a board member in my region from a similar large church with whom I have built a wonderful relationship based on our shared commitment to Israel. It concerns me that local LGBT leaders might have inaccurately reported JNF’s steps to encourage a dialogue to work together and move forward.
They have painted a picture that JNF has ignored them and has been unresponsive. That is simply untrue.
JNF’s local and national leaders have had multiple conversations with local rabbis, Jewish leaders and SOJOURN members, all leading up to a planned meeting in early May that JNF’s CEO will attend and that I intend to serve as an adviser. I have been witness to the JNF efforts from the highest levels within the organization. Again, I wish to underscore that JNF is a truly inclusive organization that not only welcomes me as an openly gay man, but also counts on me as a critical leader.
JNF has always stood for tolerance and respect for individual rights and is open to the views of all, including the LGBT community. JNF representatives have participated in events at Atlanta’s Bet Haverim synagogue and have encouraged JNF involvement with the congregation. This outreach is in keeping with JNF national programming that embraces diversity and has always included the gay and lesbian community.
You should know that people involved in JNF leadership fully recognize me and my spouse as an equal couple and introduce my other half as my husband, if not my better half.
I would ask that Atlanta’s Jewish community look at the growing worldwide anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment and recognize our need for all the support we can muster to keep Israel strong and our global Jewish community safe. We need each other. We need to work together. We need to support each other. We really must stand together.
As Jews, Christians, people of color, and those of various ethnicity, persuasion and sexual orientation, we have long devoted ourselves to develop and protect the land and the environment of Israel for all the people of Israel. JNF’s invaluable contributions to Israel range from building forests and parks to creating water reservoirs, communities, medical centers, therapeutic and rehabilitation centers, and fire stations, supporting the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (of which I am an alumnus), and encouraging tourism and the preservation of historic sites.
The JNF Mountain States Region recently hosted Ambassador Ron Dermer in Denver. He addressed over 1,000 diverse supporters of Israel. The room was filled with religious Jews, secular Jews, evangelical Christians, and many others, including my husband and myself, who were front and center. As the ambassador addressed the situation between Israel and Washington, he made a comment that resonated with me in regard to what I refer to as the Atlanta sandstorm: “Don’t let a 5 percent disagreement with a friend turn your friend into your enemy.”
The Atlanta Jewish community, SOJOURN and JNF are longtime friends with the common goal of a safe and strong Eretz Yisrael. Please keep your eye on the big picture. We need to stand together for Israel. This is part of the magic of JNF. We are an inclusive organization that unites diverse groups with the shared common denominator of Israel and tikkun olam.
I respectfully ask that you open your minds to what we can accomplish together and what our beloved Israel needs. I hope that I can help all of us build bridges, not battles. I offer myself to you for further dialogue with the hope of moving forward, securing a safe and prosperous Israel for all, and continuing to be strong together.
Am Yisrael Chai.