By Michael Jacobsmjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

SOJOURN headerHow people feel about the Rev. Charles Stanley’s position as the honoree for Jewish National Fund’s 12th annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast depends on which aspect of his ministry they focus on.

JNF’s Southeast Region chose to honor the senior pastor at First Baptist Church Atlanta with the Tree of Life Award not only for his longtime public support of Israel and good relationship with Jewish Atlanta, but specifically for his response to the Gaza war last summer.

“We’re choosing to do this because his congregation, his community, has given nothing but time and energy and dollars to us,” said Adam Brill, JNF’s national communications director.

At a time last year when almost no one was traveling to Israel, First Baptist sent 17 busloads of congregants, Brill said.

“When we look at supporting those who have stood up for Israel, he’s one of those who went out of his way to do so, him and members of his community,” Brill said. “So, yes, that was the deciding factor.”

Brill noted that First Baptist held a night to honor Israel in April 2013 and that the Israeli consul general has participated in events at the church. “It’s not like he’s all of a sudden coming out of nowhere.”

But Stanley’s equally long history with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has been as negative as his history with the Jewish community has been positive.

“Dr. Stanley has a sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions,” reads a letter to JNF leaders from President Leanne Rubenstein and Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax of SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity.

The letter, released April 2, cites such comments as AIDS being a punishment from G-d, homosexuality being a choice and destructive behavior, and acceptance of homosexuality being an act of disobedience toward G-d.

The letter also says Stanley once hired armed guards on horseback to keep gay pride marchers away from his Dunwoody church.

Jeri Kagel, a former Congregation Bet Haverim president and former JNF Southeast board member, said she was appalled when she saw the breakfast invitation listing Stanley as the honoree.

She said the timing is particularly bad after gay rights played such a big part in the debate over Georgia’s proposed religious liberty legislation, which was tabled until 2016.

Just as the legislative battle brought out a range of rabbis in support of the LGBT community and against the proposal, so Kagel said the response to the JNF honor from rabbis and others in the Jewish community has been heartwarming.

Temple Sinai Rabbi Ron Segal won’t attend the breakfast because of the honoree, but he hopes the event is a success and JNF “can continue to go from strength to strength.” He just wants to understand why JNF selected someone who opposes LGBT rights and inclusion, especially because “Israel is renowned for being a haven, a place of safety for the LGBT community.”

That’s a point on which JNF and those opposed to Stanley find common ground.

Brill emphasized that Israel is a gay-friendly society and that JNF’s work in Israel is inclusive. He said it speaks to Stanley’s character that he is coming to a synagogue that promotes inclusion to accept an award from an organization that embraces all.

Kagel, however, said that at a time when world opinion increasingly sees Israel in a negative light, it does the nation no good to be associated with a bigot.

Brill said he hopes that the gay community attends the breakfast in great numbers to show Stanley that Israel and JNF are inclusive and that the community is willing to look beyond disagreements to come together for Israel.

“At the end of the day, none of us is perfect,” he said.

But the SOJOURN letter says that honoring Stanley sends a message that JNF does not welcome the LGBT community. “It is simply impossible to separate Dr. Stanley’s longstanding, vehement, and dangerous anti-LGBT practices from his pro-Israel advocacy.”

Unlike Rabbi Segal, who recognizes JNF’s right to honor anyone it chooses and does not plan for one disagreement to affect his and Sinai’s support for JNF, Kagel said JNF must do something to make amends to avoid losing her support.

She said JNF could make a public statement disassociating itself from Stanley’s statements on gay people or honor someone who is gay alongside Stanley.

SOJOURN is urging JNF to disinvite Stanley and to use the opportunity for meaningful dialogue. “We can turn this into a phenomenal opportunity to have an honest and productive discussion about our entire Jewish community and our collective responsibility to and love for Israel.”

Editor’s note: Michael Jacobs is a former JNF Southeast board member.