From Staff Reports

Jewish National Fund is standing by its decision to honor First Baptist Church Atlanta Senior Pastor Charles Stanley at the 12th annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast on April 23, Yom HaAtzmaut, despite more community criticism.

Ahavath Achim Synagogue personnel will not attend the breakfast, congregation President Douglas Ander announced during Saturday morning services April 11. But the Conservative congregation in Buckhead has decided not to make any public statement about the breakfast or Stanley.

JNF is honoring the head of the Dunwoody megachurch for his longtime support for Israel, especially for leading hundreds of his congregants on a mission to Israel last year during the Gaza war.

But citing his long record of hostility toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, LGBT advocates have criticized JNF Southeast’s decision to give its Tree of Life Award to Stanley. What started as a behind-the-scenes effort to get JNF to rescind the honor or perhaps to present an equivalent award to a member of the LGBT community became public April 2 when SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity released a letter detailing Stanley’s history and demanding that he not be honored.

By that time, The Temple, where the Hirsch Breakfast will be held, and Temple Sinai had already notified JNF that their clergy would not attend the event but remained strong JNF supporters.

Rabbi Fred Greene, the outgoing spiritual leader of Temple Beth Tikvah, announced April 12 on Twitter that he was joining other rabbis in asking JNF to withdraw the honor.

Because the controversy arose as Passover arrived, several rabbis contacted said they were not fully aware of the situation and were studying the matter or talking with JNF Southeast before making any decisions about the breakfast.

Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla of Congregation Or VeShalom, which is one of about 10 synagogues scheduled to have tables at the breakfast, had been unaware of the controversy during the holiday but said JNF and the breakfast, which last year honored one of his congregants, Morris Maslia, have his support.

“That two-hour breakfast should not impinge upon my support for the Jewish National Fund, which does so many great things in Israel,” Rabbi Kassorla. He added that no honoree would be perfect and that the focus should be on the organization.

“We have been apprised that there is some disagreement on our choice for this year’s Tree of Life honoree,” Beth Gluck, JNF’s regional director in the Southeast, said in a statement. “While we respect everyone’s opinion, we stand by our decision. Our honoree represents one of the largest Christian communities in the South which has always supported the Jewish people in times of peace and conflict.”

The statement cited the First Baptist mission to Israel during Operation Protective Edge as being worthy of honor, then added a First Amendment argument about the American rights to free speech, worship and assembly: “Jewish National Fund embraces those sacred rights and labors to ensure that everything we do is for the purpose of giving all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel.”

A strong dissenting voice came from Modern Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, who released a letter to Gluck on April 13 in which he called the decision to honor Stanley puzzling and upsetting.

“One of the many reasons we as a community stand up for Israel is due to its progressive record on LGBTQ rights,” Rabbi Greenberg wrote. “This is one of the things that buttresses Israel’s claim toward being a bastion of Western values in the Middle East.”

By honoring a pastor “well-known for his homophobia and anti-gay statements,” the rabbi added, JNF has put Beth Israel in the position of choosing between conflicting values: offering support to Israel and providing a safe space for the LGBT community.

He therefore called on Gluck to revoke the award.

Rabbis, of course, do not always represent the views of their congregants.

Ellen Mills, a longtime Ahavath Achim member, disagreed with her synagogue leadership’s decision to skip the breakfast. “Reverend Stanley is a pastor and has his beliefs, but he has done so much to help Israel and influence others,” she said. “I am an inclusive thinker but do not see the conflict in supporting JNF and attending the breakfast to honor him.”

Another longtime member, Ivan Millender, was making plans to form an AA table at the breakfast.