Two years after Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, the nation’s first homosexual Masorti rabbi has taken his place at the pulpit.
Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, a native of Liverpool, England, who has been living in Israel since 1989, was installed on Thursday evening as the leader of Adat Shalom Emanuel in Rehovot, the only non-Orthodox synagogue in the city.
Goldstein grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement in the UK and didn’t come out until the age of 24, when he had already made aliyah and was living in Israel. After working for several years in diplomacy and development, he decided to attend rabbinical school in a bid to help loosen the hold that the ultra-religious have over Judaism in Israel.
“My motto is to give Judaism back to the people,” says Goldstein, 49. “I feel that the Orthodox establishment in this country has hijacked Judaism and decided there is only one way to be Jewish… I realized that if someone is going to make a stand, it’s going to be me. So I got off my behind, and I went to study.”
That was 2010. At the time, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, which trains rabbis in Israel for the Masorti movement, was not yet admitting LGBT students. So he went to New York, where he spent four years working toward both a rabbinical ordination and an MA in Talmud and Halacha (Jewish Law) from the Jewish Theological Seminary, which has been ordaining openly gay and lesbian students in the Conservative Jewish movement since 2007.
Israel’s Masorti Movement shifted its own stance two years later, unrolling a landmark ruling in April 2012 that paved the way for Israeli-trained lesbian and gay rabbis to join the Conservative movement here.
Goldstein — whose partner, Izzy, serves as Israel’s ambassador to the Ivory Coast — served as a rabbinical intern at two New York-area synagogues during his studies, but he says there was no question in his mind that he would return to Israel and lead a pulpit here once he was ordained.
His decision, he says, had nothing to do with his sexuality, which he describes as “irrevelant.” It came instead from what he sees as a dire need to bring non-Orthodox Israelis back into the fold of congregational Jewish life, and create an environment within the nation’s synagogues that is welcoming, warm and, most of all, inclusive.
“I’m not interested in the ultra-Orthodox, who don’t think our way of Judaism is the right way anyway,” he says. “I’m interested in the millions of Israelis who are turned off completely from Judaism. I want to make sure they at least have the chance to feel at home inside a synagogue, be it in the shul or in the library. I don’t want people to feel threatened to cross that threshold, and right now many people do.”
While studying in New York City, Goldstein found a welcoming home at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), which is known as New York City’s only LGBTQ synagogue. He lists Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s firebrand senior rabbi, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement and has been serving her pulpit since 1992, as one of his chief mentors.
Adat Shalom Emanuel is home to 150 families. Many of the congregants are English-speaking immigrants, but Goldstein, who speaks perfect Hebrew, says one of his goals as rabbi is engaging new members who are families with young children and want a synagogue environment that is warm, forward-thinking and welcoming to their kids.
“It’s not easy to find a Masorti rabbi who can lead a congregation here. It’s a very difficult job. It involves a love of people, it involves teaching and prayer, and it’s hard to find someone who can do everything. Mikie just fits the bill perfectly,” says Ruth Lavie, chairperson of Adat Shalom Emanuel.
As for discussing Goldstein’s sexuality during the interview process, “It was kind of a non-issue for us,” Lavie says. “Jews need to have a place where they can feel welcome. If the ultra-Orthodox are going to exclude people and tell some Jews they can’t come to their synagogues, then that’s what we’re here for. We want everyone to feel comfortable with us.”
Asked if he thinks his presence in the synagogue will draw more LGBT members to the congregation, Goldstein says he truly thinks it will not make a difference, as the Masorti movement has already committed itself to supporting and embracing gay and lesbians at every level.
“Any LGBT person who goes to a Masorti synagogue will be accepted, and we have plenty of LGBT members at Masorti congregations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem already,” he says. “I’m interested in the religious spirituality of anyone who walks through my front door. It doesn’t matter what their affiliation is. They’re welcome.”