When Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen submitted their wedding announcement to a New Jersey-based community newspaper called The Jewish Standard last month, they didn’t really think much of it.
For one, Smolen says, “It was one of a number of papers we submitted it to.” For another, he says, “We’ve always been very accepted in our communities and our families. It was not a big deal, in our eyes.”
What a difference a few weeks and a couple of Orthodox rabbis can make.
Today, after running an announcement about the upcoming nuptials, the paper is mired in controversy and the two grooms are fielding calls from press outlets all over the country.
Welcome back to the fight over gay marriage.
After The Standard ran the announcement, resistance came in from what Smolen, 23, calls a “small segment of the right-wing Orthodox community.” The paper responded with a statement from its publisher: “Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused…The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”
Soon after, as complaints from the other side flooded in, the paper issued another statement saying it “may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding to only one segment of the community.” James Janoff, the publisher, added that The Standard was “having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders” to decide where to go next.
Whether or not any of this was the “right” thing to do, almost no one is happy.
Certainly not the Orthodox rabbis, who seemingly won the battle, only to be told that perhaps news of their victory was premature.
And certainly not gay activists, who have been grieving the deaths of six openly gay kids who killed themselves in just two weeks because of relentless bullying at school.
“We hope that the editors of The Standard will not privilege the sensibilities of one group over the pain of disrespect felt by another group of people,” says Harry Knox, who runs the Human Rights Campaign’s religion and faith program. “That would be an affront to Tikkun Olam, the theory that we exist to heal the world. It’s a major Jewish tenet. The Standard should be a voice for all Jews that advances mutual understanding. It shouldn’t limit the freedom of one group to talk about its members’ lives in order to appease those that value silence over authenticity.”
“I thought The Standard’s approach to pluralism and inclusiveness was really breached and I thought it was an example of bullying,” says Rosen.
Even religious Jews from outside the Orthodox faith appear to be pissed off. Chief among them is Rabbi David Kirshner of Temple Emanuel, a conservative Jewish synagogue in the area. Although he’s married to a woman and has what he calls “an obscenely low number” of openly gay people in his congregation, he’s still seeing stars. “For me, it smacks of homophobia,” he says. “There’s an injustice happening.”
As Rabbi Kirshner sees it, the paper’s actions are also hypocritical. He notes that The Standard regularly runs advertisements for non-kosher restaurants, endorses non-religious activities that coincide with Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, publicizes clothing stores whose garments mix wool and linen (a biblical prohibition), and celebrates bar and bat mitzvahs of patra-lineal Jews. “The Orthodox community is silent on those issues, but on this, they revolted,” he says.
“It’s homophobia masquerading as religious propriety…The Standard should be a community paper. If you don’t like what you see, turn the page.”
The paper’s editor, Rebecca Boroson, declined repeated requests for comment.
For Smolen and Rosen, it’s just an upsetting episode in what should be a joyful couple of weeks. “I feel frustrated,” says Rosen, 24. “I thought The Standard’s approach to pluralism and inclusiveness was really breached and I thought it was an example of bullying by a few members of the Orthodox community pretending to speak for the entire Orthodox community.”
Moreover, the whole thing was a little bit mystifying for him, as he and Smolen are hardly the kind of fellows you’d ban from Shabbat dinner—much less a Jewish community newspaper. They met five years ago when they were teenagers, working as counselors at Camp Ramah, a Jewish day camp in Nyack.
Smolen had just turned 18 and was headed to Rutgers. He now works at Keren Or Jerusalem Center for Blind Children with Multiple Disabilities.
Rosen was a student at Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, a program run by Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Ceremony. He’s now a graduate student at New York University.
From the beginning they had a lot in common. Among other things, they shared good grades and a seriousness about their Jewish faith, having had bar mitvahs not because it afforded them the opportunity to have lavish parties, but because of their faith in God. Both identify as conservative (or Masorti) Jews, both keep kosher year round, both observe the Sabbath and other religious holidays. Both had families that felt similarly about religious issues and yet were supportive about their being gay.
And there was chemistry too.
“I just thought Avi was a fantastic person,” Rosen says. “He was sweet and he was thoughtful…and he was cute.”
Adds Smolen: “We were able to laugh and have good conversation…Justin is incredibly smart.”
In short order Smolen was regularly taking the train into Manhattan from New Jersey so he could spend time with Rosen. Earlier this year, they got an apartment together in the city and began planning their wedding. (The couple will be legally married in Greenwich, Connecticut, on Thursday, and will follow up with a civil ceremony next weekend.)
If the upcoming nuptials were met with any resistance, prior to the wedding announcement snafu, it was from friends and relatives who noted how young Smolen and Rosen are.
But the pair was confident they’d made the right decision. “We’d been together a long time,” Rosen says. “We wanted to spend our lives together. We wanted to build a Jewish home and a family unit. We thought we were ready to take on that commitment…We’re both very excited for the wedding.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.