This interview and picture ( from Avi) were taken from New Voices, a national Jewish student newspaper, which we suggest you check out for further information. Ben Sales is the author of the article as well as the editor-in-chief of this publication.
Behind the Jewish Standard controversy
Jewish newspapers often print controversial stories, but they don’t usually appear in the wedding section. On Sept. 24, however, Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen announced their upcoming marriage in the pages of the New Jersey Jewish Standard, causing a commotion among some of the paper’s large Orthodox readership.
A group of community Orthodox rabbis complained to the Standard in the wake of the same-sex announcement, causing the editors of the Standard to post a note Monday apologizing to the Orthodox community and declaring that it would no longer print same-sex announcements. After a whirlwind of subsequent pressure, however, from liberal Jewish readers and groups, the Standard retracted its original note in a later publisher’s note Tuesday night.
This discussion has erupted across the Jewish media, and the Standard has received harsh criticism. New Voices has already entered that fray, and today we go straight to the source. Below is an interview with Avi Smolen, one of the grooms who–according to the Jewish Standard–will be married in New York on Oct. 17.
NV: How did the two of you meet?
AS: We met over five years ago. We worked as camp counselors at Camp Ramah in Nyack, and we dated for over 4 years. Last year, just before Thanksgiving, we decided to take the next step. We’re getting married at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, Long Island. It’s a Reform synagogue but we’re having a friend of ours who’s a Conservative rabbi do the ceremony.
NV: Why did you choose the Jewish Standard as the place to announce your wedding?
AS: My family is from Bergen County [in northern New Jersey] and we get the Jewish Standard every week. As part of the wedding process, we thought, “Where should we send our wedding announcement?” and we thought we’d send it there because it was a community Jewish paper. It wads the first time they’d received a same-sex wedding announcement. They published our announcement and we were thrilled. It was nice to be recognized.
NV: Were you expecting them to publish the announcement?
AS: I hadn’t given it much thought, that it would be a big deal that it was a same-sex announcement. I come from a community that’s very supportive. I have many Orthodox friends who are fully supportive of our relationship and coming to our wedding. We don’t hide who we are or our relationship.
When I heard that they were deliberating [over whether to print the announcement], I was glad that they decided to publish it. We urged our friends to send positive letters. Instead of seeing letters we saw the note from the editor.
NV: How did you feel about the initial editor’s note, which announced that there would be no more same-sex marriage announcements in the Standard?
AS: I was somewhat surprised because it was a pretty quick turnaround, to decide that ours would be the first and the last. It’s very hurtful because it marginalizes a group of people.
NV: How do you feel about the publisher’s note, which retracted the initial editors’ note?
AS: It was the right move to make. They obviously have paid attention to all of the attention they’ve been receiving for this decision. I hope that their conversations with members of the community are productive and that this will eventually lead to a change in their policy.
NV: What does this say about the power of those who protested the ban on same-sex announcements?
AS: The Standard’s reaction to all of the pressure speaks volumes about the support of the greater Jewish community for inclusion and pluralism. This is not just an issue for the gay community. This is an issue for people of all different backgrounds.
NV: What do you hope to see happen now?
AS: It would be fantastic if they realized that they’ve made a mistake and printed a mew letter saying they’ll publish all announcements. I don’t think that’s likely this week. I hope this generates dialogue about this issue and that in the future they come to a decision that comes to a recognition of the importance of these announcements from all segments of the community.
NV: How do you feel about the Orthodox community’s reaction to your announcement?
AS: I understand that they’re not in favor of same-sex marriage because of the halakhic difference. But one of the bodies of Orthodox rabbis published a paper on how important it is to welcome gay Jews into the community. This flies completely in the face of that paper.
There are plenty of Orthodox Jews who are happy to have their viewpoint, but that think there’s a right to publish ads about non-kosher restaurants in the community. They’re being given a bad name.
NV: Could this controversy end up helping the cause of gay rights?
AS: Any attention that this gets will raise people’s consciousness and has positive implications for inclusion.
NV: Has this changed your feelings about your place in the Jewish community?
AS: I’m not shaken by this in the least because I know that I have many Jewish friends. I was the president of my Hillel at Rutgers [University] and I feel very accepted in the Jewish community. This is an unfortunate instance of a minority of people trying to silence another group of people.
NV: How do you think this has reflected on the Jewish Standard?
AS: The whole issue has become a disaster for them. They wish now that they had formulated a stronger policy. They’ve received a lot of negative press in local, regional and national media and this portrays the paper as a less than inclusive paper and it doesn’t make them seem very welcoming.
I would hope that people don’t jump to conclusions and blame the newspaper. I think they made a mistake but are a generally good and pluralistic newspaper. The Jewish Standard will stay afloat with support from the greater community. They don’t need to toe the Orthodox line.
NV: Would you subscribe to the Jewish Standard if you lived in New Jersey?
We wish them both lots of nakhes, love and joy in their union.
What a great couple. You guys are a real inspiration in how a true mensch lives life and reacts to adversity.