Arnold Eisen, incoming chancellor for the Jewish Theological Seminary, said Monday that the decision was made after extensive discussion with faculty and students, a survey on views of the issue within the movement and a meeting of the school's trustees.
"The larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakah (Jewish law) in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture," Eisen said in a statement distributed to the school community and its supporters.
The Conservative branch holds the middle ground in American Judaism, adhering to tradition while allowing some change for modern circumstances.
The larger and more liberal Reform Jewish movement, as well as the smaller Reconstructionist wing, allow gays to become rabbis; the Orthodox branch bars gays and women from ordination.
In December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to allow the seminaries to decide on their own whether to admit openly gay students. However, their decision also left leeway for synagogues to reject gay and lesbian clergy if the congregations believe that same-sex relationships violate Scripture.
Earlier this month, a smaller Conservative seminary in Los Angeles, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, announced that it has accepted its first openly gay and lesbian applicants.
The New York seminary has extended the application deadline for the fall semester until June 30, so students can take advantage of the new policy.
Eytan Hammerman of Keshet, an advocacy group for full inclusion of gays at the seminary, said he knew of at least one gay student who had already submitted an application, which was put on hold while the issue was under review.
The survey JTS conducted found majorities of two-thirds or more among clergy, educators, administrators and others approved admitting gay students. However, respondents in Canada, where Conservative Judaism is more traditional, were "overwhelmingly against" ordaining gays.
Still, Eisen and others insisted the movement would not split. Leaders believe the more likely response is that individuals who object to the change will leave to worship in Orthodox synagogues.
"I do not think in the near future it will result in great changes in the school," said Rabbi Joel Roth, a faculty member and expert in Jewish law who considers ordaining gays contrary to Jewish teaching. "The only way that I worry about it hurting the school is if the result of this decision is the marginalizing of those who oppose this decision."
Roth resigned from the Law Committee when it lifted the gay ordination ban. He believes Eisen will work hard to maintain respect for conflicting views but said the true impact of the decision won't be apparent for years.
By Rachel Zoll