Focus on Issues Prospects for the Growth of Conservative Judaism in Israel

Two leaders of the Conservative movement in Judaism expressed confidence here that the World Zionist Organization can serve as an efficient tool to bring about religious pluralism in Israel.

Rabbis Seymour Cohen, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Mordecai Waxman, president-elect of the World Council of Synagogues, said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that since the movement for traditional Judaism joined the WZO there are growing prospects the organization will serve as a mechanism to increase the understanding in Israel of the needs of diaspora Jewry.

“In theory,” said Waxman, “the WZO is such a mechanism, but presently it doesn’t have the will or the spirit to work toward this end.” He expressed the hope that the Conservatives’ endorsement of the Jerusalem Program would speed up this process.

The platform was adopted in an unprecedented convention in Jerusalem of the two main bodies of the Conservative movement — the World Council of Synagogues and the Rabbinical Assembly.

The delegates became indirectly involved in the current election campaign as Labor Party leaders appeared before the convention and promised to enact a law which would guarantee religious pluralism. However, both Waxman and Cohen did not sound too optimistic about the prospects for a

dramatic change in the status of Conservative Judaism in Israel after the June 30 elections.

Both men rejected the notion that the Conservative movement has become a natural ally to the Labor movement. “Our natural ally is proper behavior by anybody,” said Cohen.

As in the past, the main issue of the two conventions which took place earlier this month was the acceptability of Conservative Judaism in Israel. As in the past, the Conservatives rejected the notion that in order to change the present situation the only possible answer is massive aliya of Conservative Jews. “There is a matter of democratic principles,” Waxman said. “We should not be denied in Israel anything that is given to us in the United States.”

Cohen declared bitterly: “The Chief Rabbinate in Israel cannot decide who is a Jew or the status of Jews elsewhere.” Waxman observed that “half of organized Jewry in America, probably the bulk of Jews, perhaps in the entire world, would endorse religious pluralism in Israel.” Therefore, he noted, one cannot accept the fact that what amounts to a minority of Jews (the Orthodox rabbinate) would dictate the character of religious life in Israel. Waxman added that “we have no political alignments, but we are products of a democratic society. We are a halachic movement. But the Orthodox want only their halachic principles to be accepted.”

BASIS FOR CHANGING THE SITUATION

Both Waxman and Cohen agreed that the practical conclusion of the recent conventions was that only through hard and mainly practical work can the situation be changed. This includes, for example, the establishment of a Conservative kibbutz which is now in the making, and greater involvement of Conservative Jews in all spheres of life in Israel, particularly in the academic and cultural spheres.

Another issue that bothers the Conservative movement is the lack of sensitivity of the Jewish Agency emissaries to their problems. Cohen said that if the emissaries were more familiar with the American scene, aliya from the U.S. would increase. “Things are changing in the States,” said Cohen. “There were times when aliya was looked down upon, when all efforts were directed toward sending money. But things have changed, and the world becomes small.” Therefore, he suggested, more people may consider aliya, only they need the proper help and the proper incentives.

POTENTIAL FOR ALIYA EXISTS

Waxman recalled a meeting which took place after the Six-Day War between a group of Rabbinical Assembly leaders and the late Premier Levy Eshkol and Education Minister Zalman Aran. The two Israelis were confident that Jews would begin to immigrate to Israel en masse. The Conservatives were less confident. “Aliya was not a part of the political agenda at the time,” said Waxman.

Now, however, things are changing. Without the help of Israel or the WZO there is a favorable atmosphere for aliya. “We are in a new state,” said Waxman. As the two Conservative leaders put it, the motivation for aliya is more practical then ideological. People are more willing to try new ventures.

Both Waxman and Cohen admitted that this “change” is not yet seen in terms of growing numbers of American olim, but they insisted that the potential exists. “People think in terms of having two homelands. You are going to see more and more of them,” said Waxman. The American Jewish community suffers from complex problems, he said, such as growing divorce rate and intermarriages. On these issues, Israel should develop a dialogue with American Jewry, and not issue directives. “The failure to compromise with our needs is not only a moral failure,” he warned, “but also a national failure.”

Waxman ended the interview in a more hopeful tone. “With all the problems,” he said, “we have never had a better situation for the Jewish people. You never had the same combination of a strong Jewish State and a strong diaspora.” To this Cohen added: “With all optimism, there is tremendous work to be done.”

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