Behind the Headlines Power Struggle Among Conservative Jews Continues on Best Way to Create Conserva

A power struggle is underway within American Conservative Judaism over the best way to create a large Conservative Zionist organization qualified for membership in the American Zionist Federation (AZF).

The goal is to give American Conservative Jews a strong voice in the World Zionist Organization and to strengthen the Conservative movement’s fight for recognition in Israel, denied to it by the dominant Orthodox rabbinate there, according to information provided by qualified sources to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The protagonists in the conflict are Mercaz, the three-year-old “Movement for the Reaffirmation of Conservative Zionism” and the United Synagogue of America, the association of Conservative congregations. Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz of Washington, president of Mercaz, lists Mercaz membership at 10,000. The United Synagogue claims a total membership of 1.5 million in its affiliated congregations.

Both Mercaz and United Synagogue leaders agree there should be one big Conservative Zionist organization, but Mercaz leaders point to the fact that Mercaz has been accepted for membership in the AZF, the coordinating agency for all American Zionist organizations; and that, accordingly Mercaz, structurally reorganized to handle a mass membership, should be the big Conservative Zionist organization.

Last November 22, Rabinowitz and Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, were formally voted in as AZF board members, representing Mercaz.

Powerful elements in the United Synagogue feel that Mercaz cannot build a mass membership and have proposed an admittedly novel concept of applying to the AZF for mass membership of a United Synagogue-sponsored Conservative Zionist group.

SEES AMICABLE SOLUTION

Rabinowitz told the JTA, in a telephone interview, that he felt “confident” the struggle between the protagonists could be worked out amicably. He said his confidence was based on the results of a meeting he had in Washington Dec. 28 with Marshall Wolke, a Chicago businessman who was elected president of the United Synagogue at its biennial convention last November.

Rabinowitz told the JTA that, at the Dec. 28 meeting, he had been informed that Wolke had completed formation of a committee to negotiate the “outstanding issues,” and that the committee would meet “within the next three weeks” with Mercaz representatives “to work out a procedure that will enable us to cooperate in mounting a mass membership campaign and that will permit us to face the forthcoming World Zionist Congress as a united group.”

Rabinowitz was asked by the JTA whether Wolke understood, in the Dec. 28 meeting, that the “united group” to which Rabinowitz referred was an enlarged Mercaz. Rabinowitz replied, “well, he knows our position.”

Rabinowitz said the timetable for a meeting between the United Synagogue committee and Mercaz leaders to work out agreement on the proposed cooperative membership drive was dictated by the June 30 deadline for the filing of lists of members eligible to participate in elections for the forthcoming World Zionist Congress.

SEEKING AN ACCOMMODATION

The United Synagogue has scheduled a board meeting in Atlantic City Jan. 17. But Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman, United Synagogue executive vice president, told the JTA that the Wolke committee could not possibly prepare recommendations in time for the Jan. 17 meeting. He said the meeting to which Rabinowitz referred would probably be held at United Synagogue headquarters in Manhattan.

Last month Wolke told the JTA that his new administration would seek to work out an accommodation with Mercaz in the hope of negotiating the “one big Conservative Zionist movement.”

But he also told the JTA that failing such an accommodation, the United Synagogue would probably proceed with its tentative plan to bring the United Synagogue, as a corporate body, into the AZF. The rationale for such a United Synagogue-sponsored Zionist group, according to proponents of the proposal, was the endorsement by a United Synagogue board meeting in Jerusalem, last March, of the Jerusalem Program, the prerequisite for AZF membership.

There has been considerable debate among those who favor seeking to bring into the AZF the entire United Synagogue movement, using some kind of Zionist label, as to just how this could be done, the JTA was told by several sources. An AZF spokesperson told the JTA last December that AZF rules would not permit the United Synagogue to bring its congregations as a corporate body into the AZF and then sign up individual congregants to the Jerusalem Program.

Wolke, in one of several telephone conversations with the JTA after the November convention, admitted the “en masse” proposal had problems and that “the machinery still has to be worked out.”

BACKGROUND OF THE STRUGGLE

In an earlier message to Mercaz members on Dec. 4 Rabinowitz wrote that it was his understanding that the United Synagogue planned “to create a separate instrumentality to enter the (American) Zionist Federation. This procedure, if effective, would create two Conservative Zionist organizations, which would hardly benefit either Zionism or the Conservative movement.”

Wolke was authorized by a 1981 United Synagogue convention resolution to name the negotiating committee, which mandated him to “develop and implement the means by which the force and influence of the Conservative movement in America can be effectively carried to the World Zionist Organization and Israel.”

The 1981 convention also issued a news release, described by Rabinowitz as “misleading,” which declared that the delegates had acted to involve American Conservative synagogues in the Zionist movement through a United Synagogue-affiliated Zionist organization which would belong to the AZF.

The JTA was told that Reform leaders are watching with great interest the struggle within American Conservative Judaism because Reform Judaism is also rejected by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. In recent years, the refusal of that rabbinate to recognize the legitimacy of both Conservative and Reform Judaism and their rabbis, congregations and institutions has created a growing rift between Israel and diaspora communities, particularly American Jews.

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