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Establishment of Programs to Promote Intra-jewish Understanding and Unity Urged by Jewish Lay Leader

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Nineteen lay leaders representing a spectrum of U.S. Jewish religious denominations have urged the establishment of programs to promote intra-Jewish understanding and unity.

In a joint statement last week, the leaders expressed concern that the Jewish “extended family” in the U.S. is threatened by “a mood of acrimonious discord,” caused to a great extent by “differences over Jewish conversion and divorce procedures.”

The leaders, who had met semi-monthly since last November in a task force organized by the American Jewish Committee, proposed seven strategies to build unity:

“A return to civil discourse among Jews…We must work to lower the decibel level of our internal squabbles…”

“…Renew a commitment to joint action on a common Jewish agenda, including solidarity with Israel, support and rescue of oppressed Jews…strengthening Jewish education…and seeking a more just American society.”

“…the educational programs of each movement should stress…the factors that unite all Jews and promote mutual respect.”

“…encouraging and fostering those who promote understanding and cooperation among Jews.”

*”…serious consideration for a national ‘beth din’ (Jewish religious court) with local branches…”

“As a general rule, before a Jewish movement or organization decides on a position or a policy statement, it should consider the effect on fellow Jews and on the unity of the Jewish people.”

The convening of local dialogue groups, both lay and rabbinic.

Local AJC chapters nationwide reportedly are organizing task forces similar to the one that produced the statement.

Jewish leaders have traded criticism over the past few years over questions of Jewish identity. Traditionally, that identity is transmitted through the mother or conversion.

However, the Reform movement believes that cither parent can transmit Jewish identity. Moreover, conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis aren’t accepted by some Orthodox rabbis. And the Reform movement accepts a civil decree of divorce as sufficient, while Orthodox and Conservative Jews require also a “get” (Jewish divorce).

These disagreements all contribute to an increasing number of children considered Jewish by some Jews, but not by others. Some leaders believe this could cause a rupture of the Jewish people.

One of them, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, last month announced a program of dialogue and education sponsored by his National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership to attempt to settle these same disputes.

The 19 AJCommittee signatories were members of national organizations and educational institutions of Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism as well as Jewish umbrella organizations.

Among them were Stuart Eizenstat, a former assistant to President Carter and member of the board of United Synagogue of America; Jacob Stein, former special assistant to President Reagan and past chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Alfred Moses, an AJCommittee national vice president and a former special adviser to Carter.

Their statement stemmed from their belief that Jews have “a common histroy and a common destiny…And we share the knowledge that the anti-Semites do not distinguish one kind of Jews from another.”

AJCommittee staff member Larry Grossman said lay leaders were invited rather than rabbis because the latter “tend to reflect institutional interests” while “we felt that lay people might have a more objective way of looking at these issues, more down to earth.”

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