BALTIMORE (Nov. 6)
The first scheduled meeting in three years between Pope John Paul II and a representative delegation of world Jewish leaders has been postponed for several weeks because of a dispute within the Synagogue Council of America.
The meeting, originally set for Nov. 14-15, has been rescheduled for Dec. 5-6, in the hope that a dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox members of the SCA can be resolved.
The conflict revolves around the composition of the SCA delegation that will meet with the pope. At issue is whether one SCA constituent agency has veto power over a member of the delegation chosen by another SCA agency.
At its core, the dispute reflects the degree to which the growing Orthodox versus non-Orthodox split has impinged on Jewish communal unity. But it is also a measure of the SCA’s continued ability to function as a unified voice for the mainstream of American religious Judaism.
The official purpose of the Vatican meeting is to commemorate the church’s 1965 “Nostra Aetate” document, which decried anti-Semitism and opened a new era in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
That dialogue is currently at a high point following a summer meeting in Prague, at which Jewish representatives and Catholic Church officials produced one of the strongest statements yet on the church’s role in fostering anti-Semitism.
Jewish participation in the upcoming meeting is under the auspices of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which is recognized by the Vatican as representing world Jewry in Catholic-Jewish discussions.
IJCIC is composed of the SCA, the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International and the Israel Interfaith Committee. Each IJCIC constituent agency selects an assigned number of its own delegates for meetings with Catholic officials.
Seymour Reich, the B’nai B’rith leader who currently chairs IJCIC, said the SCA asked for a postponement of the meeting with the pope, because “they had some internal matters they needed to reconcile before they could proceed.”
DOESN’T AFFECT RELATIONS WITH VATICAN
But Reich said the meeting is not in any danger of being canceled because of the SCA flap.
Nor, he added, does the SCA’s “internal hassle” reflect on Catholic-Jewish relations, which were strained in 1987, when Orthodox organizations officially refused to meet with the pope in Miami because of his earlier meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past had become a major international issue.
“The whole issue about postponing the trip has nothing to do with Catholic-Jewish relations,” agreed Rabbi Joel Zaiman, the Baltimore Conservative rabbi who is the current SCA president.
“Everyone wants to go to Rome and follow up on our progress in Prague,” he said. “This trip was postponed to allow the Synagogue Council to organize itself more effectively for the Rome visit.”
The SCA is an umbrella group representing the rabbinic and congregational bodies of the three largest movements of Judaism in America: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America, the SCA’s two Orthodox member agencies, insist they have the right to veto any member of an SCA delegation.
The four non-Orthodox SCA member agencies maintain that the SCA constitution, though vaguely written, does not give one agency a say over another agency’s delegate selections. The Conservative and Reform agencies insist a veto may only be extended within the SCA on policy statements.
The postponement means the meeting with the pope will now follow the Orthodox Union’s Thanksgiving weekend national convention, at which a new president will be elected to succeed Sidney Kwestel.
Non-Orthodox SCA leaders are hoping the new O.U. president will be less antagonistic toward the SCA and willing to put the veto issue aside, at least for now.
FOCUS ON FORMER SCA PRESIDENT
According to various sources, the current veto dispute was triggered by Kwestel and SCA Vice President Herbert Berman, an O.U. representative to the SCA, when they objected to the inclusion of Conservative Rabbi Mordechai Waxman in the delegation scheduled to go to Rome.
Waxman, who is from Great Neck, N.Y., is a former SCA president and former IJCIC chairman with a long record of participation in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In 1987, he served as the SCA spokesman at the Miami meeting with the pope.
Waxman became the spokesman in Miami after the Orthodox SCA member agencies officially withdrew from the meeting in protest over the Waldheim controversy.
According to the sources, who all requested anonymity in exchange for providing information, Kwestel’s and Berman’s objection to Waxman stemmed from his deviation from the text that had been approved for the Miami meeting.
By straying from the text, he allegedly softened a statement critical of the pope’s meeting with Waldheim.
The non-Orthodox SCA members dispute the sincerity of the objection to Waxman by noting that the Long Island rabbi has been a prominent member of several IJCIC delegations since Miami — including the Prague gathering — without any furor erupting.
Waxman did not respond to requests for an interview. Kwestel declined to discuss “personalities.” But he insisted that the O.U., or any other SCA member agency, “has a right of veto over (any) decision of the SCA.”
Whether or not the Synagogue Council might participate in the upcoming Rome meeting without its Orthodox members, as it did in Miami in 1987, has not been decided, said Zaiman of the SCA.
Just how serious a threat the current impasse is to the continued existence of the SCA is difficult to gauge. Orthodox sources say the SCA could be nearing a breaking point. But Conservative and Reform leaders insist the SCA will survive intact, just as it has weathered other storms that have flared up since its founding in 1926.
The SCA’s original intent was to foster cooperation among the leading agencies representing the mainstream of American Jewry’s religious establishment. Since its inception, however, a diversity of views has restricted the group’s role to representing mainstream Judaism in interfaith dialogues and before governmental bodies.
(JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen contributed to this report.)