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UJA Officials to Reform Critics: Commitment to Pluralism is Firm

The United Jewish Appeal campaign is under fire from some quarters in the Reform movement for not doing enough to support religious pluralism in Israel.

At least a dozen Reform rabbis apparently used their pulpits over the High Holidays to suggest that congregants bypass the Jewish community’s central fund-raising campaign and give directly to Reform institutions in Israel, according to campaign officials.

In the wake of the controversy, campaign officials reaffirmed their commitment to religious pluralism.

Reform movement officials say they know of no concerted or formal protest initiative. But they say there is growing frustration among rabbis and the rank-and-file alike over what they deem to be stepped-up religious coercion by the Orthodox establishment in Israel since elections there in May.

“There has been no directive that I know of from any of the official elements of the Reform movement to preach against the campaign,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

But, he added, “what we’re hearing is a desperate cry by non-Orthodox Jews. They are increasingly concerned about the character of an Israeli society that shuts out non-Orthodox forms of religious expression.”

Since “federations have rightly claimed they are a major player on the Israel- Diaspora scene, they are a natural address to help solve” the problem, he said.

Hirsch and others also say their programs in Israel are in crisis because they have received only 20 percent of this year’s allocations from the Jewish community’s central campaign.

Richard Wexler, UJA’s national chairman, said, “Our commitment to the streams remains extremely strong. These are our congregations, our rabbis, our movements.”

Payments to the programs have been delayed because of a severe cash-flow shortage at the Jewish Agency for Israel, caused in part by flat Diaspora campaigns, he said.

Non-Orthodox denominations “are not the only ones suffering,” he said. “Almost all our beneficiaries are.”

The UJA, in concert with local federations, has since 1986 funded programs run by the three largest Jewish denominations through the Jewish Agency.

“In the last 10 years, the Jewish Agency has given more than $25 million to the Reform and Conservative” movements’ programming, said Rabbi Daniel Allen, associate executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, which funnels the UJA money to the Jewish Agency.

Allen said he believed his rabbinic colleagues should support the campaign as a “matter of conscience.”

“It is the responsible and proper and mitzvadik thing for every Jew to be involved because it’s the only way we’re saving Jewish lives around the world and bringing them home to Israel,” he said.

“For any rabbi not to encourage participation, in my mind, is an abdication of rabbinic responsibility.”

The current Jewish Agency annual allocations are about $1 million each for Reform and Conservative programs in Israel, and $428,000 for Orthodox programs, he said.

Despite a $140 million budget decrease since 1995 at the Jewish Agency, the funding for non-Orthodox programs has remained the same, campaign officials note.

A statement issued last week by the UIA and the Jewish Agency in New York says the funding commitments will be honored in their entirety by December.

ARZA’s Hirsch, for his part, said he welcomed the news and that it would help “to alleviate some of the concern.”

One sermon attacking the campaign was delivered on Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Peter Kasdan of Temple Emanu-El at West Essex in Livingston, N.J.

“We need to finally admit to ourselves that we North American Reform Jews have channeled our energy and our financial support through the wrong doors,” Kasdan said.

“We have given more than our share of UJA dollars” and “we have seen our funds used to underwrite Israel’s Orthodox yeshivot and synagogues with only pennies going to our own Reform institutions,” he said.

We have neglected our own movement while paying financial homage to those who deny us our Jewish rights.”

Wexler said this and other sermons he had seen were filled with a “tremendous amount of misinformation or lack of information” and that he regretted it.

“For rabbis to commence 5757 with sermons that instead of preaching Jewish unity demand divisiveness” and have no “regard for the facts is very painful to those of us who are members of our movements and wholly supportive of the idea of klal yisrael.”

He said the UJA and its rabbinic cabinet “would continue to try to bring the facts to the attention of rabbis around the Jewish world and we hope they’ll ask questions of us before going public.”

For his part, Kasdan said in a telephone interview this week, “I’m passionate about what I said and I’m not about to back down, but I have promised to keep this in-house” until a series of meetings takes place between leaders of the Reform movement, ARZA and federations.

In fact, the controversy over the campaign has been percolating throughout the Reform movement for a while. It surfaced in an exchange of letters in the summer’s newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinic arm.

In it, the CCAR’s president, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, wrote that he has decreased his personal contribution to the central campaign by about 20 percent and has “made it clear that I am sending the difference directly to institutions of my choice in Israel.”

Maslin criticized the campaign’s level of support for Reform and Conservative day schools, camps and continuing education programs. “I don’t believe that UJA leaders have spoken out forcefully enough for human rights and pluralism in Israel,” he said.

At the same time, he said that a boycott of the campaign is “indefensible.”

But he defended his refusal to give the UJA campaign a “blanket endorsement.”

Maslin was one of several Reform and Conservative leaders who said they were approached shortly after last May’s Israeli elections by fund-raising representatives for an unusual statement of support for the campaign.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the president of Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, said he interpreted the request as a result of anxiety over the increase in power of Israel’s fervently Orthodox parties – – together they won 23 seats in the Knesset — and its impact on non-Orthodox Diaspora contributors to Israel.

Zimmerman said he does support the campaign, but resisted the request to sign.

“We all endorse the campaign, but we weren’t going to do it because we want to see what’s going to happen” in light of “threats by the Orthodox to change” the recent gains made by non-Orthodox movements in Israel, he said.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Conservative movement leaders felt that UJA’s call for “blanket support” was not appropriate.

“We do have some concerns about the way our movement is being treated in Israel and hope UJA will work with us” on the problem, he said.

“But we are committed to UJA and would not, at this time, think of issuing a call to withhold or divert funds.”

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