Focus on Issues: 50 U.S. Reform Rabbis Press Netanyahu on Conversion Bill
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Focus on Issues: 50 U.S. Reform Rabbis Press Netanyahu on Conversion Bill

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Although it is too early to tell whether a whirlwind visit to Israel will have an impact on the outcome of pending conversion legislation, a delegation of Reform rabbis in America say the visit was not in vain. The 50 rabbis came to Israel this week to lobby against a bill, which, if passed, would affirm the Chief Rabbinate’s control over all conversions to Judaism in Israel and thereby delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.

Welcomed by numerous governmental officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the delegation received "a great deal of respect," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Hirsch said the half-hour meeting, the first since Netanyahu came to power, was "in itself significant."

While acknowledging that no one came "expecting to change things overnight," Rabbi Robert Orkand of Temple Israel in Westport, Conn., agreed that the meeting with Netanyahu was time well spent.

The battle over who has the legal right to perform conversions in Israel is part of a larger campaign by Reform and Conservative Jews to win recognition for their movements in Israel.

"We tried to explain that Israel is the only democracy in the world that doesn’t afford its citizens the right of free expression," said Orkand. "The fact that a Reform Jew can’t be married or undergo conversion by his or her rabbi is terribly upsetting."

Orkand added, "Whether we convinced the prime minister, who can say? But I think he heard us."

Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, concurred that the meeting with the Reform rabbis went well. "This was an open discussion," he said.

"The rabbis understood the depth of the problem the prime minister is facing," Brown, referring to Netanyahu’s political quandary of trying to please both his Orthodox coalition partners and American Jews.

"At the same time, the prime minister understood how deeply the rabbis felt about this issue and how the conversion bill could affect the rabbis and their communities back home."

The Reform lobbying effort came as the Cabinet is nearing action on the so-called "Rabbinical Court Conversion Bill," which has been in the works for months. Once the Cabinet approves the measure, it will go to the Knesset.

The bill aims to plug a hole in Israel’s Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in late 1995 that there was no legal reason why non-Orthodox conversions should not be recognized in Israel. However, the court did not explicitly recognize such conversions, saying that it would be up to the Knesset to pass the appropriate legislation.

Orthodox parties that joined the Netanyahu government have been pressing for legislation that would, in effect, delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions both in Israel and abroad.

But Netanyahu himself has pledged to American Jewish groups that while he would support legislation that affirms the Orthodox control over conversions in Israel, he would not back a measure that alters Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora.

While the current proposal apparently does not contain any references to conversions abroad, the Reform rabbis expressed fears that such a provision might be introduced at a later date.

Even if the law does not directly affect conversions outside Israel, opponents say, it would delegitimize millions of non-Orthodox Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora.

"I think there is a growing realization in the government of the potentially catastrophic consequences if the bill passes," said Hirsch.

When asked to define "catastrophic consequences," Hirsch replied, "Our official position will be to continue our support for Israel, and funding on behalf of Israel."

However, Hirsch warned that unless non-Orthodox Jews receive legal recognition of their rabbis and institutions in Israel, non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora might decide to "disengage" from the Jewish state.

"Israel’s leadership must understand that if 80 percent of American Jews are not Orthodox, then at least 80 percent of federation members are not Orthodox."

Hirsch said the American Jewish leadership "is beginning to be very troubled by what it sees."

Last November, the Council of Jewish Federations called on the Israeli government not to pass or change any legislation that "would change the current situation regarding recognition of conversions."

Not all American Jews, and certainly not Orthodox Jews, share the concerns voiced by the Reform rabbinical delegation.

American Orthodox groups have made clear their support of new conversion legislation.

But, according to Hirsch, there is a growing feeling in the United States that Israel is saying: "We’ll take your money, your political support, the foreign aid you helped produce, but don’t even think of bringing your religious sensibilities here."

During their visit, the American rabbis put their religious views into practice.

Although a planned conversion of a handful of people in the Mediterranean Sea was postponed due to bad weather, the delegates successfully held a joint male/female morning service in the plaza just behind the Western Wall.

Donning prayer shawls, and in some cases tefillin, the rabbis’ service was an historic event: Rather than huddle together at the back of the plaza as many non-Orthodox groups do, voices hushed for fear of arousing the ire of Orthodox worshipers, the rabbis stood in a central location, their tones strong and clear.

Protected by half a dozen police, the group finished the service without incident. The only disturbance — by four fervently religious men who shouted at the group — occurred after the service. The police intervened immediately.

Speaking to reporters after the service, her tefillin straps still tied around her arm, Rabbi Jo David said, "This was the most wonderful spiritual experience I’ve ever had at the Wall."

David, the rabbi of Union Reform Temple in Freeport, N.Y., said this was the first time in Israel that she was able to pray as she wanted.

"Until now, I never realized why I didn’t feel the way I was supposed to. Today it all came together."

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