Jewish Agency Leaders Press Sharansky on Conversion Bill

A delegation of American Jewish leaders representing all streams of Judaism expressed their “deep concern” over pending conversion legislation in a meeting with Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky met Sunday with the leaders, members of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors, in his capacity as chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Diaspora Affairs.

The leaders, all members of the newly formed Jewish Agency Board of Governors Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People, presented Sharansky with a document calling on the government to “abstain from” legislation altering the religious status quo and “not to allow any change in the Law of Return.”

The pending conversion bill would ban non-Orthodox conversions in Israel and would prevent Israeli citizens and residents from obtaining them abroad.

Although the bill does not mention conversions performed abroad for non-Israeli residents, some Orthodox Knesset members have said they would seek legislation to curtail the Law of Return.

The Law of Return allows anyone to immigrate to Israel who was born to a Jewish mother or who has been converted to Judaism. For years, Orthodox parties have sought to amend the law to require that conversions be carried out by Orthodox rabbis.

But Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have balked at legislation that would alter the long-standing policy of recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions abroad.

According to a Jewish Agency statement released after the meeting, the leaders asked Sharansky to keep an open mind about issues of concern to American Jews.

Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told Sharansky, “Just as you ask us to understand Israeli reality, you have to understand the reality of U.S. Jewry,” according to the statement.

“So that we will remain one people, 3 million Reform Jews need to know that the government of Israel understands them, knows them, is aware of their problems and considers them legitimate,” Yoffie said.

After the meeting, Vera Golovensky, Sharansky’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, said that even though the minister recognizes “the political reality in Israel,” he also seeks to prevent a further erosion of the religious rights of Reform and Conservative Jews.

While the meeting was in progress, about a dozen Reform and Conservative activists held a small vigil outside the ministry building protesting the conversion bill.

One of the protesters, Yoram Danker, said he had braved the stormy weather because the state refuses to recognize his 5-year-old daughter as Jewish.

“We adopted her five years ago and went to the rabbinate to have her converted,” Danker says. “We were told that she could not be converted unless we lived an Orthodox lifestyle. I’m from an Orthodox family, but I’m not Orthodox.”

Danker said his daughter’s Conservative conversion had not been recognized by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, which issues identity cards.

“I want my daughter’s identity card to say she is Jewish. I feel this country owes me that much.”

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