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FOCUS ON ISSUES Israelis nonplused by debate over pending conversion bill

JERUSALEM, April 14 (JTA) — Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States have been up in arms over Israel”s pending conversion bill. But many Israelis are essentially indifferent to both the legislation and to the Reform and Conservative movements in general. The bill “really isn”t important to me or to most of the people I know,”” says Eyal Biger, a 26-year-old graduate student. “Frankly, there are more vital things to worry about at the moment. Things like security and the peace process. Compared to this, the issue of conversion is a non-issue.”” The legislation would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel, in effect barring the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed there. The Knesset passed the measure earlier this month in the first of three votes known as readings. The bill is now on legislative hold as government mediators seek a compromise between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Biger and his Danish-born wife, a practicing Hindu whom he met during a trip to India, do not object to the Orthodox Rabbinate”s long- standing monopoly on marriages, divorces and conversions performed in Israel. “My wife doesn”t plan to convert, but if she ever changes her mind, I hope she will do so within a religious framework,”” says Biger. “In that case, I would like her to sit for half a year and study Judaism. I don”t object to the beautiful, real way to convert,”” he said, referring to Orthodoxy. “But as I said, the issue isn”t that important.”” Unlike many Israelis, who have never experienced Judaism from a Reform or Conservative perspective, Biger personally knows many Conservative Jews. “I”m familiar with Conservative Judaism — about half the people in my army unit belonged to the movement — but I just don”t abide by their approach. “If I go to synagogue, and I admit that”s not often, I go to an Orthodox one and recite Orthodox prayers. I can”t relate to movements that permit people to drive to synagogue, or to smoke in one.”” The Reform and Conservative movements” “obvious role in keeping North American Jews connected to Judaism,”” says Biger, “are right for America but unnecessary in Israel.”” Biger”s opinions — which are shared by large numbers of Israelis — point to the very real differences between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, according to those involved in religious pluralism issues. And until these differences are addressed, they say, the gaps between Israeli and Diaspora Jews will grow even wider. “American Jews must understand that religious pluralism in Israel is different,”” says David Clayman, director of the American Jewish Congress office in Israel. “For most Israelis, religious pluralism means their right to pick and choose what they will observe of the tradition, but the tradition itself, in their view, should remain the Orthodox one. “Professor Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University said it very succinctly: `The shul that I don”t go to is Orthodox.” ”” While Reform and Conservative Jews in North America see their struggle for recognition in Israel as part of a broader fight to overcome what they perceive as religious coercion in Israel, most Israelis view things differently. According to Clayman, the majority of Israelis do not view the non-Orthodox movements as their salvation from the Rabbinate”s control over marriages and conversions, or even from such controversies as Shabbat street closures or bans on non-kosher meat. “If anything, Israelis aren”t seeking alternate religious forms,”” says Clayman. “What they”re seeking are non-religious civil ceremonies for marriage, divorce, burial, conversion. “There”s more pressure in Israel to institute civil marriage and to establish civil cemeteries than to recognize the authority of Reform and Conservative rabbis.”” Ithamar Gruenwald, professor of Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University, maintains that Israelis” relative lack of interest in the conversion bill is actually quite natural. While American Jews are not too upset about the controversy over closing Bar Ilan Street in Jerusalem on Shabbat, “most Israelis aren”t too concerned about the conversion bill, since it doesn”t affect most of them in any significant way,”” says Gruenwald. “Really, what people ultimately care about are things affecting their own lives.”” Reform movement spokeswoman Anat Galili says Israelis “have a total misunderstanding about American attitudes toward Judaism, and that”s where the gap on the conversion law comes into play.”” “Growing up in Israel, you don”t have to do anything to feel Jewish. Everyone knows about Pesach and Yom Kippur because everything is closed or we learned about them in school,”” Galili said. “Israelis don”t realize that Jews in a non-Jewish environment must do something every single day to assert their Jewishness.”” “And just as Israelis take their Jewishness for granted,”” Galili adds, “Americans take the separation between church and state, the concept of religious pluralism, for granted. To Israelis these are foreign concepts.”” Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, believes that Israelis” traditional lack of enthusiasm for non-Orthodox Jewish streams stems more from ignorance than indifference and that local interest in the movements is actually starting to grow. “When the conversion bill passed its first reading in the Knesset, Israelis didn”t really understand what it all meant,”” says Ramon. “Then, all of a sudden, the journalists starting calling and the newspapers were full of articles and opinion pieces, and people started calling the talk shows. “Slowly, the conversion issue and its implications for religious pluralism in general have begun to enter the Israeli consciousness.”” Ramon is optimistic that the Conservative and Reform movements will ultimately find their niche in Israeli society. But for now she acknowledges that “Israelis have very little energy for anything not related to peace. That goes for women”s issues, for poverty issues, for religious pluralism. That”s one reason we are marginalized.”” Another problem, Ramon says, is the negative image many Israelis hold of the non-Orthodox streams. “There”s a great deal of misinformation in the community, in school textbooks, or the textbooks ignore us completely. Often, children are told that non-Orthodox Judaism is anti-Zionist. “Until the last government, the State of Israel never supported us, financially or otherwise, and the money the Religious Affairs Ministry earmarked for us for 1996 still hasn”t materialized. There is a great deal of antagonism coming from the government,”” Ramon says. Still, Galili maintains that there is growing interest among Israelis in the non-Orthodox streams. “There are tens of thousands of people all over Israel who are interested in non-Orthodox movements,”” she says. “Every day we receive several phone calls from those who want to support our cause, and calls from those interested in a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony or conversion. “It”s taken quite a while, but people are listening.””