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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Petition on religious councils not affecting conversion issue

JERUSALEM, July 22 (JTA) — One month after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a committee to find a compromise on Jewish conversions, the question of how to register those who have undergone a non-Orthodox conversion in Israel remains unresolved, according to those close to the negotiations. Faced with an August 15 deadline, the seven-member committee has been meeting five times a week in an attempt to find a solution that would be acceptable to its Orthodox, Conservative and Reform members. The committee was set up after the non-Orthodox movements agreed to suspend litigation pending before Israel’s High Court of Justice and the government suspended legislative action on a bill that would legalize the Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over Jewish conversions conducted in Israel. In the meantime, the Reform and Conservative movements have returned to court on another religious matter. “We never promised to curtail legal action on other fronts,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. The two liberal movements jointly filed a petition to the High Court July 10 demanding that it force the Ministry of Religious Affairs to permit non-Orthodox representatives to sit on four local religious councils in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Tivon. The court has ruled since 1992 on four separate occasions that representatives cannot be barred from religious councils on the basis of their religious beliefs. But no religious council has permitted a Reform or Conservative representative to participate in its proceedings. “The Ministry of Religious Affairs acts as if it doesn’t have to accept the rulings,” said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the Conservative representative on the conversion committee. “There is no reason in the world we should sit back and let this happen.” Ministry of Justice officials responsible for enforcing the court rulings “have thrown up their arms in despair, saying there was nothing they could do,” said Regev, the Reform representative on the committee. “This petition was an act of exasperation, made only after exhausting all other avenues,” he said. Hammer said the petition “didn’t affect the negotiations” on the conversion issue. Rabbi Dov Frimer, one of the committee’s five Orthodox representatives, agreed. “If someone had asked me in advance whether this [petition] was appropriate, I might have counseled against it. However, I’m pleased to say that the committee members didn’t allow the issues to become confused.” Although the committee members and others close to the negotiations are keeping an extremely tight lid on the proceedings, representatives from all three streams say the atmosphere during the meetings has been both professional and good-natured. “There has been a real openness in terms of a search” for a compromise, said Frimer. Regev said the committee has been “hearing testimonies from key figures in the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities, both in Israel and abroad, as well as Knesset members and government officials.” In addition to the testimony, the committee has sought and received input from ordinary citizens. “We’ve received dozens of [letters] from people, and every single one has been given to each committee member without censorship,” said Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs. “In some cases, people were asked to provide further information or to appear before the committee.” Brown refused to elaborate on the letters’ contents. Brown, who along with Third Way Knesset Member Alexander Lubotsky helped broker the “cease-fire” between Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders that permitted the committee’s formation, said that the members are taking their duties very seriously. Referring to Ya’acov Ne’eman, who was named finance minister shortly after assuming the role of committee chairman, Brown said, “Ne’eman accepted the post of finance minister on the condition that he could continue heading the committee. “When one of the highest-ranking ministers takes such a stand, it signals the committee’s importance.” If the committee develops a compromise, the proposal will then be presented to the governing coalition, which will have three weeks to accept or reject it. If accepted, the Knesset would likely pass a law codifying the new procedures for recognizing non-Orthodox converts who undergo conversions in Israel. If rejected, the non-Orthodox movements are expected to reactivate their conversion-related court cases. The Orthodox parties would likely pursue the contentious conversion bill, which requires two more Knesset votes before it can become law.

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