Federations, UJA reach deal to fund non-Orthodox in Israel

NEW YORK, Sept. 9 (JTA) – The central Jewish fund-raising establishment has agreed to help raise money for Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel in exchange for a pledge of solidarity from their leadership. The move reflects an intense effort to avert a swell of protest it fears could surface at the High Holidays against what many non-Orthodox Jews perceive as official religious intolerance in Israel. The fear is that anger over hot-button conversion legislation pending in the Knesset and another assault on non-Orthodox Jews at prayer at the Western Wall could trigger a backlash against the philanthropic campaign run jointly by the United Jewish Appeal and local federations nationwide. The accord is part of the strategy to head off damage to the campaign that could be instigated by rabbis on pulpits coast to coast. Slated to be announced formally in the coming week, the agreement calls for the UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations” system to raise up to $10 million for each of the two movements” programs and projects in Israel.
The money would be funneled through what are being designated as “supplemental gifts”” that campaign officials stress would be in addition to donors” contributions to the regular annual campaign. In return, the movement leaders are prepared to issue joint statements stressing the need for Jewish communal unity and the importance of the federated campaign. “It”s plus-plus for both sides,”” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said of the agreement. “We can capitalize on their sophistication”” in fund raising, he said, referring to the UJA/federation campaign apparatus. In turn, the movements “will not be going to ask people to divert their gift, but to make a meaningful gift to UJA and something supplemental”” to the movements. “For too long, there”s been a false `either/or,” ”” he said. Making such common cause clearly is a relief for campaign officials, who doubtless have been haunted by memories of last year”s Rosh Hashanah, when there were calls from some pulpits for a boycott of the campaign. In subsequent months, there were repeated suggestions from some Reform and Conservative quarters that funds be diverted from the campaign directly to the movements. As a result, there were some significant pledges that were withheld throughout the country. But now the fund-raising system has taken the offensive. At their quarterly meeting here this weekend, CJF leaders publicly called on Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, through an interactive satellite, to pledge that government officials would protect Jews who wish to worship at the plaza of the Western Wall. During Shavuot and Tisha B”Av, most notably, Reform and Conservative Jews praying at the back of that plaza were harassed and dispersed by the police. “We have an expectation of you,”” declared David Minkin, head of the CJF unity committee, to ensure that “the Wall belongs to all Jewish people”” and to afford them police protection, especially during the upcoming High Holidays. Sharansky, who holds the portfolio of Diaspora affairs in addition to being the minister of trade and industry, responded in a qualified manner that was then challenged in an unusually frank exchange. “We in the government, and the prime minister personally,”” he said, will do “our best to see that not one Jew will be prevented from his right or her right”” to pray as they see fit, “as long as they don”t incite”” anybody. Maynard Wishner, former CJF president, pressed Sharansky to define what he meant by incitement. “There is a broad area of what constitutes incitement”” versus “the legitimate exercise”” of rights of expression, he said. He urged the former Soviet dissident to remember that black youth in the South during the civil rights movement were accused of “incitement”” when they tried to integrate lunch counters. Visibly uncomfortable, Sharansky repeatedly said he hoped that people would “not turn prayer into a political demonstration.”” “I hope no one undertakes a provocative act to undermine the work of the committee,”” he added.
Sharansky was referring to the special committee appointed by the Israeli government to find a solution to the crisis sparked by the conversion bill, which would codify the existing Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. That committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya”acov Ne”eman, was slated to recommend a solution last month, but now has put off its next meeting until after the holidays, which fall this year in October. The fervently Orthodox parties in the Israeli government are pushing for the enactment of the legislation when the Knesset opens in November. For their part, leaders in the fund-raising establishment are promising to keep the pressure on Israeli politicians and their “natural allies”” in Israel in the fight for pluralism to try to avert the rupture they feel the law would trigger among the Jewish people. Meanwhile, for Conrad Giles, the president of CJF, the agreement with the movements here is an important victory for the communal world. But he knows that it does not ensure unity on the local level come Rosh Hashanah. “There is absolutely no question in my mind that if the leadership of the rabbinic movements held complete sway over the message of the pulpits during the High Holidays, we”d have no concern over what”s going on with the conversion bill and the kotel and their impact on the campaign.”” But, he said, “while the governing bodies of the streams are important in helping frame policy, individual rabbis will determine what they think is best for their communities. And that is our great concern.”” “We are angry about the lack of religious tolerance in Israel,”” said Giles. But the impulse must be resisted “to send a message to Israel by reducing the flow of dollars to the campaign”” which, he stressed, funds human services. To that end, members of the CJF unity committee gathered during the quarterly to brainstorm how to get the message out to the grass roots that the federated system is trying to respond to their concerns in the battle for pluralism. Several leaders on the national level complained that the federation executives were not effectively explaining that the Jewish Agency for Israel actually spends $17 million for programs of the three major religious streams and secular programs promoting religious tolerance.
The Jewish Agency is the largest recipient in Israel of funds raised by the campaign. Until recently, the official figure that was circulated was closer to between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in direct allocations to programs of the religious movements. The new figures reflect program spending that has been broken down in different ways. “We”ve been encouraging the federations to work with their local rabbis to reach an understanding that we”re on the same page”” and to “recognize the importance of remaining a unified community,”” Minkin said. The Conservative movement”s Epstein agreed. In his view, there is a “better-than-even chance”” that the Ne”eman committee will not succeed and that the level of understanding reached on the national level must be reached locally. Ultimately, he said, “the Jewish body politic is a local phenomenon.”” For its part, the organized Orthodox community, which supports the Israeli conversion legislation and has objected to any diversion of campaign money to the battle for religious pluralism in Israel, was not part of the agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements. An informed fund-raising source said “no dissent”” had been registered by the Orthodox in relation to the deal, however. Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, said through his secretary that he was “unfamiliar”” with the agreement as described to him and had no comment. Meanwhile, Minkin”s committee talked about sending a top-level mission of Jewish industrialists, university professors and other influentials to try to convey to the Israeli establishment before the Knesset re-opens the damage that would be caused if the conversion bill is passed.

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