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NEWS ANALYSIS Issue of adoptees’ conversions shows compromise is attainable

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JERUSALEM, Oct. 20 (JTA) – As Israel and American Jewry seek a way out of the religious pluralism crisis, one ray of light has appeared. A little-known Israeli committee set up to deal with the specific problem of conversions of adopted children was reported to be nearing agreement. The reported progress comes against the backdrop of disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams over granting official recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel and allowing non-Orthodox officials to participate in local religious councils. The committee’s progress is important because it demonstrates that public figures from both sides of the religious divide in Israel are capable of reaching pragmatic solutions. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the three-member committee will recommend that adopted children be required to adhere to the basic tenets of Orthodoxy, but that their adoptive parents, who have also had to follow these tenets, will no longer face such a requirement. The committee includes two Orthodox rabbis – Haim Drukman and Eli Ben-Dahan – and attorney Ofra Friedman. Drukman is a leading force in the National Religious Party and is head of a conversion Beit Din, as religious courts are known, in southern Israel. Ben-Dahan is national director of the religious courts, and Friedman is chairwoman of Na’amat, a women’s organization affiliated with the Histadrut labor federation. The Drukman Committee was established by the government alongside the better-known Ne’eman Committee, headed by Minister of Finance Ya’acov Ne’eman, which is seeking a compromise – so far without success – to avert further action on controversial conversion legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel. The Ne’eman Committee, which is made up of rabbis and laymen from the three leading streams of Judaism, had reportedly been considering a proposal that would grant Reform and Conservative rabbis a role in conversions and marriages. But Israel’s chief rabbis last week rejected the reported proposal. If the Ne’eman Committee fails to hammer out a compromise, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to back the Orthodox parties in his coalition that have vowed to pass legislation regarding conversions and religious councils. At the same time, representatives of the liberal movements have threatened to abandon an agreed-upon freeze and pursue their complaints with the High Court of Justice. Ne’eman and Netanyahu were hard at work this week urging all sides to delay action for several months in order to give the Ne’eman panel more time to find a workable situation. In contrast to these developments, the reported compromise on the conversions of adopted children offered some hope. The Jewish status of such children, particularly of babies adopted in Brazil and elsewhere by childless Israeli couples, has deeply moved the Israeli public in recent years. Adoptive parents have complained bitterly that the Chief Rabbinate required them, in effect, to undertake a wholesale change of their own lifestyles before the religious courts would consent to convert the adopted children to Judaism. Nearly a dozen of these parents eventually sought help from Conservative rabbis in Israel, who converted the children in 1995 at a ceremony at Hannaton, a Conservative kibbutz in the Western Galilee. Many of the parents then filed applications with the High Court of Justice to order the government to recognize the Jewishness of their children. Subsequently, however, most of the adoptive parents sought ways of having their children reconverted under the auspices of the official Orthodox rabbinate. For its part, the Orthodox establishment has adopted its most moderate stance in the cases of these children – whether because of the direct challenge posed by the Conservative conversions or because, as some Orthodox rabbis explain, Orthodox law affords greater flexibility in the case of babies. Na’amat also showed flexibility. While working together with the non-Orthodox movements to challenge Orthodox conversion requirements in court, Na’amat maintained close ties with key Orthodox rabbis, constantly urging them to find an acceptable solution. A top Na’amat legal aide explained that the movement places the interests of the children and the families above all else. This pragmatic approach is not dissimilar to that of Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, another key player in the conversion game. Far from siding with the non-Orthodox movements – a move that has drawn the ire of those movements – the Russian immigrant party has sought during the past year to nudge the Chief Rabbinate to moderate its position when it comes to the legal status of thousands of non- Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is chiefly thanks to Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s pressure – and to the clout it wields in the governing coalition – that the finance and religious affairs ministries, together with the Chief Rabbinate, have agreed to set up a network of special religious courts where conversion candidates – mostly from the former Soviet Union – are prepared for conversion. This system is still very far from being an efficient operation. It is dogged by budgetary constraints and by infighting between various government agencies and voluntary groups. Nevertheless, the system represented a step forward. As with Na’amat’s efforts on behalf of adopted babies, the position of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah politicians is that it is better to work out a deal with the Orthodox establishment, if such a deal is attainable, than to subject their constituencies to the anguish of serving as legal and political guinea pigs. The failure of American Jewish activists to empathize with, or even to understand, this approach on the part of non-Orthodox – and often secularist – Israeli groups is part of the general breakdown in communication and understanding that the conversion controversy is exposing in the fraying relationship between Israel and U.S. Jewry. As a democracy, Israel works by votes, by interest groups, by trade-offs, by all the machinery of the parliamentary system in which elected representatives must seek to serve their constituents’ best interests. As a result, most secular Israeli politicians do not see it in their interest to fight for the right of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions or marriages. Apart from the leftist Meretz Party, Israel’s mainstream political parties consistently refuse to place the issue of religious pluralism on their platforms or on the national agenda. With the Orthodox sectors of the Jewish population in Israel growing quickly, political leaders of all stripes, playing by the rules of parliamentary democracy, are thinking first of their constituents’ interests. They are seeking to obtain a solution for their problems within the existing, monopolistic, unpluralistic system – if that is at all possible.

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