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News Analysis: Key Players in Religious Pluralism Step Back from Brink, Avert Crisis

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Like two sides threatened by a debilitating labor strike, the key players in the religious pluralism morass have stepped back from the brink.

As a result, the committee seeking a way out now has three more months to find a solution to the crisis that has created a deep rift between Israel and much of American Jewry.

There is still no guarantee of success — the committee headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman has already labored for months — but with the situation spiraling out of control, all sides recognized that more time is needed to negotiate the complex and divisive issues involved.

The pullback capped a week of intensive discussions, warnings and acrimony that threatened to collapse the months-long effort to resolve issues relating to the recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

In what appeared to be a significant breakthrough in the acrimonious debate, a senior official from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate sat down early Tuesday morning with Reform and Conservative leaders, a meeting that helped breathe new life into the Ne’eman Committee.

The crisis came to a head this week as the Knesset reconvened after its summer recess.

Two bills that would codify Orthodox control over religious life in Israel – – one related to conversions, another related to representation on local religious councils — appeared to be headed for a fast legislative track on Monday after the non-Orthodox movements rejected a “cease-fire” proposal made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The proposal had earlier been accepted by the Orthodox political parties.

But in a dramatic reversal Tuesday, after a day of enduring the wrath of Knesset members across the political spectrum, the Reform and Conservative movements accepted the cease-fire.

As a result, the non-Orthodox movements suspended their court actions on religious matters and the Knesset delayed action on the conversion and religious council bills.

Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky, of The Third Way Party, who helped engineer the reversal, said the two non-Orthodox streams shifted for two reasons.

“They failed to understand the overriding opinion of almost all the Knesset members who support the Ne’eman Committee process,” Lubotsky said in an interview.

“They didn’t realize that there has been a change in the Orthodox camp — that there are more and more Orthodox people who support the committee and believe that a historical breakthrough can come out of it.”

The second reason, he said, was that the Reform and Conservative leaders “were looking for a real Orthodox partner from the rabbinate.”

On Tuesday, it seems, they found their partner.

The previous evening, Lubotsky and other government officials convinced the Chief Rabbinate to send a representative to speak with the non-Orthodox leaders.

Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, who heads the rabbinate’s Office of Conversions, met with Reform and Conservative representatives Tuesday morning at the Jerusalem residence of Israeli President Ezer Weizman.

That meeting took place just hours before the Knesset was scheduled to debate a new bill that would bar non-Orthodox representatives from serving on local religious councils.

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Reform movement in Israel, insisted that it was Rosen’s presence — and not political pressure — that prompted him and his colleagues to change their minds.

“There was an assessment on our part that now that there is an official representative of the rabbinate endorsing the process rather than rejecting it, we could agree to a timeout,” Regev said in an interview.

“We were seeking such a partner all along, and if this had been forthcoming last week or last month, there might not have been this stalemate.”

In New York, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the most important factor was a personal plea by Weizman.

“He asked us for one more shot at this, and we had to give it to him,” Yoffie said in a telephone interview from Dallas where he was preparing for the opening of the Reform movement’s biennial convention.

But the political fallout from the non-Orthodox movements’ initial rejection could not be ignored.

“We did not anticipate the level of the erosion in public support,” Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, said in an interview.

“Without public support and the support of the Knesset, we cannot do what we have always wanted to do: enhance Jewish unity.”

In retrospect, Bandel added, the decision to reject the prime minister’s cease- fire proposal “was counterproductive to our cause.”

Monday’s rejection came during a whirlwind visit of a dozen U.S. Reform rabbis to Israel. They met with Netanyahu and other government officials to lobby against the two bills.

Netanyahu, livid at the non-Orthodox stance, singled out the Reform movement for criticism.

“The Reform Jews chose the path of confrontation rather than discussion and compromise,” Netanyahu said Monday in a statement. “The rejection of the compromise by the Reform Jews raises the suspicion that political factors were involved in their decision, which are deepening the division within the Jewish people and in the State of Israel.”

The leaders of The Third Way and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah parties, members of the governing coalition thought to have been reconsidering their original support for the religious legislation, were among the more vocal Knesset members criticizing the non-Orthodox stance.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party took a similar tone, stating that “the militants in the Reform movement don’t want to make a compromise; they don’t want to succeed. They want to fight to strengthen their movements.”

However, Reform and Conservative leaders charged that the chief rabbis were responsible for the breakdown because they had rejected initial proposals by the Ne’eman Committee.

In a letter sent Monday to Ne’eman, the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel explained that their decision to reject the cease-fire came with great difficulty.

Ne’eman himself voiced personal regret after the non-Orthodox rejected the cease-fire.

In a letter faxed to federations and national Jewish organizations in the United States, Ne’eman said he was “deeply shocked” to hear that the Reform and Conservative movements had decided not to accept the formula suggested by the prime minister.

“This tragic decision will cause a major split between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel — a split which I believe can be avoided,” he said.

“Time permitting, I have every reason to believe that this committee can bring about an historic shalom bayit (peace in the house) which would be a blessing to the Jewish people.”

While the Ne’eman Committee was initially mandated to find a recommended solution to the conversion crisis, Ne’eman said in his letter that its mandate had expanded to include other issues on the religious pluralism agenda, including prayer at the Western Wall, marriage ceremonies and religious councils.

It was the first public acknowledgement that, indeed, the committee had broadened its focus.

The willingness of the Chief Rabbinate to discuss the issue with the non- Orthodox movements has given some hope that a solution to the crisis may be attainable.

In New York, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative movement’s umbrella organization, said that while the Ne’eman Committee is made up of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox leaders, the Orthodox members of the committee “don’t represent anybody.”

No representative of the Orthodox political parties or the Chief Rabbinate is on the committee.

But, in many ways, this week’s developments have returned the sides to square one.

The cease-fire was identical to the agreement earlier this year to freeze such actions, which was the basis for the creation of the Ne’eman Committee.

Despite the decision to plod ahead, the leader of the Reform movement is not optimistic.

The Ne’eman Committee process “requires goodwill and flexibility on all sides,” said Yoffie, noting he was “pessimistic” that a solution could be found.

“Whether such flexibility will be forthcoming from the rabbinate, we’re not sure.”

“The burden is now on the Orthodox,” Yoffie said. “Either they’re going to work with us or they’re not. Either we’re going to have relations of mutual respect or we’re not. Otherwise, we’ll go back to court.”

(JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen in New York contributed to this report.)

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