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FOCUS ON ISSUES Crisis of Jewish unity dominates annual assembly

INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 18 (JTA) — North America”s Jewish federation world pulled out all the stops here this week to try to prevent the rifts over pluralism in Israel from widening into an unbridgeable divide. But it is far from certain how the current crisis, which threatens Jewish peoplehood, can or will be resolved. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party Leader Ehud Barak addressed the volatile Middle East political landscape in their remarks before the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations. And President Clinton was slated to speak to the gathering by satellite. Of course, there were also countless workshops, seminars and discussions on Jewish education and identity, spirituality, lay- professional relations and fund raising. But it is incontestable that the theme of preserving Jewish unity dominated the conference for the more than 3,500 delegates. Even the weekend concert of Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, who is known as Noa, ended in a lament over divisiveness and a plea for tolerance and peace. The Jewish fund-raising establishment has been stunned by the explosion of anger and anguish triggered in the last year among grass- roots non-Orthodox Jews over legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel. It was exactly a year ago, at last year”s G.A. in Seattle, that CJF entered the fray. Delegates passed a resolution protesting the Orthodox-sponsored conversion legislation, departing from their typical unwillingness to enter the arena of Israeli religious affairs. Since then, CJF and the United Jewish Appeal have directed enormous effort to try to assuage the anger of the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent some 85 percent of affiliated American Jews. The fear was that these constituents would be encouraged to divert money from the campaign in protest. At the same time, campaign officials have tried to ward off attacks by the Orthodox, who believe that the UJA/federation system should stay away from political and religious affairs. Publicity has been intensified in recent months to get the word out about central campaign support for the three streams in Israel. Last year, the system funneled about $17 million toward the streams — and other projects promoting tolerance and democracy — through the Jewish Agency for Israel via the United Israel Appeal. The latest strategy has been a fund-raising initiative in which the CJF and UJA system has pledged to work with all three streams to try to raise $10 million each for projects in Israel. While originally designed for top donors, it now appears that this program of supplemental giving will be available at all levels to enable donors to earmark money to the religious streams. The gifts, officials stress, must be above the donors” regular contributions to the annual campaign. Despite these efforts, the annual campaign for both local and overseas needs, run by local federations and UJA, has taken a blow, bringing in $20 million less in 1997 than had been projected. However, at $735 million, it is still 2 percent above last year. But concerns ran beyond money. Thinkers, teachers, pundits and politicians preached that Jewish peoplehood must not be torn apart by the conflict over conversion legislation. “My prayer is that you won”t walk away,”” pleaded Donniel Hartman, the Orthodox director of education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “You have a lot of allies in Israel. Find them and join them.”” Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg passionately echoed the call. The conversion crisis should be “an invitation for involvement,”” he said, not a cause for alienation and despair. Netanyahu and almost all the other speakers pinned enormous hopes on the special commission appointed by the prime minister and charged with finding a solution by the end of January, the latest deadline after a series of extensions. The head of that commission, Israeli Finance Minister Ya”acov Ne”eman, was one of the keynote speakers here who underscored the high stakes. “History will judge us all by how we respond to this challenge and responsibility,”” he said. But at the same time, speakers warned that whether it failed or succeeded, the divisions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews and among the Jewish streams would continue and would require long-term attention. “After this crisis, we will be different, whatever the outcome,”” said Alex Lubotsky, a Knesset member from The Third Way Party who has helped mediate the conversion conflict. Said Hartman, “This is not a political struggle, it”s an educational one and it will take a generation. If Israelis are not invested in Judaism, there will be no religious freedom.”” In the meantime, said the president of the UJA, Richard Pearlstone, the Jewish people and the fund-raising campaign, which meets humanitarian needs, should not be held hostage to the outcome. “Whether we win or lose”” on the conversion legislation, “it shouldn”t be the defining determination of whether we should have ties to Israel.”” In a reference toward growing insularity, he said, “It is making us turn toward the shtetl rather than having a vision of [the Jews] as a bigger people.”” On a panel made up of the three streams, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, echoed the call of many when he said, “We must use our combined strength”” to “force a consensus among the parties in Israel.”” “The crisis is not about religion,”” he said. “The real problem is sinat hinam,”” he said, using the Hebrew term for baseless hatred among Jews. And “it will not be resolved by policy or laws but by engagement”” and dialogue. At the same forum, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he was not optimistic about the ability of the Israeli commission to reach a solution. He said that while he would be satisfied with a short-term technical solution to the conversion impasse, Ne”eman had overreached the committee”s original mandate by broadening its agenda to include a host of other complex religious matters. Yoffie also said he was not open to continued delays. “Waiting indefinitely is an endorsement of the status quo,”” he said. Rabbi Jacob Rubinstein, president of the Orthodox movement”s Rabbinical Council of America, lamented what he described as the deep divisions and “reckless vitriol”” prompted by the conflict. “The momentum may drive us to a cataclysm,”” he said, adding, “These wounds will not heal easily, the scars remain.”” His remarks came a day after his organization and other modern Orthodox groups published a full-page newspaper advertisement in USA Today calling for Jewish unity and support for the Ne”eman Committee. At the same time, Rubinstein lashed out in anger at the Reform and Conservative streams and the fund-raising establishment for waging the pluralism battle in the philanthropic arena. “Jewish brothers and sisters are fighting while humanitarian needs are being held hostage,”” he said. He also attacked the fund-raising establishment for using money to fund trips by Israeli Knesset members to learn about pluralistic American Jewry and not include meetings with Orthodox Jews. CJF President Dr. Conrad Giles apologized for the exclusion, which occurred when eight Knesset members toured the country during the summer, and promised that it would not happen again as plans unfold to bring more Knesset members. But, Giles said, his system could not and would not abandon the struggle. “This is our issue.”” While the emphasis on unity at the G.A. pleased many delegates, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, senior executive of the Orthodox Union, reflected the view of many Orthodox delegates, who were unhappy about it. “We”ve always been opposed to UJA becoming involved in religious, movement and political disputes,”” he said. “UJA is to serve a united Jewish people and shouldn”t be a vehicle for dividing us.”” In spite of the obvious differences at the G.A., Ted Zachs of Vancouver, president of CJF of Canada, said he was leaving with “a reaffirmation that this is a positive time in Jewish history.”” Amid his anguish over the divisions, he said, “the message I”m taking away is that there is room in Israel for all of Am Yisrael.”” Zachs, who is married to a non-Orthodox convert, said the conflict hit him particularly hard. As an activist and ardent Zionist, he said, “The suggestion that somehow my family didn”t have a full legitimate place in the state was crushing.”” Rachel Stempel, a professional with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said the G.A. gave her some answers to give concerned donors back home. “I hear a lot of anger and frustration from laypeople,”” she said. “Donniel Hartman gave a good answer when he said not to walk away. It”s going to take educating, and education is never fast.”” For his part, Rabbi Irwin Kula, the charismatic president of CLAL, a training center for Jewish communal leaders, said the controversy should be understood and welcomed as an effort by Jews to grapple with who they are and with “redefining Judaism”” at the end of the century. He said the “journey”” into the future has “different roadmaps”” for different Jews. What is needed, he said, is “a covenantal commitment to go on the journey together”” and “unconditional love”” must be at the heart of it all.