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Orthodox ad campaign nixes pluralism, promotes education

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 (JTA) — Frustrated by what they view as negative press as a result of the religious pluralism controversy in Israel, some Orthodox Jews have initiated an advertising campaign to “debunk the myths” of pluralism and encourage Jewish unity through “classical” Jewish education. An advertisement, which appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 23 and in Jewish weekly newspapers over Chanukah, marked the first effort by the group Am Echad, One Nation, to reach out to Jews of other denominations. Am Echad is a coalition of individuals from all streams of Orthodoxy who want people to know “pluralism is dangerous in Israel,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. Am Echad was created after Agudath Israel’s president, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, called for a campaign to counteract what he sees as the negative view of Orthodoxy fostered by the Reform and Conservative movements. Despite its close ties to Agudath Israel, Am Echad is an independent organization and reflects the views of many Orthodox factions, not just Agudah’s, Shafran said. The ad campaign comes as the debate over religious pluralism in Israel has reached near-fever pitch. A government-appointed committee of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative representatives are facing a Jan. 31 deadline to try to achieve a compromise regarding the status of Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel, who currently have no legal authority to perform conversions to Judaism, marriages or funerals. The ad, which depicts three windows — one with a traditional menorah, one with an electric menorah and a third with no menorah — says, “No matter how we celebrate Chanukah, we are all Jews.” It goes on to say that “there’s good reason” for the State of Israel to look “to halachah — traditional religious law — as its exclusive standard governing marriage, divorce and conversion. Halachah is the one unifying standard we have.” To introduce other standards in Israel “under the banner of `religious pluralism’ would cause an irreparable schism in the Jewish State,” the ad continues. Usher Cohen, an employee with the newly created group, said, “We can really get back to Jewish unity” when Jews, “no matter what denomination,” know about their Judaism. The ad urges people to call a toll-free number to find out about educational programs in their community. Callers will also be sent a brochure that “debunks the myths of pluralism” as it has been reported in the media, Shafran said. But leaders from other streams of Judaism called the ad misleading. Am Echad “talks about halachah as if there is one halachah,” but Jewish law “has many variations, like civil law in this country,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. To have unity, you must “acknowledge diversity” in the way people practice Judaism, Epstein added. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the advertisement glosses over the issues. “There’s an assumption here that American Jews believe that they are being told they are not Jews, but American Jews understand the issue is that in Israel their rabbis are not rabbis and their Judaism is not Judaism,” Yoffie said. Yoffie does not believe that the advertisement will “change anyone’s mind.” In any event, people are responding. Some 50 individuals called the hotline within hours of its appearance in the Times. More ads are planned in the coming months.

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