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Reform Rabbis Urge Knesset to Reject Conversion Legislation

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America’s Reform rabbis have lashed out at controversial conversion legislation in Israel, warning that its passage “would devastate the Israeli-Diaspora relationship and cause severe and deleterious consequences in the political, philanthropic and religious realms.”

The bill, now pending in the Knesset, would codify the Orthodox establishment’s control over conversions performed in Israel and “create two classes of Jews,” said a resolution adopted unanimously by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The Reform rabbis, meeting here this week, also called on all Jewish federations, synagogues, communal organizations, and the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements to join in appeals to the Israeli government and Knesset to kill the legislation.

The appeal for an all-out effort against the bill was echoed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents 1.5 million Reform synagogue members in the United States.

Speaking by telephone from Israel, he warned that the Israeli government was working hard to neutralize opposition among American Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Charles Kroloff, vice president of the CCAR, urged in an interview that a portion of the funds raised in the United States for Israel go directly toward building Reform synagogues and ordaining Reform rabbis in Israel.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, the CCAR president, sought to defuse a potential conflict with Jewish federations. He said in an interview that financial support for the Reform movement should not be at the expense of federation fund-raising campaigns.

However, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the CCAR’s executive vice president, warned that the anger among Reform Jews ran so deep that they may not accept Levy’s exhortation.

The emotional intensity generated by the conversion resolution stood in contrast to the generally low-key tone of the three-day meeting, which drew 500 Reform rabbis, about one-fourth of them women.

A potentially explosive issue — whether rabbis should officiate or sanctify “commitment” ceremonies or other rites for same-sex couples — was skirted by a prearranged decision to avoid floor discussion and a vote for at least two years.

The delay was criticized by some at the conference. A petition circulated among the CCAR’s 1,700 members before and during the convention, stating, “We have officiated, or are willing to officiate, at a ceremony affirming the union of a same-gender Jewish couple,” was signed by 530 rabbis.

There was a lively discussion on one committee report setting guidelines for handling charges of sexual misconduct against rabbis. In no-nonsense tones, the report set standards of near-puritan severity.

“Unacceptable behavior,” the report stated in part, includes “an unwelcome verbal, physical or visual conduct of a sexual nature.”

During the floor debate, one delegate asked for a definition of “visual conduct of a sexual nature,” and the chairman said “leering” might fall into that category.

The committee also urged rabbis, of either gender, to refrain from dating members of their congregations. This led one young rabbi to protest that in small communities, unmarried rabbis might not be able to find any dates.

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