Reform, Conservative Leaders Step Up Religious Pluralism Drive

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism are once again mobilizing their 3 million American followers to fight legislative moves to solidify the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish religious affairs in Israel.

Using rhetoric as sharp as a well-honed knife, leaders of the two movements exhorted their constituents at a news conference here Tuesday to mount a lobbying and media campaign to block the adoption of two bills currently under consideration by the Israeli Knesset.

One would cement sole Orthodox control over conversions to Judaism performed in Israel; the other would require all members of municipal Israeli religious councils to conform to Orthodox levels of ritual observance.

The legislative maneuvers are a reaction to recent court decisions that have for the first time given the Reform and Conservative movements a say over certain Jewish religious affairs in Israel.

The status of both bills is changing daily, with some forces pushing for speedy adoption, to blunt the effect of the recent court rulings and other forces trying to put off the legislation till after the May 17 Israeli national elections.

Those politicians seeking a delay are concerned that the issue will have an impact on the elections and could open a gaping new rift in Israeli-Diaspora relations.

But the head of the Reform movement expressed frustration with continuing efforts to postpone the final conflict over recognizing the legitimacy of non- Orthodox movements in Israel.

“The time has come to bite the bullet on this issue,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said at Tuesday’s news conference. The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel “can’t thumb their noses in the face of our Judaism and expect that we will not respond.”

Similarly, Stephen Wolnek, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said, “If those in power in Israel wish to spit in our eye, they must expect there will be a reaction. Our tolerance and patience certainly has an end.”

The Reform movement placed an advertisement on the op-ed page of The New York Times on Tuesday. It read: “Religious fundamentalists in Israel are again threatening to redefine `Who is a Jew?’ We must not let them.”

Adoption of the laws “will cause irreparable harm to the unity of the Jewish people,” it warned.

Although the ad was placed only by the Reform movement, leaders of the Conservative movement said at the news conference that they too support what it says.

At the news conference Tuesday, both movements asked their constituents, who represent about 85 percent of synagogue-affiliated American Jews, to communicate their displeasure over the legislative efforts to Israeli lawmakers and those who can influence them.

Specifically, they urged their followers to:

lobby members of Knesset with e-mails and phone calls;

contact Israeli consulates, along with local Jewish and secular media;

withhold money from “any person or organization that cannot state to your satisfaction that they support pluralism, and that they have respect for Reform and Conservative Judaism”;

contact leaders of their local Jewish federations, which raise money in Jewish communities all over North America to support domestic and overseas needs, asking them “to caution Israeli policy-makers about the dangers of passage of any religious legislation.”

“It would be helpful if local federations were to come out with public statements” in favor of pluralism, said an “Action Alert” sent out to the leadership of every Reform congregation.

UJA Federations of North America, the new federation umbrella group, is taking a proactive role in the current round of the pluralism debate.

Last week it distributed a brief statement to its lay and professional leaders, saying that the organization “urges Israeli leadership and members of Knesset to oppose the bill” that would exclude non-Orthodox Jews from religious councils.

Federation leaders also sent a letter to about 40 members of Knesset last week asking them “to consider what impact the legislation might have between Israel and American Jewry,” said Jay Yoskowitz, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, one of the main constituents of the new umbrella group.

Those members of Knesset who got the letter, including some from the Orthodox political parties, visited American Jewish communities to see their federations at work in the last year, Yoskowitz said in an interview.

“We felt it was important to make a statement suggesting very strongly that nobody do anything that would affect how Jews relate to each other both here and in Israel,” he said.

In the past, federation leaders have voiced concern that the pluralism crisis would have a severe negative impact on fund raising for Israel. But according to the executive of one major federation, the actual impact of the crisis on fund raising has been minimal.

“This honestly is not an enormous concern,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

While the federation is very concerned about the emotional impact that the proposed legislation would have on Jews’ sense of unity, he said, “almost the last thing we’re concerned about is whether this will harm the campaign.”

Shrage and Yoskowitz, along with the executive directors of several other large-city Jewish federations, met with Yoffie and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, immediately after the movements’ news conference Tuesday.

They have been meeting periodically in recent months to discuss ways to enhance cooperation between federations and synagogues in the local communities.

The Orthodox Union, an organization representing about 1,000 Orthodox synagogues with about 600,000 members, is unhappy that UJA Federations is getting involved with the pluralism issue.

“We feel they’ve overstepped their bounds,” said Mandell Ganchrow, the O.U. president. “Their job is to be a charity, and not to be involved in the activities and political desires of any of the streams.”

For now, Ganchrow said, the O.U. is refraining from adding its voice to the debate, because it believes that American Jewish organizations should let Israelis and their elected officials work out their own issues.

At the same time, he said, “it’s very hard for us to sit quietly when one party puts ads in The New York Times. If we don’t say anything to the government, then the perception that the Reform and Conservative movements speak for American Jewry is allowed to stand.”

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