American Jews convene group in Israel to advocate for pluralism

JERUSALEM, Feb. 21 (JTA) — Nearly 20 religiously liberal and secular American Jewish organizations have joined forces and formed a new group to fight for religious freedom in Israel. The North American Coalition for the Advancement of Religious Freedom in Israel gave itself a name and drafted its first mission statement in a meeting Saturday evening in Jerusalem. The group now plans to draw up a strategy to boost public awareness on pluralism issues both in Israel and the Diaspora. “We do not believe that the State of Israel is an Orthodox synagogue,” said Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and one of the group’s founders. “We believe that the State of Israel should be open to all Jews.” Participants were in Jerusalem for the annual leadership mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. They insisted the meeting had nothing to do with the conference, which steers clear of divisive religious issues to maintain unity in the umbrella organization. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference, said he was informed of the meeting, which took place outside the framework of the mission. The coalition includes major Jewish organizations from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as non-religious organizations such as Na’amat, the New Israel Fund and the National Council of Jewish Women. Some moderate Orthodox organizations were asked to join but declined. “We want to be as inclusive as possible, and we would be thrilled if moderate Orthodox groups join,” said Nan Rich, president of the National Council of Jewish Women. Rich also said the importance of the new coalition is the inclusion of non-religious groups. “Our agenda is different than that of religious organizations,” she said. “We felt that groups like ours can offer a different perspective from faith-based organizations.” According to its mission statement, the group is basing its campaign on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises equality and freedom of religion to all. “Jews in America and Israel have begun to work together in new ways on issues of common concern, which will be critical to the future of Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people,” said the statement. “Central to these concerns is the ongoing struggle for full freedom of religion for Jews in Israel.” The coalition said the Orthodox monopoly in Israel over religious affairs including marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, must be changed to allow “full religious expression and worship for all streams of Judaism at public religious sites such as the Western Wall.” Meltzer of ARZA said the coalition started when the Knesset recently pushed through an Orthodox-backed bill to strip Reform and Conservative Jews of any power after they took their seats on municipal religious councils according to a Supreme Court ruling. He said the group sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cabinet ministers and Knesset members, saying the bill would be “disastrous to Israel-Diaspora relations” and a “slap in the face to U.S. Jewry.” Several meetings were held in the United States before Saturday’s session. The coalition is now setting up a steering committee and deciding on how member groups will provide funding.

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