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Breaking with Tradition, Group Delves into Debate on Pluralism

Every year, a mission of leaders of American Jewish organizations travels to Israel to survey the situation. Every year, they meet with leading political figures and various segments of the Israeli population. But this year, something was different.

For the first time, delegates from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began to see the umbrella group as a forum for dialogue on issues that have been at the forefront of the debate on Jewish unity and Israel-Diaspora relations.

Conference members from all streams of Judaism agreed that this year’s mission, which ended Monday, was marked by unprecedented discussion of issues related to religious pluralism.

Orthodox and liberal representatives had conflicting perceptions of why issues once considered taboo for the conference were such a focus of attention. However, they agreed that the group must continue to refrain from formulating positions on matters pertaining to Jewish law in order to maintain consensus among the group’s diverse members.

“The Conference is made up of organizations from all four streams of Judaism,” Melvin Salberg, chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, said on Monday. “There will be no discussion of halachic content in the conference.”

However, Salberg said that this year there had been a “change in the general environment” of the Presidents’ Conference regarding its role as a forum for dialogue.

“There is greater evidence that there is a problem within our community of tolerating differences, and there is a greater willingness to discuss this within our meetings,” said Salberg.

According to Reform and Conservative leaders, these issues-including the debate over the Orthodox monopoly on religious services in Israel-played heavily in discussions because they are now hotter than ever before on the Israeli public agenda.

“It is a revolution as far as Israel is concerned and as far as the Diaspora is concerned,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“An issue that was off the agenda in Israel 10 years ago has now moved to the center. The conference has realized that there is no way to discuss Israel- Diaspora relations without discussing pluralism and the religious question.”

The three leading condidates for Israeli prime minister seem to realize this as well.

Ehud Barak, the opposition Labor Party’s candidate for the premiership, pledged to work toward a “tolerant, open society” if elected. But his remarks against fervently Orthodox groups angered Orthodox delegates to the conference.

Barak told the delegates that his party would oppose any legislation that would delegitimize Reform and Conservative Jews, such as the controversial conversion bill, which would codify the lack of recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

“We will block it, we will not let it pass, we will raise our hands against it period,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his address to the Presidents’ Conference saying that “no Jew or non-Jew” should be illegitimate in the State of Israel. He said the only way to deal with divisive issues is “to adopt a series of compromises.”

Non-Orthodox Conference members, however, said the familiar message had no substance behind it, and Netanyahu has yet to show that he can turn his slogans into viable compromises with fervently Orthodox groups.

But Reform and Conservative leaders reserved their heaviest fire for Yitzhak Mordechai, the prime ministerial candidate who is heading a new centrist party.

They were angry that Mordechai-whose party preaches unity-recently cast a vote in the Knesset in favor of an Orthodox-backed bill aimed at bypassing a Supreme Court ruling that said the Interior Ministry must allow liberal representatives to take their seats on local religious councils.

In general terms, Mordechai pledged to unite the Jewish people and to try to persuade influential Orthodox rabbis to “find a formula” for unity. He said his own vote in the Knesset was a “tactical” move to appease potential Orthodox supporters.

Although all the candidates discussed the pluralism issue, Orthodox delegates to the conference said they were not convinced that Israelis consider the issue to be a high priority.

“The reaction from Israelis seems to be that American Reform and Conservative Jews are trying to foist a system that Israelis don’t understand,” said Rabbi Emanuel Holzer of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Richard Stone, chairman of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said he did not believe the pluralism issue was on the Israeli agenda. “But given the obsession of the Reform and Conservative movements to push the issue,” he said, “it is impossible to keep it out of the question and answer sessions.”

And Betty Ehrenberg, the O.U.’s director of international affairs, said the pluralism debate detracted from the mission’s main goal. “I think it is unfortunate that the Reform and Conservative movements are giving the impression that this is the most important issue when in reality issue of Israel’s security are really paramount,” she said.

These comments surprised some non-Orthodox participants on the mission.

“There were 250,000 haredim recently demonstrating in Jerusalem and 65,000 secular Jews,” Yoffie said, referring to recent protests. “To say it isn’t on the agenda is an absurdity. Just read the newspapers.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that the candidates brought up the issue on their own: “I think in some ways, my Orthodox friends continue to wear blinders on certain issues.”

Meyers said the Orthodox groups refuse to recognize that there are small Conservative and Reform movements in Israel. “The question is not whether it is an American brand of Judaism, but whether it has a right to fair play in Israel.”

Perceptions aside. Orthodox and liberal conference participants agreed that the emergence of the pluralism debate did not boost tensions in the group.

Discussions were carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect. And for the first time ever in a conference mission, rabbis from all the streams participated together in a discussion of the weekly Torah portion on Shabbat.

“It’s a good sign,” said Meyers of the Conservative movement. “But the ultimate test will be whether the religious movements will publicly sit together on the issues.”

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