Who is a Jew’ debate heads back to court

JERUSALEM, Nov. 2 (JTA) — Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements are heading back to the courts to press their efforts to gain recognition for their conversions.

In the latest round of the pluralism battle, the movements rejected a request by Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister of Diaspora relations and social affairs, to delay an upcoming hearing on Conservative conversions.

The request came last week as a new governmental committee was forming to deal with conversion and other pluralism issues, including who can serve on local religious councils, and mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall.

The committee represents the first high-level attempt to address the controversial issues that have divided the movements since Prime Minister Ehud Barak was elected in May.

The liberal movements have repeatedly sought to gain recognition for their movements and institutions in Israel. The Orthodox fear that any change in the so-called status quo, which gives the Orthodox control over Jewish religious issues, would weaken the Jewish character of Israel.

The committee is also the first high-level effort to tackle religious pluralism issues since the dissolution of the Ne’eman Commission, which was formed under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Melchior, a modern Orthodox rabbi, said the committee’s purpose is to “strengthen unity among the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora” and to promote “dialogue between the streams.”

Although Reform and Conservative leaders are pleased with his goal to promote dialogue, they say they don’t expect much from the committee and are disappointed that they are not on the committee itself.

Only three of the 11 ministers on the committee, including Melchior, showed up for the first meeting last week.

“I do not have high expectations from this committee,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“The committee does not have the authority to decide. It will have to go back to the government, and I feel that the committee may be an unfortunate exercise in further prolonging the process.”

In expressing his hopes for the committee, Melchior has pointed to the fact that Cabinet ministers across the political spectrum will address the issues there.

Yitzhak Cohen, the Shas head of the Religious Affairs Ministry, who sits on the committee, could not be reached for comment.

Regev’s comments reflect the feeling among the liberal streams that pressing ahead in court may be the only way to keep the government moving on the pluralism issues, including conversion and inclusion on religious councils.

At the same time, some of the liberal movement leaders have suggested they recognize that the issues will ultimately be resolved outside of the courts.

On Nov. 8, an expanded panel of 11 Supreme Court judges is expected to hold a hearing on the cases of Conservative conversions of adopted babies, despite the state attorney’s request for a delay in line with Melchior’s request.

Only one family remains of the original 12 petitioners, but the Conservative movement insists on a precedential ruling.

Several other cases, including another 40 converts represented by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, are being held up until this case is completed.

Regev said these cases must be continued in court because the status of these converts is an ongoing tragedy. Without formalizing their status, they must renew temporary tourist visas every three months and have difficulty getting work or health insurance.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel’s Conservative movement, known as Masorti, said he prefers not to go back to court.

“I prefer trying to reach an agreement not by conflict, but by compromise,” he said. ‘We must renew a framework for dialogue.”

To return to such a dialogue, Conservative and Reform leaders are now advocating a return to the idea of a “technical” solution, such as removing the nationality clause from identity cards. This idea has been floated in the past.

This would mean that the state would not decide who is a Jew.

Regev says he was encouraged by Melchior’s position on this, which states that issues of who is a Jew should be decided by the Beit Knesset, or synagogue, and not the Knesset, or Parliament.

It is still too early to say whether the committee will adopt this approach.

If it does, this would mark a shift away from the Ne’eman Commission. That commission, formed at the height of acrimony among the streams, wanted to forge a substantive solution to the issue and recommended forming a joint institute where conversion candidates would be taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform educators.

Liberal streams agreed that the actual conversions would continue to be performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, but the Chief Rabbinate never committed to converting the institute’s graduates.

Conservative and Reform leaders therefore said the recommendations were null and void. Even though the joint conversion institute is functioning under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel, liberal streams say the issue has not been solved.

At least part of the solution rests with the Interior Ministry, which actually registers citizens. The ministry is now controlled by Natan Sharansky after having been in the hands of the fervently Orthodox Shas in the previous government.

For his part, Sharansky, who also sits on the new ministerial commission, is urging the liberal streams to embrace the joint institute solution.

In an interview with JTA on Tuesday, Sharansky said that despite initial criticism from all sides, “Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis and teachers are teaching together, and it is very impressive.”

This, he said, shows there is “unprecedented dialogue” among the streams.

Sharansky said his ministerial absorption committee recently agreed to seek a sevenfold budget increase for the institute, from $1.2 million this year to $8.8 million next year.

This would dramatically increase the capacity of the institute from the three classes and about 65 conversion candidates of today to 2,000 candidates next year, and as many as 20,000 within five years, he said. Liberal movements, said Sharansky, should see the institute as a “tremendous opportunity” to influence increasing numbers of immigrants.

He said “the first serious test” will be in six months, when the institute’s first graduates become eligible for conversion.

If the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate will not agree to convert the graduates, he said, the liberal movements will have “a much stronger case” for going back to court.

Liberal leaders, however, have expressed disappointment with Sharansky’s performance.

“Sharansky is clearly regressing in the direction of accepting Orthodox dictates very differently than the expected image of a leader of the Russian immigrant community and a civil rights activist,” the Reform movement’s Regev, noting that the Interior Ministry has denied registration to dozens of non-Orthodox converts.

Sharansky rejected charges that his policies are the same as his predecessor, Eli Suissa, calling those accusations “an insult to common sense.”

In the interview, he said Suissa had refused to sit and talk with the Reform and Conservative movements and insisted on legislating the bill that would anchor Orthodox control of conversions in law.

“In fact, I am now resisting continuing the debate on the conversion law,” he said. “I am telling the Reform and Conservative movements to try and broaden their activity, in schools and synagogues, and I as minister of the interior am ready to help. I am also against any discrimination of their representatives on religious councils and as minister of interior have a big influence on this.”

Sharansky also promised to consider finding a solution that would grant a temporary residency solution to the dozens of non-Orthodox converts whose status has not yet been determined by the courts.

“I am ready to consider it,” he said, “provided we can find a formula that will not be sweeping.”

Sharansky said he is concerned that a precedent would allow thousands of foreign workers to seek citizenship in the courts.

Meanwhile, the religious council issue, another flash point of tensions among the streams, is also heating up.

In Jerusalem, Regev was recently nominated by secular parties to take a seat on the religious council on their behalf.

The Supreme Court has ruled several times that non-Orthodox delegates must be allowed to serve on these councils, but Orthodox groups are continuing their efforts to prevent their inclusion.

The latest strategy, under the direction of the Orthodox-controlled Religious Affairs Ministry, was to reduce the total number of delegates on the religious councils, hoping that this would squeeze the Reform and Conservative members off the councils since delegates are appointed proportionally according to their representation on the City Council.

For example, the Religious Affairs Ministry has ordered the religious councils to reduce the number of delegates in Jerusalem from 31 to 11.

To counteract their reduced representation, a coalition of liberal parties — including Meretz and Labor — joined forces to nominate Regev as a candidate.

Rabbi Yehoshua Pollack, the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, chairman of the Jerusalem religious council, said he hoped to “find a loophole” that would still prevent Regev’s inclusion.

“Just like Orthodox people are not given a seat on sport and theater committees, we think that maybe the secular parties should not be given a delegate on the religious council,” Pollack said.

The Jerusalem religious council has yet to convene even though in early October the municipality’s legal adviser instructed Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, that the religious councils must convene immediately.

According to law, the councils are supposed to convene six months after municipal elections — which took place last November.

Regev said that if the issue is not resolved, once again “we will unfortunately be forced to go back to court.”

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