Conversion issue a ‘time bomb

JERUSALEM, Nov. 8 (JTA) — Since his appointment as minister of Diaspora affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior has become the Israeli government’s point man on a host of Israel-Diaspora issues.

He will appear next week in Atlanta at the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, which will bring together officials of Jewish federations and organizations from around the country for the first gathering of the organized community’s new central fund-raising structure.

Melchior’s appearance comes at a critical juncture for what may be the most pressing issue on his agenda — the ongoing question of “Who is a Jew” and the debate over Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. The related issues have increasingly strained Israel-Diaspora relations in recent years.

Reform and Conservative leaders have rejected the outcome of the previous government’s conversion committee headed by Ya’acov Ne’eman.

That committee endorsed the establishment of a joint conversion institute, where conversion candidates would be taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform educators, but the actual conversions would be performed only by Orthodox rabbis.

Although the institute is up and running, the Orthodox rabbinate never signed on to the deal, and it is still unclear whether the rabbinate will approve the institute’s graduates.

Reform and Conservative leaders now want to return to a “technical” solution, such as eliminating the nationality clause on Israeli identity cards, meaning the state would not have to rule on who is a Jew.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s interior minister, wants the Reform and Conservative movements to reconsider the already-functioning joint institute as a way to influence potentially thousands of Russian immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court last week delayed a hearing on Conservative conversions but agreed to include all outstanding conversion cases next April in a potentially precedential ruling. The delay has given Melchior’s committee room to work.

Last Friday afternoon, between a Talmud study session and rushing home for Shabbat, Melchior spoke to JTA’s correspondent Avi Machlis in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s Office about these and other issues. The following is an edited transcript of the interview:

JTA: What is your reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision last week?

Rabbi Melchior: I’m very pleased that they delayed the hearing for two reasons: One, because I sincerely believe that this is an issue which has to be solved by dialogue. The second reason is it gives us the possibility to work in the ministerial committee.

I very much understand that some of the people in the Conservative and Reform movements are impatient, and they’ve been asked so many times to delay. They know that I for one am very sincere in going into this. We are going to work hard to try and solve things which haven’t been solved for 50 years.

There are two issues here. One is the relationship between the Reform and Conservative movements and Israeli law. The second issue, which is not less important, is the whole issue of conversions in general and finding ways of dealing with the main problem which is both a national and a social problem in the State of Israel and in many ways is a time bomb — that today a majority of the people immigrating from the former Soviet Union to Israel are not Jewish.

JTA: What assurances can you give the Diaspora that your committee will make progress?

RM: I can only give them the assurance of my own sincerity. We are in a certain political environment. The committee consists of ministers both from [the fervently Orthodox] Shas and from [the liberal] Meretz. I would love to find a solution which is acceptable to everybody, a package. Everybody has to give up something for there to be an overall solution. I can’t guarantee that it’s possible.

JTA: Why should your committee be successful after other committees failed?

RM: The Ne’eman commission was appointed to deal specifically with preventing the conversion law. The commission succeeded in launching a dialogue between the streams. But my committee is a ministerial committee and is authorized to deal with several issues. I believe I have the confidence of all the streams in Judaism to try and formulate agreements that will be acceptable.

JTA: Sharansky wants the joint institute to be the solution, but this has been rejected by the Conservative and Reform movements.

RM: I don’t understand why they are rejecting this because they very much supported it. That is no doubt the substantive way to progress.

JTA: They would prefer going back to a technical solution. Which direction would you like to see the committee go?

RM: I can’t say that because I think it wouldn’t be fair at this stage. I’ve always been positive also toward the technical solution.

I have a problem with it if the technical solution comes instead of the substantive solution. The cooperation between the different streams of Judaism inside the framework of the Institute for Judaic Studies [the name of the joint institute], between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, is working much better than everybody had thought. We can have tens of thousands of students going through this and learning Judaism.

JTA: Do you see maybe a combination?

RM: Maybe that’s also a possibility. I don’t want to tie myself down to a solution.

JTA: Do you see any changing trends among the Orthodox in their attitudes toward Reform and Conservative Jews.

RM: Some of my Orthodox colleagues criticize me. But on the other hand I see that there is much more openness toward them today than there was some years ago. I hope this will spread and that we can recognize that we have differences of opinion but that there are overall goals today of Jewish survival and Jewish renaissance which are beyond our differences of opinion.

JTA: Will you personally act to get other leading Orthodox figures to consider even talking to the Reform and Conservative movements?

RM: I will try to do what I can.

JTA: What about the chief rabbis?

RM: I don’t want to be specific.

JTA: Are you coordinated with Sharansky’s office on these issues?

RM: I think that Sharansky is very close to our opinion. Somehow I think that his opinions in the Israeli press were distorted, saying that he only supports Shas conversions.

JTA: What is the state of affairs now with the Jewish Agency regarding Birthright [the program which aims to provide a free trip to Israel for every Jewish youth who has never been]?

RM: We are very close to an agreement.

JTA: Can you outline the details?

RM: There will be a steering committee for Birthright with four equal partners: the government of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, the philanthropists and the federations. Everything in principle will be decided in the steering committee. Then a company will be created which will do the actual work here under the guidelines of the steering committee.

I think it’s a wonderful program. The Israeli government looks at this as a pilot project for taking upon itself a commitment for the future of Jewish life in the world.

JTA: What are the sticking points with the Jewish Agency?

RM: I think there are many questions involved which don’t have anything to do with Birthright.

JTA: Can you be more specific?

RM: Nobody knows what kind of new framework is coming up for North American Jewry. The whole United Jewish Communities concept, what does it mean? What does it mean for the future of the Jewish Agency? What kind of funds will be transferred? Will there be more funds? Will there be less funds? What kind of cooperation will we have? Because of all these questions Birthright has been thrown in.

When it comes to Birthright, there has been a general agreement. I hope also that the government will live up to it. I know that the prime minister looks at this as a very important part of his policy.

JTA: So you don’t see any problem getting [final] government approval for the $70 million funding for five years at this stage?

RM: I didn’t say that. I said I hope.

JTA: We touched on the issue of non-Jewish immigrants before. What do you think should be done?

RM: What I would like to see happen is a major effort in the former Soviet Union to set up classes for learning Hebrew, learning about Israeli society and learning Judaism. I would like to cover as many immigrants as possible.

JTA: And for those already here?

RM: We can set it up here also. But I think it’s even better to set it up there. That would give those who wanted a preparation for conversion to Judaism which would happen either there or in the first stages when they come here, which is a totally new approach.

JTA: What is your message to the U.S. Jewish community on this trip?

RM: The government for the first time has appointed a minister whose responsibility is not only Israeli society but also the world Jewish community. I want to first of all combine the two parts of my department, but also to bring this as a message to North American Jewry and to ask them really that we start setting an agenda together.

I think we in the Israeli government and society have a lot to offer to world Jewry in many areas and we want to actively [pursue] this but without destroying the autonomy of the [American Jewish] society. We are at their disposal. This is my basic approach.

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