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Rabbi’s letter called ‘shocking

NEW YORK, June 14 (JTA) — The Reform movement’s rabbinic arm is urging Reform Jews to “reconsider our giving patterns” by not increasing gifts to federations and directing those funds instead to organizations in the United States and Israel that actively support religious pluralism.

The call comes as the Jewish federations’ central fund-raising system is seeking to increase funding for overseas needs.

Stephen Solender, the chief executive officer of the United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella of federations, called Menitoff’s statement “shocking.”

He said that such a strategy would be a “wrong move, and the wrong people will get hurt — people who need to be rescued around the world.”

In a strongly worded column circulated this week in the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ newsletter and distributed to journalists, the CCAR’s top professional, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, wrote that the UJC has “all but excluded the religious movements” from its governance structure and has “shown little interest in issues of pluralism.”

The column urges Reform rabbis to ensure that they and their colleagues from other streams of Judaism work with local federations to develop an “equal partnership.”

“Synagogue Jews constitute the majority of donors to federations,” he said, adding that “we need to make certain that they put the word ‘pluralism’ in the UJC vocabulary.”

Reform and Conservative Jews have for years been engaged in a campaign for legal recognition and financial support of their movements in Israel.

More recently, the non-Orthodox movements have been making inroads in the former Soviet Union and have been seeking funding for their programs there.

Menitoff’s column calls on Reform Jews to continue supporting federation campaigns, but says that “instead of automatically increasing annual federation gifts, we and our people should channel those dollar increases, and additional funds” to Reform institutions in the United States and Israel and to philanthropies “such as the New Israel Fund that not only take us and pluralism seriously, but also disseminate funds to causes in Israel that most of us support.”

This is not the first time Reform rabbis have urged members of their movement to consider giving donations directly to non-Orthodox causes in Israel, in addition to their federation gifts.

In the fall of 1997, when the religious pluralism controversy heated up in Israel, there were indications that Reform and Conservative rabbis across the country would use their High Holiday sermons to urge that contributions be directed to their movements.

To avert that threat, the federations launched a special “unity campaign” to raise $10 million for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox institutions in Israel.

Nearly three years later, the campaign has raised $25 million of the $30 million it promised, Solender said this week. And he added: “We’re not going to stop” at $30 million.

But some Reform and Conservative leaders say they feel the results of that campaign have been exaggerated. “It had some modest, positive results, but there was a difference of opinion about how successful it was,” said Rabbi Charles Kroloff, the CCAR’s president.

Menitoff’s column appeared just days before a major UJC meeting in Chicago.

However, Menitoff, the CCAR’s executive vice president, said in an interview that he did not deliberately time it that way and that the column is a response to long-standing concerns about the UJC, rather than taking issue with any of the items on the Chicago meeting’s agenda.

At Thursday’s meeting, the UJC is expected to approve a new budget and the first report of its Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD.

The bulk of the funds for overseas needs — last year $237.7 million was allocated — went to helping needy Jews around the world, bringing new immigrants to Israel and helping absorb them in the Jewish state.

The ONAD report calls on federations to increase their overseas giving through the national system and — for the first time ever — gives them the option to choose where 10 percent of their overseas funds go.

Some are trumpeting this choice as a significant change from the past, but others say it is a moderate step at best, noting that the choice is limited to projects run by the system’s longtime partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The Jewish Agency allocates approximately $4 million to the Conservative and Reform movements’ institutions in Israel. ONAD recommended to continue that level of funding, with the money to be taken from the total the federations contribute collectively.

Reform rabbis — and those from the other religious streams of Judaism as well — have been disappointed for months about their lack of representation in the newly formed UJC.

When the United Jewish Appeal and Council of Jewish Federations merged last year to become the UJC, many rabbis hoped it would be an opportunity to strengthen ties between the religious movements and the federations.

Under the system put in place, several lay leaders of the religious movements are now serving on UJC governance bodies: One seat on the 25- person executive committee is shared by the four movements, each movement holds one seat on the 550-member Delegate Assembly and the movements also hold a small number of seats on the 123-member Board of Trustees.

Representatives of religious movements comprise a full third of the UJC’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar. The pillar, which is still in its early formative stages, is one of four special committees charged with formulating the UJC’s future priorities.

In his column, Menitoff dismissed the movements’ role in the pillar, saying “for the movements to be included in a planning group for one ‘pillar’ out of four and to be kept away from any role to speak of at the governance tables is not an indication of our being taken seriously.”

“At best, the religious movements have been thrown a crumb from the policy-making pie and the rabbinate has been ignored,” Menitoff continued.

Leaders of the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbinical arms have had several meetings to discuss the matter with the UJC’s Solender.

But Menitoff and Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive director of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, say the meetings have accomplished little.

Dworken, whose movement disagrees with the non-Orthodox about pluralism issues, expressed concern about the UJC representation.

Given the role rabbis play in raising funds and encouraging congregants to contribute to Jewish causes, he said, “you would think that the rabbinate would be represented” in the UJC.

For his part, Solender said the governance structure is “not fixed in concrete” and that the bylaw committee is beginning to re-examine the issue.

“We’re at the first stages,” he added, “and to jump to conclusions especially after we’ve met with them is inaccurate and unfair.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, was not available for comment.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said he has been less involved in this matter than the other movements, but shares Menitoff’s concerns about both representation and pluralism.

“The general sense is that the rabbis have been shunted off into a corner,” said Hirsh. He suggested that Menitoff was asking Reform Jews not to increase gifts to the federations because it is the only leverage rabbis are able to exert over the UJC at this point.

“Regrettably, one of the easiest ways to get attention is to raise the possibility of discouraging additional funds,” Hirsh said. “What would be nice is if we didn’t have to get to that stage.”

As for the pluralism issue, Hirsh said, “If the UJC wants to be the beginning of something new and not just a new set of initials for business as usual, it’s going to have to stop hiding behind a sense of false unity, which is premised on avoiding real issues that are of concern to the real Jews that make up the community.”

But while both Menitoff and Hirsh said the UJC should discuss religious pluralism more openly, neither offered specifics as to what actions it might take, other than including more rabbis and movement leaders in the decision- making bodies.

Solender said that the UJC is concerned about religious pluralism in Israel, but that many Reform and Conservative rabbis have told the UJC not to take a high profile on this issue at this time.

“We’re monitoring the situation right now and carefully watching what’s occurring, trying to quietly work behind the scenes to keep extreme positions from surfacing,” he said.

Solender said that UJC leaders this week are asking its leadership to approve a statement of support for Women of the Wall, a group of modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women fighting for the right to hold full prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israel’s fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party is trying to pass a law in the Knesset that would imprison women for seven years for participating in such services.

Menitoff, meanwhile, emphasized that he was not calling on rabbis to encourage people to stop giving to federations and the UJC, “but rather to direct increases toward more sympathetic institutions.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he is “sympathetic” with Menitoff’s concern and remains disappointed that the UJC is not giving the movements a greater voice.

However, he appeared to view it more as a lost, rather than ongoing, battle.

“I’d hoped to create a true bridge between the religious movements and federation world that took us a step beyond, but that did not happen,” he said, but added, “We are not pleading for a seat at their table. It’s an opportunity missed.”

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