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Cash-strapped Conservatives Let Go Head of Israeli Movement

The Conservative movement in Israel has spent decades fighting for parity in a religious milieu dominated by the country’s powerful Orthodox establishment. But its ability to continue battling took a hit June 15 when movement leaders, facing pressing financial constraints, voted to eliminate the group’s top professional position.

By doing away with the president’s post held by Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the Masorti movement has thrown into question its ability to lobby effectively for official religious equity, insiders say.

Without a president, Masorti will have to rely on lay leaders and rabbis to perform public advocacy functions, including representing Conservative Judaism in the ongoing tug of war over recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and marriages in Israel.

The news comes just months after a decision of Israel’s High Court granted full recognition to so-called “leaping converts,” non-Orthodox converts who study in Reform or Conservative academies in Israel and complete their conversions abroad. Non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel have not been endorsed.

“We’ll try to fill in some of the things that Rabbi Bandel did with volunteers, but I don’t think it can be done,” Irit Zmora, Masorti’s chairwoman, told JTA.

The Reform movement also has pushed strongly for religious pluralism in Israel, and it’s possible that advocacy undertaken by Reform’s Religious Action Center will benefit the Conservative movement as well.

On its Web site, Masorti — the Hebrew word for “traditional” — says that “legal advocacy is one of the central roles of the movement, which represents the religious rights of Masorti and Conservative Judaism before the Israeli establishment, including government ministries, the Supreme Court and municipalities.”

Leaders say the decision to cut the post that effectively served as the movement’s public face reflects a dilemma for the cash-strapped group: Within its current budget, Masorti cannot continue public advocacy at full force while simultaneously supporting the movement’s growing congregations and its successful youth and student groups.

“We had to make decisions about what functions we were going to continue to fund fully and which ones we were going to put on hold,” said Rabbi Peretz Rodman, acting chairman of Masorti’s public affairs committee and president of the Israel region of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic arm.

“It was a very difficult decision,” he added. “We’re not at all happy to be parting ways with Ehud professionally.”

Bandel, a native Israeli, said he was “very sorry about the mistaken decision that was taken by the leadership of the Masorti movement.”

“But despite this, it is the one and only movement that is mine, and it will continue to be so, even when it makes mistaken decisions,” he said.

Masorti also let go its spokeswoman, Inbal Cohen, and over the past year eliminated at least one other position.

Movement leaders, who stressed hopes that the moves would prove temporary, say summer is always a difficult financial period for them: They must run the movement’s three-week summer camp in Israel, an expensive endeavor, despite the fact that most of the group’s cash does not arrive until year’s end.

In addition, this year its bank is not extending Masorti the usual line of credit.

“We’re not broke,” Rodman said, just experiencing “short-term cash-flow problems.”

Indeed, he said, the movement’s annual budget of about $2 million would be the same as last year. And the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, the movement’s U.S. fund-raising branch, says it’s currently ahead of where it was last year at this time in terms of fund raising.

Even so, the decision to eliminate top positions doesn’t indicate a movement with robust finances. Masorti’s woes seem to be the result of a set of circumstances.

“We have spent a lot of time talking about issues affecting our equality in Israel, religious pluralism,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “That was important to do for the last several years; important to help our rabbis, important to help converts.

“What we have not done enough of is to speak our religious message, and I would hope that that now is what is going to be heard,” he continued. “Because I think Israelis, like Americans, really will respond more to a religious message than a message of political action.”

Others say that the Masorti movement must become a truly Israeli endeavor in order to thrive.

“They have not managed to move out of being a little Anglo-Saxon movement with the same people who moved here 30 years ago,” said Daniel Robinson, a writer in Tel Aviv and member of the city’s Kehilat Sinai Masorti Synagogue. “And so, whereas there is potential for a great deal of appeal for their halachic-but-moderate approach to Judaism, they have not managed to get out of their little Anglo-Saxon ghetto for the most part.”

Masorti says 60 percent of its approximately 50,000 synagogue members and affiliates are native born. Some 125,000 people, the movement says, take part in one or another of its national programs, from services to lectures to summer camp.

The group has some 50 synagogues in Israel, from Eilat to the Galilee, and has 23 paid rabbinic positions, which it subsidizes.

Some say the Conservative movement in the United States has been derelict in bolstering Masorti.

“I think not enough funding has come from the United States,” Meyers said. “Those of us who are in the United States have to do much more than we have been doing to ensure that funding is at a level that enables the movement in Israel to sustain itself and to grow.”

Bandel, for his part, said, “I only hope that the difficult situation that we are in will pass and will lead the Conservative Jews of North America to do some soul searching — and to a recognition that, without a strong Masorti movement in Israel, the future of the Conservative movement in America will also be in doubt.”

It’s a message that resonates among some Conservative rabbis in the United States. In his sermon last Shabbat, Rabbi Joshua Heller of Atlanta’s Congregation B’nai Torah appealed to congregants to support Masorti.

In today’s Israel, he later told JTA, there is simultaneously an “increased secularization and the increased insularity of the ultra-Orthodox population.”

“You find that there is less and less of a middle ground, of a common ground, and Masorti is fighting upstream to create that common ground,” he said. “This is a situation where American Jews in the Conservative movement have to stand up and say, ‘These are ideals we believe are important.’ “

The movement is funded by donations from abroad funneled through the New York-based Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel; the Jewish Agency for Israel; and membership dues and donations from Israelis.

In addition, members of the Rabbinical Assembly are asked to contribute to an annual campaign to support the movement’s rabbinical schools — in the United States, Argentina and Israel — and the Masorti movement in Israel.

The foundation channels about $1.2 million annually to the movement in Israel, according to David Lissy, the foundation’s executive director and chief executive. Of this sum, about $550,000 is “unrestricted and budget-relieving,” he said.

The rest is money that specific synagogues raise for themselves in America, and which is channeled through the foundation.

The Jewish Agency kicks in $780,000 under Israel’s allocation to religious movements.

The move to focus on the movement’s grass roots — its congregations and its youth and student groups — stems in part from the recognition that in Israel, unlike in the United States, congregations cannot raise enough money themselves to pay for a rabbi and sufficient programming.

Most Israelis don’t have discretionary income to donate to their synagogues, Rodman said. Indeed, Zmora said, many members of Masorti shuls are South American immigrants, who moved to Israel to escape a faltering economy.

JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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