Jewish federations and religious streams tell Netanyahu they oppose conversion bill

The country’s largest Jewish charitable network and the leaders of three major non-Orthodox synagogue movements are strongly protesting a proposed change in the laws that dictate the process for conversion to Judaism in Israel.

The proposed bill, which would on the one hand make it ostensibly easier for immigrants living in Israel to convert to Judaism but on the other time expand the power of the Orthodox Rabbinate which now controls the process, has drawn loud criticism from American groups since it was proposed in March.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America — the multi-billion dollar a year charitable network, as well as the top professionals at the rabbinical councils of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements — responded to the bill in a strongly worded letter addressed to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sunday. The letter followed an explaining tour by two of the bill’s primary proponents, Israeli Knesset member, David Rotem, and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

“We share MK Rotem’s desire to ease the bottleneck in the conversion process that affects thousands of olim from the former Soviet Union. It is our strong belief however, that this proposed legislation would not only fail to achieve his forecasted result, but will dangerously alter the Law of Return by consolidating conversion power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate in ways that would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people,” said the May 9 letter that was signed by Silverman and co-signed by six high-ranking representatives of the three synagogue movements.

The matter is of special concern for the federation system, which through the Jewish Agency and the United Israel Appeal, pays for a significant portion of immigration to Israel and initial absorption of new immigrants. According to federation insiders, the State of Israel has an agreement with the Jewish Agency that it will make no changes to the status quo without the involvement of the quasi-governmental organization.

In other words, federation officials feel that the Diaspora is picking up the tab, saving the Israeli government $100 million or so a year, and now Knesset members want to change the rules of the game — and started to do so in a way that circumvents the ground rules of the agreement under which the Diaspora foots that bill.

This debate is as much about religious pluralism in Israel as it is about conversion.

“By legislatively granting the power of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate exclusively, this bill explicitly connects conversion to a single religious stream,” Silverman wrote. “It does not recognize conversion via the streams that represent 85% of Diaspora Jewry. This message is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded.”

While the three non-Orthodox streams are interested in religious pluralism for obvious reason, the immigration issue essentially gives the federation system entrance into the religious debate.

(In other news, the Israeli business journal Globes is reporting that Israel Bonds officials are saying that the proposed bill is negatively affecting their sales.)

Here is the letter in full:

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May 9, 2010
25 Iyar 5770
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
3 Kaplan St. Hakirya
Jerusalem 91950 Israel

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

Following our meetings last week in New York City with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Danny Ayalon, and MK David Rotem, we are left with profound misgivings about the proposed Conversion Law.

We share MK Rotem’s desire to ease the bottleneck in the conversion process that affects thousands of olim from the former Soviet Union. It is our strong belief however, that this proposed legislation would not only fail to achieve his forecasted result, but will dangerously alter the Law of Return by consolidating conversion power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate in ways that would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people.

 
By legislatively granting the power of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate exclusively, this bill explicitly connects conversion to a single religious stream. It does not recognize conversion via the streams that represent 85% of Diaspora Jewry. This message is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded.

Furthermore, it will undoubtedly alienate many North American Jews from Israel widening an already precarious and growing rift that should concern us all. We unambiguously reject the distinction between those who are born Jewish and those who choose to be Jewish spelled out in the proposed legislation. The “Who is a Jew” episode of the 1990’s should remind us to be very cautious. Every time this issue arises, the unity of the Jewish people is harmed.

 
Israel faces a great many challenges at home and abroad. We are fully committed to a secure Israel, safe from the threats she courageously faces each day. Yet, the proposed conversion law offends with its disregard for any religious authority outside the Chief Rabbinate. As strongly as we support Israel, we oppose this law.

These sentiments, which we conveyed to Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon and MKRotem during their visit to New York, are fueled by our steadfast love and commitment to the people and State of Israel. Indeed, it is our very unwavering commitment to Israel as both a sovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that compels us to urge you, in the strongest terms, to oppose this dangerous bill and we encourage you to use your influence with your coalition partners to withdraw this bill.

Sincerely,

 
Mr. Jerry Silverman
Jewish Federations of North America

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President
Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Steven Wernick
Executive Vice President
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Richard Hirsh Rabbi Carl Sheingold
Executive Vice President
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation

Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Executive Director
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

Rabbi Steven Fox
Executive Vice President
Central Conference of American Rabbis

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President
Union for Reform Judaism

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