Israeli lawmakers who vote for conversion bill not welcome in Chicago, Jewish federation head says
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Israeli lawmakers who vote for conversion bill not welcome in Chicago, Jewish federation head says

Aryeh Deri

Aryeh Deri leading a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 26, 2017. He has drafted a controversial law about Jewish conversion in Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

(JTA) — Israeli lawmakers who vote for a conversion bill making its way through the Knesset are not welcome in Chicago, said a top Jewish leader there.

“The federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community,” Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told The Times of Israel in an interview published Tuesday.

On Sunday, government ministers approved a bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The conversion bill, drafted last month by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party, would nullify Israel’s recognition of conversions performed in Israel under Reform and Conservative auspices, as well as a Supreme Court ruling recognizing conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinic courts.

The bill will move to the Knesset plenum, where it must pass three readings.

“We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position,” Nasatir, who has been an associate member of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors since 1993, also told The Times of Israel. “People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people — God bless ’em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period.”

Nasatir, whose federation last year allocated over $29 million for beneficiaries in Israel and overseas, said he would not be surprised if the Jewish federations of other cities followed suit.

He and the heads of the Jewish communities of New York and Cleveland, as well as Jerry Silverman, the head of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Agency’s Michael Siegal, met Monday night with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the conversion bill, as well as a government decision to freeze an agreement to create an official egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

Nasatir said that Netanyahu and his staff “underestimated” the reaction of Diaspora Jewry to the decisions.

The Chicago leader said he has not received any calls or emails from Jews in the city seeking to cancel donations or planned trips to Israel.

“That doesn’t mean that I may not have some waiting for me when I come home,” Nasatir said. “This transcends dollars; this is about a relationship, this is about unity. This is about being pained by bad decisions that impact the Jewish people.

“When people are pained, sometimes they react in different ways. I expect that I may have to deal with some of that, but not a whole lot.”

On Wednesday, Nasatir and Michael Zaransky, CEO of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, released a statement in which they reiterated the Chicago community’s unhappiness with the conversion bill and Western Wall decision but did not say they would ban Knesset members who had supported the conversion measure.

“These times demand Jewish unity not division, cooperation not internal discord. That is why members of Chicago’s Jewish community and leaders of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago were stunned, saddened and aggrieved by two significant decisions taken last Sunday by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” they said.

In the statement, Nasatir and Zaransky also emphasized the strong relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel.

“Our love for Israel is as unshakable as our commitment to working together with Israel on this and other issues. In times of celebration, in times of danger, and in times of sorrow, the people and the State of Israel can count on JUF/Federation to give unconditional love and support.  This will never change,” Nasatir and Zaransky said.