11th-Hour Conversion Reprieve


Israel’s chief rabbinate blinked. Or, the Reform and Conservative movements got cold feet and backed off. Those opposing scenarios were put forth this week as the reason the leaders of the two non-Orthodox streams decided to hold off for three months legal action that would give their movements formal recognition in Israel. Instead, they said they would remain at the bargaining table until Jan. 31 to reach agreement on a compromise to the controversial Knesset bill that would codify the status quo, allowing only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at conversions in Israel.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, whose constituents make up the vast majority of synagogue-affiliated Jews in the U.S., strenuously oppose such legislation, asserting that it gives non-Orthodox Jews a sense of second-class status in the eyes of the Jewish state. They had countered with lawsuits petitioning for recognition of their movements.The issue came to a boil last week after Israel’s two chief rabbis rejected the proposals of a committee, chaired by Finance Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, that sought to grant a role for Conservative and Reform rabbis in conversions and marriages while maintaining a framework of halacha, as required by the Orthodox.

In response, a small delegation of Reform leaders from the U.S. flew to Israel for 24 hours early in the week, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ne’eman and other key leaders who sought to head off a showdown in the dispute, which poses a serious threat to relations between American Jewry and Israel.

According to the Conservative and Reform leaders, the breakthrough came after the chief rabbis agreed for the first time to help work out a compromise.

“We believe … that there is a basis for discussion,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosen, head of the chief rabbinate’s conversion department, who had held private conversations with a Conservative rabbi in Israel in days leading up to the meeting.

The statement was made at the home of Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who intervened and hosted discussions. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, head of Israel’s Conservative movement, seemed relieved.

“For the first time we have heard from an official from the chief rabbinate the words that there is something to talk about and that there is someone to talk with,” he said.

But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, was less sanguine. He told The Jewish Week in Dallas, where his movement is holding its biennial convention this week, that the decision to delay was made “out of deference” to Weizman, adding: “We were not necessarily pleased by it.”

The two reactions seem to underscore a subtle tension between the Conservative and Reform partners, with the Reform said to be more strident about challenging Israel’s Orthodox monopoly in religious affairs.

While one Reform leader credited his group’s “political brinkmanship of the highest degree” in effecting the cease-fire, one key Israeli official had a far different view of what transpired.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s trade minister and head of the political party, Yisrael B’Aliya, said the liberal movements had backed away from their court challenge only after being told that such an approach was costing them the support of the Israeli public and political leaders such as himself.

“We said you’re wrong, we won’t support you,” said Sharansky in a phone interview from Israel.

He said the Reform leaders displayed “arrogance, insensitivity” and a false sense of political clout during his meeting with them on Sunday. “I was appalled,” he said, that they seemed prepared to “lose a historic opportunity” to create a real breakthrough after so many months of hard work by the Ne’eman committee and others in creating empathy for the liberal movements among Israelis, who have shown little interest in them until now. “We had come so far but they didn’t want to learn, [only] to threaten.”

Sharansky said that the Reform and Conservative decision early in the week to go ahead with their court cases, in effect forcing the Orthodox parties to counter with passage of the conversion bill, turned Knesset members and public opinion against them. “They united all of Israeli society [against them] in a half a day,” Sharansky said.

He noted that Yossi Lapid, a popular television personality and strong critic of the Orthodox rabbinate, took to the airwaves to admonish the two movements to drop their court plans immediately.

Editorials in the Israeli press stressed that the burden of proof of good will, which had previously rested on the Orthodox, now shifted to the Reform and Conservative “in one misguided stroke,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

High-placed Israeli sources say the Weizman meeting was devised as a face-saving device for the Reform and Conservative groups to give them a chance to reverse their decision to press ahead with the court battle and instead adopt the three-month extension of the Ne’eman committee.

With the help of Knesset member Alex Lubotsky, Ne’eman and Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown, Weizman was called upon to provide that cover.

“They needed a figleaf to turn a rousing defeat into a victory,” said one source.

Asked to comment, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he wished to concentrate on the “difficult task we have and put aside the loud rhetoric and complaining about one another. What happened could not have been any more hurtful than the language that came prior to this [agreement] from the established leadership in Israel.”

He was referring to the comments of Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Bar-Illan, who charged that the actions of the Reform and Conservative movement stemmed from their desire to bring down the government. Rabbi Meyers, who remained in New York this week, vehemently denied the allegation, insisting the issue was religious, not political.

He dismissed also the charge that the Conservative and Reform movements caved in to pressure, saying: “If it was capitulation, why the need to meet in Weizman’s residence?”

So does the three-month extension suggest that a compromise can be reached not only within the Ne’eman committee but within the Knesset?

Rabbi Meyers seemed hopeful that “there might be some accommodation.”

So did Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, who told The Jewish Week that “with good will, which is the key, there can be a compromise.”

The executive vice president of UJA-Federation in New York, Stephen Solender, welcomed the news, saying the “cooling-off period provides an opportunity for the negotiations to conclude on a successful basis. I think this is a very significant development.”

Brown, Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, called the agreement a “great victory for common sense. We were looking for that small amount of goodwill on both sides and we were able to find it. My feeling is that all sides feared the tremendous rift in the Jewish people that would result from litigation or legislation and therefore gave a vote of confidence to the method we devised — rational discussion and looking for points that unite us instead of divide us.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the fact that representatives of the chief rabbinate participated in the latest discussion is a good sign. “The fact they are now coming to the table I think gives us reason for hope.”

But Rabbi Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said he is not optimistic because “any deal will have to involve real cooperation and mutual respect,” which he feels is still missing.

The issue of who backed down first, like so much of the discussion surrounding this issue, remains in dispute. Rabbi Barbara Penzner of Boston, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and a member of the 11-rabbi emergency delegation that flew to Israel this week, said she believed events were portrayed in Israel as a retreat by the non-Orthodox movements because “everything that makes the Americans happy makes the Israelis furious.” She attributed this to a lack of understanding among Israelis of the religious and political systems in the U.S.

She and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and others who participated in the whirlwind lobbying effort, felt they had succeeded and that Israelis are more understanding of, and sympathetic to, their cause. But the gap remains wide and it remains to be seen whether the latest, and presumably last, extension will result in a real compromise of historic proportions or just put off an inevitable split between diaspora Jewry and Israel.

Editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.