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Behind the Headlines: Non-orthodox in U.S. Vow to Press Their Case in Israel

February 11, 1998
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News that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate had rejected a key component of a proposed resolution to the conversion crisis came as no shock to representatives of the largest American Jewish movements.

Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, which together represent about 85 percent of affiliated American Jews, said that although they may have lost this battle, they are in it for the long term — and expect to win the war for religious pluralism in Israel.

“This battle won’t be over very quickly. I don’t believe we can even foresee the end of it,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents about 800 congregations with 1.5 million members.

“Change requires patience and persistence. My biggest fear is that people will throw up their hands and walk away from supporting Israel” out of frustration, he said.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, warned that “this is only the beginning” of the religious pluralism fight.

“Let’s get the conversion issue behind us one way or another and get on to what’s next. We want to advance the larger cause — a more tolerant society and the equality of all the religious streams” in Israel, he said.

“We also expect to bring about the dispossession of the Orthodox from their monopoly over religious life.”

This week’s look to the future came after Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ruled out working with non-Orthodox parties to create a joint conversion institute.

Such an institute was a key component of the compromise on conversion presented by the Ne’eman Committee, which included Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives and had worked for seven months to reach an agreement acceptable to all.

That proposal called for an Orthodox-run religious court to finalize all conversions in Israel. But it also gave the Reform and Conservative movements a role in a joint conversion preparation institute.

The Chief Rabbinate Council, which debated the matter Monday, restricted its discussion — and endorsement — to the Ne’eman Committee’s recommendation that conversions be conducted in Israel according to halachah, Jewish religious law.

Just the same, it appeared that the Chief Rabbinate Council would not accept the creation of the conversion institute.

In a statement released after its meeting, the council lashed out at those “who are trying to shake the foundations of the Jewish religion, causing rifts among the people and causing them to stray from the generations-old heritage.”

The statement did not actually name the Reform and Conservative movements, but it seemed clear they were the intended targets.

Such efforts “have already had a disastrous effect and caused confusion among Diaspora Jewry,” the statement added. “The sages of Israel have barred any cooperation with them and their methods, and no one should consider establishing joint institutions with them.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s reaction was decried as harmful by leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements in the United States.

In Israel, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements said that with this ruling, the rabbinical council had “declared war on the Reform and Conservative movements.”

For his part, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, welcomed the rabbinate’s position as “courageous.”

Orthodox groups in the United States have lobbied hard in Israel not to change the status quo, which grants Orthodox control over conversions and other matters of personal status, such as marriage and conversion.

Agudath Israel of America called the statement on war “incendiary” and “slanderous.”

“The only war proponents of classical Judaism are fighting is a defensive war – – against Jewish assimilation and intermarriage on behalf of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel.

Meanwhile, few leaders of the major American movements believe that the technical solution — offered by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi- Doron, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, Avraham Burg, just before the Ne’eman Committee’s proposals were released in late January — is likely to work.

This solution, which would enable the Israeli government to register as Jewish — with a special marking — any convert who came through any of the movements, would be a short-term measure that could potentially discriminate against converts, said observers, and doesn’t have any significant political support in Israel.

Immediate plans for both the Reform and Conservative movements focus on reviving court cases that they have held in abeyance as the Ne’eman Committee worked out a compromise.

Both movements said they would reactivate their cases that involve recognition of their converts this month.

They expect the courts to move quickly — and to rule in their favor — to require the government to recognize their rabbis’ conversions performed in Israel and to require the Interior Ministry to register them as Jews.

Because the Chief Rabbinate has rejected any notion of compromise with the non- Orthodox movements, the Reform movement now feels “free to resume our activities on legal and political fronts,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which has over 850 member congregations with about 1.5 million members.

Yoffie said that in addition to conversion issues, his movement would pursue matters related to religious pluralism, including its quest to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall and to allow non-Orthodox Jews to sit on local religious councils.

“We’ll go back now and prioritize but expect to proceed very aggressively on all fronts,” he said.

Hirsch, of ARZA, said that pressing for the right of liberal rabbis to officiate at weddings in Israel will also be high on the agenda.

Though on the surface, the Ne’eman Committee’s attempts to work out the tension between the Orthodox — who are working hard to protect the status quo and maintain one standard of Jewish practice in Israel — and the liberal movements — who are yearning to be enfranchised in the Jewish state — went nowhere, much good did come of it, some said.

“Many significant Orthodox voices came to the fore in support of Conservative and Reform rights in Israel,” Hirsch said, adding that the support among Israeli and American Jews for their cause has been a “huge victory.”

“They will prove to be an important asset as days and weeks go on.”

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