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Focus on Issues: Alarm Sounds over Conversion, but Passage of Measure Probable

March 11, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Israel runs a risk of dividing world Jewry if it passes legislation reinforcing exclusive Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

American Jewish leaders were bent on sounding this alarm in a flurry of meetings late last month with Israeli officials in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, most of the Americans left Israel believing that unless something dramatic develops, the legislation is likely to pass in three to six months.

Even if it does not become law, however, it has made an impact.

It has galvanized many U.S. Reform and Conservative Jews to re-examine their relationship to an Israel that does not legally recognize their Judaism.

One of the immediate concerns of local leadership is how that alienation may undermine the central fund-raising campaign run by the United Jewish Appeal and federations for both Israel and local needs.

Some donors already have threatened to bypass this campaign because they believe that it does not assign a high enough priority to the cause of religious pluralism in Israel.

In Jerusalem, a few of the U.S. “emissaries” said they believed that they could contain the damage by lobbying and staving off the passage of the conversion legislation.

But others said the best they could hope for are stalling tactics by sympathizers in high places.

Sources say one such sympathizer may be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his pledge to his fervently Orthodox coalition partners to pass the measure, which has not yet been introduced in the Knesset.

For its part, the U.S. Orthodox establishment has made it clear that it supports the legislation.

Nonetheless, some of its representatives joined last month’s delegations from the fund-raising establishment and the religious movements to drive home to Israeli officialdom the importance of preserving Jewish unity.

At the very same time, the flames ignited by the long-standing Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs in Israel were fanned back home by the prospect of the legislation.

In recent days, the moderate and highly respected chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, has termed the legislation a “calamity for Israel” and a “calamity for Israel-Diaspora relations.”

In light of such threats from Israel, he has proposed the most dramatic challenge to date to the Jewish community’s central fund-raising establishment.

He suggested that it take $100 million to $150 million “off the top” of the annual national campaign to “level the playing field” and fund Conservative and Reform institutions and other Jewish outreach programs in Israel.

His call has outraged some of the custodians of that campaign, who now funnel roughly $230 million to humanitarian causes in Israel and have long advocated for more from local federations.

Richard Wexler, national chairman of the UJA, termed Schorsch’s proposal “reprehensible.”

Wexler supports an increase in the current funding by the Jewish Agency for Israel for each of the religious streams in Israel, now about $1 million each a year.

But he said the chancellor was “insensitive to the needs of our people by suggesting that Jewish lives be ignored at this critical time to build up the coffers of the movements.”

Countered Schorsch: “There is no self-interest or parochial concern here.”

He said the UJA system, which has brought hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel, has an obligation to address the fact that more than 100,000 are not considered Jewish under Israeli Orthodox law.

And he said Reform and Conservative Judaism could help. Otherwise, he said, “they will be battered by the religious establishment for the rest of their lives.”

By all accounts, the delegates from the United States sounded a gentle but persistent alarm as they shuttled in and out of government offices in Jerusalem, even as their primary official business was at the Dead Sea for the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.

At the center of virtually all the activity was Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads a new ministerial committee on Diaspora affairs.

In an interview, he said he is committed to have his committee serve as a meaningful “address” for Israel-Diaspora concerns, beyond the immediate legislation, rather than have the two sides “debate in The New York Times.”

But the challenges of his job were amply illustrated during a meeting he had called recently of his committee of ministers and some hand-picked U.S. leaders to begin a “process of dialogue.”

While Netanyahu made an appearance at the meeting, Interior Minister Eli Suissa abruptly walked out, muttering threats of a government collapse. Suissa of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party later said official contact with Reform Jews should be kept to a minimum. For his part, Sharansky talked about the “Israeli political reality” and pledged only to try to keep whatever conversion legislation that might pass as narrow as possible.

The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, has tried to position itself as a key player on behalf of a diverse world Jewry in the struggle for religious pluralism. It recently formed the Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People.

Agency Chairman Avraham Burg talks passionately about his commitment to the principle. But institutional self-interest clearly is at play.

As the primary Israeli recipient of funds raised by the annual campaign of the UJA and federations across the country, the vast majority of its donors are Conservative and Reform.

“It’s about time for the Jewish Agency to position itself at this junction,” Burg told the Board of Governors last week.

If it is not a central advocate, “we will be irrelevant to what troubles our constituencies,” he said.

The Jewish Agency “is the only international body at which we have all Jewish people working together,” he said, referring to representatives of the three main religious streams.

But the agency’s broad representation itself serves as a constraint, which surfaced in a discussion by the Board of Governors. Several Orthodox members got up and said they would not countenance Burg turning the unity committee into a politicized campaign.

And they took issue with Burg’s stance on the legislation.

“I don’t want you to leave with the impression that the Orthodox community in the United States agrees” with the Jewish Agency position, said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union.

“We believe the law should be adopted and quickly,” he said. “We are united as never before.”

Burg, who is Orthodox, shot back that there had been unanimous support at June’s Jewish Agency Assembly for a resolution in support of Jewish unity and for the formation of the committee. “This is what I’m committed to,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, registered his support for the central fund-raising enterprise at platforms throughout his visit in Israel. But at the board meetings, he sounded a warning.

“If you care about the viability of the campaign, I think [you] have to be concerned,” he said. He called on local federations to follow the lead of the Council of Jewish Federations and adopt resolutions calling on the Israeli government to refrain from enacting divisive religious legislation.

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