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Reform Rabbis’ Convention Addresses Complex Issues

June 24, 1998
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“This is not your grandfather’s Reform service,” observed one person who had joined 600 Reform rabbis at an hourlong prayer service opening the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

A quick glance showed that a majority of the men, and many of the women, wore yarmulkas and tallitot — religious items scorned by earlier Reform leaders as outdated ritualistic accouterments.

Otherwise, the dress code varied widely, with many rabbis, far away from their congregations and seduced by the Southern California sunshine, opting for shorts, T-shirts and sneakers.

The more athletic types had already gathered at 6 a.m. for tai chi exercises and a run along the streets bordering Disneyland.

Others had stopped in an exhibit hall to admire multi-colored, hand-woven yarmulkas, tallitot and Torah covers that were on sale.

On the more formal agenda, a call by CCAR President Richard Levy in his opening address for Reform rabbis to reach out to their Orthodox colleagues, was met with some skepticism in a follow-up discussion group.

Several speakers said it was almost impossible to bring an Orthodox rabbi to the table if women or openly gay Reform rabbis were present, and attempts at outreach or unity often ended in humiliation.

Levy agreed but asked that his colleagues be aware that many centrist Orthodox rabbis, who might want to meet with Reform rabbis, “are petrified” of other Orthodox rabbis who oppose such encounters.

On Tuesday, the convention took up the highly controversial issue of whether Reform rabbis should officiate at marriages of gay or lesbian couples. The audience heard opposing recommendations and discussed the issue in closed sessions, but avoided, by prior arrangement, a vote on the issue.

An “emergency resolution” was expected to be introduced Wednesday on pending Knesset legislation that would codify the Orthodox establishment’s control over conversions. The Reform movement strongly opposes the bill.

The “emergency” was apparently triggered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks to a visiting Reform delegation, implying that Reform rabbis were liable to perform “quickie” conversions.

The remarks angered the convention, and Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., CCAR’s president-designate, termed it “an outrage and insult to our integrity.”

The answer to every such attack “is to build another Reform synagogue and ordain another Reform rabbi in Israel,” said Kroloff.

Kroloff urged that a portion of all funds raised in the United States on behalf of Israel go directly toward strengthening the Reform movement in Israel.

On another sensitive issue, an Ad Hoc Ethics Review Committee was slated to recommend a range of penalties for rabbis found guilty of sexual misconduct and tougher conditions for suspended rabbis seeking reinstatement.

“We are responding to a different climate in our country in which sexual misconduct is unacceptable,” said Rabbi Sanford Ragins of Los Angeles, a member of the committee.

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