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Special to the JTA CCAR Leader More Hopeful on Solution of ‘who is a Jew’ Issue After Begin Promises

November 20, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The president of the American Reform rabbinate said today he was a little more optimistic about the outcome of a second attempt promised by Premier Menachem Begin to try to bring together Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to seek a settlement of the explosive “Who is a Jew” issue other than by a Knesset vote.

Rabbi Herbert Schaalman of Chicago, president of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), expressed that restrained optimism in a telephone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

His comment was an elaboration of his president’s column in the October issue of the CCAR News Letter in which he described a meeting in New York City Sept. 13 at the hotel Begin was staying at during his most recent visit to the United States. Attending that meeting were Donald Day, Board Chairman of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC); Rabbi Alexander Schindler, UAHC president; Rabbi Joseph Glaser, CCAR executive vice president; and Schaalman.

Schaalman wrote that the Reform leaders had asked Begin for the Sept. 13 meeting “to put before him our urgent feelings concerning the proposed amendment to the Law of Return, the tenure of religious pluralism in the State of Israel” and the issue of governmental funding of American Reform Judaism’s planned second kibbutz.

The proposed amendment to the Law of Return would add the phrase “al pi Halacha” — according to Halacha — which non-Orthodox rabbis have argued would be applied by the dominant Orthodox rabbinate to reject conversions of would-be immigrants to Israel who had been converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi. The American Reform and Conservative rabbis have strongly opposed the proposed amendment.


Schaalman wrote that Begin left no doubt that he was “personally committed to the amendment,” and that he had entered agreements with Orthodox elements in the formation of his second government “which obliges him to work for the introduction of the amendment” in the Knesset.

“Mr. Begin made it very clear that he would not do so unless he was assured of a majority” in the Knesset “and expressed the opinion that at this time he did not see such a majority in the offing,” Schaalman wrote. He added that the Premier indicated he was “perfectly willing and able to withstand undue pressure from the Orthodox segment in the absence of such a majority” for Knesset adoption of the amendment.

Schaalman also wrote he felt that he and his colleagues had impressed on the Premier “that serious conflicts and resentments would arise in both the Conservative and Reform movements should the Knesset alone” determine which procedures were legal for conversion for immigrants.

The Sept. 13 conversation ended with the Premier again offering his good offices to attempt to bring together representatives of “the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements to seek a settlement” of the amendment struggle “other than by a Knesset vote.”

Schaalman noted, in his account, that “while we knew a prior attempt of this kind had failed in (August) 1977, we were nonetheless eager to have Mr. Begin try this road to the settlement of the issue in preference to the legislative one.”

Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative Rabbis, and Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, RA executive vice president, had been invited to attend the Sept. 13 meeting but were caught up in schedule conflicts and could not be present.

Rabinowitz and Kelman were present at the 1977 meeting with Begin in Jerusalem. Rabbi Ely Pilchik then CCAR president, attended with Glaser. No American Orthodox rabbi was present.


Asked by the JTA why he felt more optimistic, even if only mildly so, after the failure of the 1977 meeting, Schaalman said it seemed clear, at the Sept. 13 meeting in New York, that Begin might prefer such an approach to resolution of the issue than a bitter and divisive struggle in the Knesset, particularly since the Premier had indicated he did not believe the Orthodox parties in the Knesset had the votes to pass it.

Pilchik told the JTA that the 1977 event took place in two stages. During a 1977 summer visit to the United States, Begin met at his New York hotel with Pilchik, Rabinowitz and Kelman. Efforts to induce American Orthodox leaders to designate representatives to that meeting failed.

Pilchik said the Premier and the three rabbis discussed at length the “disastrous implications” for American Jewry of the proposed amendment. Begin suggested that all persons present review the conversation with him or his Jerusalem office later.

At that 1977 Jerusalem meeting, Glaser and Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, the Reform educational leader, were present as were Rabinowitz and Kelman. They were the American Jewish representation. Present to defend the official Orthodox state position were Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira.

No agreement emerged at the session and Begin said he would consult with Halachic authorities in the United States, there being no American Orthodox representation present.


Kelman reported that during the 1977 meeting with Begin in Jerusalem he had reminded the Premier that, in 1953, a Jewish law committee functioned for the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of the National Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), made up of a Conservative, a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi.

Kelman told the JTA that he had suggested to Begin that, as a possible solution, the three rabbis could be asked to reconstitute themselves as a Beth Din (rabbinical court) which would establish a “universal visa for admission of the Jewish people” to Israel.

Kelman said the Premier liked the idea very much, calling it “a wonderful solution.” The problem, then as now, was agreement by the American Orthodox leadership to participate.

Kelman, asked about the prospect of the Premier getting Orthodox participation, said there were American Orthodox rabbis of stature who privately would support the idea but would not do so publicly because they were intimidated by the “extremists” in the Orthodox rabbinate.

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