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U.S. Rabbis Welcome Proposal to Resolve Conversion Dispute

April 16, 1997
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Reform and Conservative leaders in the United States are welcoming a proposal that could lead to recognition of their conversions performed in Israel.

The Israeli government’s point man on religious issues, Third Way Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky, presented his proposal last Friday in a meeting here with the liberal movements aimed at crafting a compromise on conversion legislation pending in the Knesset.

The bill has been vigorously opposed by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and in the Diaspora.

His proposal would have all converts listed on their Israeli identity cards as Jewish, but the population registry would specify what kind of conversion they underwent.

Lubotsky said such a differentiation would serve the Orthodox rabbinate for purposes of marriage, but would also give Conservative and Reform converts recognition. The Orthodox rabbinate has control over all matters related to personal status, including marriage, divorce and burial.

“This is the first time since this crisis began that there was real dialogue,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said of the meeting. “It wasn’t a matter of one side having a monologue with the other. There was an evident willingness of both sides to try to find some solutions.”

The most important outcome was that the Israeli government representatives “understood that part of the problem was that they had not made enough effort to stay in touch with us,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, who also participated in the meeting.

The controversial conversion measure, which passed a preliminary Knesset vote earlier this month, would cement into law the long-standing practice of giving the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel.

Consideration of the bill has been temporarily suspended to allow for a possible compromise to be negotiated.

Lubotsky was joined at the negotiations by Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, and Gideon Meir, who similarly advises the foreign minister.

Any compromise would require the approval of the Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which have made the passage of the legislation a condition of their remaining in the government.

It also would necessitate consultations with the Reform and Conservative movement leadership in Israel.

Lubotsky told the four representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements at the meeting in New York that leaders of the Israeli Orthodox political parties had voiced no objection to the proposal, said one participant.

The night before the meeting, the Israeli officials met with representatives of Orthodox organizations, who were anxious to be reassured that the religious status quo in Israel would not change.

The Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, Rabbinical Council of America, Emunah Women and Amit requested the meeting with the Israeli government officials.

The half-dozen Orthodox leaders listened to Lubotsky’s proposal “and didn’t come to any conclusions,” according to Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs for the Orthodox Union.

“We just said that we hoped that the resolution would be found quickly because we’re very disturbed by the rift that seems to be widening in the Jewish community” in the United States as well as Israel over religious pluralism, she said.

Putting the conversion bill on hold was predicated upon the non-Orthodox denominations’ agreeing to freeze legal actions now before the High Court of Justice, and to desist from further such legal actions while negotiations are under way.

But at Friday’s meeting, the liberal movements’ representatives balked at Lubotsky’s request that they drop their litigation in exchange for the Knesset dropping the conversion bill.

In fact, Hirsch said the Reform movement in Israel would file four more cases with the High Court of Justice.

The liberal movements will continue to fight for recognition in every venue possible, said Hirsch.

“We’re committed to dismantling the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and will use every means at our disposal to do so.”

The Israeli officials and U.S. Reform and Conservative leaders tentatively scheduled to talk again in about six to eight weeks, said participants.

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