It’s Round 2 for the Neeman Commission. Still staggering from the knock-down, drag-out fight over conversions in Israel, the five-member committee chaired by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman is about to enter the freedom-of-religion fray again, this time to tackle the controversy over allowing women to pray in groups at the Western Wall.
An organization known as the Women of the Wall has petitioned the supreme court to allow its members to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. The court, reluctant to hear the case, has told the women to meet with Neeman’s group to try to resolve the matter.
It is believed that two of the women plaintiffs will be added to the five-member Neeman Commission, made up of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives, to discuss the issue shortly after Passover.
Phyllis Chesler of Brooklyn, a board member of Women of the Wall and one of the named plaintiffs, said her group believes the court decision was “a delaying tactic” and would prefer to have the court hear the case on its merits — that it is permissible according to halacha, or Jewish law, for women to pray as a group at the Wall. Women in the group at times have had chairs thrown at them in attempts to practice their beliefs together at the Kotel.
“The Neeman group wasn’t successful in dealing with conversions,” she said, “so I doubt that they’ll be successful with us. But we will meet with them, and we remain optimistic that our rights will be recognized. It’s just a matter of time.”
Neeman didn’t agree with Chesler’s assessment of his panel’s results in resolving the issue of Israeli conversions, though. He said the work is going ahead as planned, despite the surrounding controversy.
Speaking to a group of Jewish journalists here on Monday, Neeman noted that the proposed conversion institutes — with instructors from the three religious streams — have the support of two-thirds of the Knesset, and “whoever challenges it, challenges the unity of the Jewish people.”
But the leader of the Reform movement insists that the Neeman Commission’s work was a failure, that Neeman betrayed the liberal groups and that it is dishonest of him to act as if the conversion issue has been resolved.
Neeman said a three-man committee that he appointed is now working in Jerusalem on establishing several conversion institutes through the auspices of the Jewish Agency, as proposed by his commission. The institute would have Orthodox, Conservative and Reform instructors teaching potential converts in the ways of Jewish life and law.
Religious courts are also being established, as approved by the chief rabbinate, to deal with conversions.
Bobby Brown, adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on diaspora affairs and one of the three members of Neeman’s implementation committee, said he is hopeful that the first of several conversion institutes will be open by late spring. The course would be six months to a year.
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said that without the promised cooperation between the chief rabbinate and the liberal denominations in planning the conversion institute, the work of the Neeman Commission is a sham.
He termed it “Orwellian” for Neeman and the Israeli government to suggest that while the chief rabbinate explicitly attacked the Conservative and Reform movements, the Orthodox leaders were really acquiescing to the proposal to work with the liberal denominations.
“He absolutely betrayed us,” Rabbi Yoffie said of Neeman, insisting that the crux of the issue was recognition by the chief rabbinate of the Conservative and Reform movements, which did not happen. “It is absurd and deplorable for him to now claim that the commission was a success. It won’t work,” he said of the conversion institutes, because while they were initially proposed to be created in cooperation with the chief rabbinate, they are now being done without that authority.
“The government is trying to gloss over that, but that’s an enormous difference,” said Rabbi Yoffie. He said the instructors at the proposed institute will be individuals with no official standing in the eyes of the government’s religious authorities.
But Rabbi Yoffie said that a Reform representative would participate in the Neeman Commission deliberations over women praying at the Wall. “We support dialogue, and maybe the matter can be resolved in that way.” He said his group will support the women’s views.
The Conservative movement is also expected to be an advocate for women’s prayer at the Wall. As for the conversion institutes, they have concerns and questions but are “hopeful,” according to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
He wondered if Orthodox instructors will shun the institutes because of the non-Orthodox participation, and whether the judges appointed by the religious courts will be reasonable in their approach to potential converts. “But we’re trying to make it work and it doesn’t help to throw stones,” he said.
Rabbi Epstein believes that Neeman made “a strategic error” in dealing with the chief rabbinate, but said he felt the chief rabbis betrayed Neeman rather than the other way around. “He’s an honorable person,” Rabbi Epstein said.
Regardless of praise and criticism, Neeman is forging ahead with the conversion institutes, presumably hoping that the chief rabbinate will appoint moderate judges to its religious courts who will look favorably on graduates of the conversion institute.
“We are seeking the spirit of Hillel, not Shammai, in these matters,” said Brown, referring to the rabbi known for moderation in Talmudic times rather than his more rigid rival.
Brown acknowledged that he and Neeman were disappointed with the chief rabbinate’s attack on the Conservative and Reform movements, but asserted that far more important is the approval of the Israeli government in supporting a popular Knesset resolution supporting the Neeman proposals.
The Women of the Wall case has been in and out of court for nearly a decade, and a government committee dealing with the issue several years ago concluded that the women should pray outside of the Old City walls in a rundown Arab neighborhood.
“We are not willing to accept an alternative site,” said Chesler, “but we would be willing to discuss some form of time-share at the Wall.” She noted that a time-share formula is in place in Hebron, where Muslims and Jews pray at the Cave of Machpela, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
The cross-denominational group of women say they are basing their case on halachic grounds, and that like women’s prayer groups in the U.S., they conform to halachic standards.
Neeman was honored Sunday by Yeshiva University during its Chag HaSmicha program, a celebration held every four years to honor its recent rabbinical graduates.
Neeman told the rabbis their main task is to teach Torah, not preach disunity. He was well received, though some of the rabbinic faculty have made it clear that they do not support the Neeman proposals.
Advance publicity for the event did not mention Neeman, but Yeshiva officials said that was because of security and a concern about outside protests, presumably from the religious right.
Earlier Monday, Neeman met with Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for spying for Israel. The third Israeli cabinet minister to visit Pollard in recent months, Neeman urged American Jews and Israel to do everything possible to secure Pollard’s freedom “on humanitarian grounds.”
Neeman did not discuss the specifics of the case at the press conference, but said Pollard had served long enough, was in deteriorating health and wants to live in Israel.
“We should all admit we have not done enough,” said Neeman, who said he was moved to tears by the meeting. He said he will urge fellow cabinet ministers to visit Pollard.