Talk about your rocky starts. Israel’s new multi-denominational committee to create a joint religious conversion institute held its first board meeting Monday, but things immediately went wrong.
As an act of protest, the Conservative movement refused to send its official representative to the government-sponsored panel.
The Reform movement sent its representative but read a protest letter.Two days later, despite a story in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, asserting that the Conservative movement had withdrawn from the institute, all parties said they plan to be back at the table for the next meeting. But the episode underscored the fragility of the whole enterprise, and the divisions within the movements themselves.
The joint institute is an outgrowth of the Neeman Commission’s yearlong search for a resolution to the disputes between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel over the right to convert Jews and perform other life-cycle events in the Jewish state.
But Conservative movement leaders in Israel boycotted the first gathering, convened on Monday in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, protesting the makeup of the joint institute, which is currently composed of five Orthodox members and one each for the Conservative and Reform movements.
“Before there is any meeting of the institute’s board, we want to clarify certain issues, such as the composition of the board, the number of representatives we will have, etc.,” said the institute’s Conservative representative, Rabbi Reuven Hammer in an e-mail sent to his colleagues.
The primary concern of the Conservative and Reform movements is that the joint institute not be seen by the public as a triumph of the Neeman Commission since the Orthodox chief rabbinate refused to join the process as originally planned.
“It must be clear that this is not a fulfillment of any Neeman report since none has been accepted by us or by anyone and was specifically rejected by the Chief Rabbinate,” Rabbi Hammer wrote.
“Therefore we are not bound by any agreements regarding stopping conversions etc. and will continue.”
The Conservative boycott pointed up internal differences within the Conservative movement over how to deal with the joint institute, as well as exposing cracks between the Conservative and their Reform allies, who failed to join the boycott.
Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said that while he is “quite sympathetic” to the Conservative position, there is a larger issue to consider.
“The fact that the Knesset resolved to set up a joint institute and the government approved it, and the finance minister is allocating money to it are significant events in their own right,” Rabbi Hirsch said. “Our preference therefore is to raise all the issues of concern to us in the meetings themselves, because we want to give every opportunity for the institute to be successful.”
The Neeman Commission agreed to set up a joint institute for all three streams of Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — to prepare prospective converts, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. After completing the institute’s course, converts would undergo an Orthodox conversion.
But the chief rabbis refused to accept the plan and, as a result, the committee’s conclusions were never signed. The government decided to establish the institute anyway.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the American Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said his Israeli colleagues are particularly unhappy that Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman was not able to get a representative of the chief rabbinate or any prominent Orthodox rabbi to join the institute board.
However, he expected Rabbi Hammer to attend the next institute board meeting.
“We still want the institute to meet and succeed,” he said.Rabbi Jerome Epstein, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, noted: “Our frustrations are significant, but this was not a death blow.”