On Sunday the rabbis kept the prime minister waiting.
In 1997, during the height of the debate in Israel over the "Who is a Jew?" issue (which religious standards would determine converts’ status as Jews) Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch led a delegation of American Reform rabbis to Jerusalem "literally overnight."
The rabbis’ plane landed five hours late. Whisked from the airport to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late at night, they found the Israeli leader still working.
"He waited for us five hours," Rabbi Hirsch said.
The meeting, with the rabbis urging that Israel’s Orthodox establishment should lose its exclusive control over such religious areas as conversions, lasted about 90 minutes, until after midnight, the rabbi recalled.
As the meeting finally broke up, Rabbi Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, asked a Netanyahu adviser why the prime minister had devoted so much time to the visitors.
"When the government is at stake," the aide answered, "the prime minister has time for everyone."
That meeting was only one of hundreds that leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States have had with Israeli politicians over the last few decades to present their vision of American-style religious pluralism. And the lobbying effort appeared to have scored a major success last week when the cabinet voted to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry and transfer its functions to the Justice Ministry and local municipalities.
Orthodox leaders criticized the cabinet action (pushed by Shinui Party leader and arch-secularist Tommy Lapid) as a dilution of the country’s Jewish character.
Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who has helped coordinate his movement’s dealings with Israeli leadership, say the ministry’s dismantling will open Israel to non-Orthodox practice of Judaism.
And, they say, it would not have been possible without the involvement of American Jewry.
Rabbi Epstein on his visits to Israel over the past 15-plus years has arranged face time with representative of various ministries, officials of the Jewish Agency and other influential Israelis.
"I would go to the Knesset and sit in the Knesset cafeteria, and we would sit and talk," he said.
Rabbi Epstein goes to Israel a half-dozen times a year and often meets Orthodox leaders. "Sometimes they would be receptive, sometimes they would not be very receptive," he said.
Though the majority of Israelis identify themselves as secular, the small but growing Reform and Conservative movements there lack the political clout or finances to influence government decisions on crucial issues.
Enter the U.S. Jewish groups.
Rabbi Epstein tells of someone asking Netanyahu at one of the meetings with an American group why he spent so much time with the overseas visitors.
"There are two 500-pound gorillas here," Rabbi Epstein recalled Netanyahu saying of the discussions over "Who is a Jew?" and similar religious controversies: Israel’s Orthodox establishment and American Jewry.
"There was no way to get your foot in the door the 500-pound gorilla was guarding" (to raise a non-Orthodox voice in the national debate) "unless there was an equally powerful force," the rabbi said.
As head of the United Synagogue, he devotes most of his time to domestic concerns, to the growth of the Conservative movement and its ethos of modern-halachic Judaism.
Rabbi Hirsch, as leader of ARZA and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, deals with similar issues.
For both, religious life in Israel is a concern in the U.S. "It’s more than an internal issue," Rabbi Epstein said. "It affects world Jewry."
At stake, he says, is the recognition of Jews converted under non-Orthodox auspices, the ability of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform recognized marriages and the feasibility of non-Orthodox institutions to receive government funding.
Last week’s cabinet decision will move control over these areas from the rabbinate and Orthodox leadership to government (in other words, secular) bodies.
"It’s an intermediate step … potentially a very important step," said Rabbi Epstein, adding that the changes finally adopted by the government may perpetuate some of the "real power … in the Chief Rabbinate that still exists."
Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Hirsch, who discussed this subject with Israeli leaders this summer, will return to Israel in November for the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly. They will keep applying the American pressure, Rabbi Epstein says.
"It’s inevitable," he said, "that consultations will take place."
Breakup of the Religious Affairs Ministry, page 50