A group of Orthodox Jews will be leaving Saturday night for Israel to meet with the country’s senior political leaders in a bid to convince them to keep the status quo on conversions.
The trip was organized within the last three weeks by the newly formed Orthodox organization Am Echad. Between 60 and 70 lay leaders from across the country are expected to participate, according to one of Am Echad’s leaders, Abraham Biderman.
“The fact that so many people are going shows the depth of conviction in our community on the need to get our views heard,” said Biderman, a former New York City finance and housing commissioner.
“I don’t think the Reform and Conservative community have necessarily portrayed the issue as it should be conveyed,” he said. “We want to get our perspective out on how we view this issue in the United States. We believe the status quo has served Israel well and should be continued because that is the only way to preserve Jewish unity.”
He said meetings have been scheduled Monday through Wednesday with leaders from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor Party opposition leader Ehud Barak, President Ezer Weizman and Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman. Neeman also chairs the commission trying to find a compromise to the conversion issue by a Jan. 31 deadline.
“This is a critical time now,” said Biderman.
He added that his group has nothing to do with the ad campaign now being waged in Israel on this issue. Stickers, billboards and bumper stickers proclaiming, “One people, one conversion, one consensus” have begun appearing all over the country.
“Someone is paying for this ad campaign, but we don’t know who,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “The implication is that someone disagrees with the message, but nobody does.”
He also expressed optimism that a compromise solution will be reached by the end of the month by the commission, which is composed of three Orthodox rabbis, one Conservative and one Reform.
“At the moment there is not a complete plan,” said Rabbi Meyers. “It is on its way to completion, but is not complete. The commission is struggling with details, fine tuning their proposal to take into account the suggestions and objections of all the parties.
“I believe there will be an agreement on the part of rabbinic authorities to accept the proposal of the Neeman Commission by the time it is ready to issue its report. I expect that within the next week or two we will know if there can be an agreement.”
Rabbi Meyers said the plan involves the creation of a joint commission comprised of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews who would teach Judaism to prospective converts. At the end of the classes, students would go through a process of conversion.
“It’s nice to talk in theory about this, but when it comes to putting it on paper, problems develop,” he said. “There’s a lot of give and pull at the table and compromise means compromise, not victory. All sides have to compromise.”
A Reform leader, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, said however that he was more pessimistic than ever about the commission’s chances for success.
“I see no evidence that there has been any progress,” said Rabbi Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “Quite the contrary, there is a distressing retreat from the proposals that were initiated by Neeman.”
He was disturbed that the commission would not be dealing with the right of Reform and Conservative rabbis to perform marriages in Israel. But Rabbi Meyers said he believed the issue was removed from consideration at this time to allow the commission to concentrate on the conversion issue.