The Israeli government is falsely telling Jewish federation leaders that the conversion crisis is over, according to the leader of the Reform movement. “We think this is a political game by the government to try to proclaim victory out of what was a failure,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
He said some members of the Knesset criticized the government this Monday during a debate on the recommendations of the Neeman Commission, which was created to resolve the conversion issue.
“Members of the Knesset criticized the government for trying to distort and deceive and convince federation leaders that what has happened is different from reality,” said Rabbi Yoffie. “The government is fighting for survival here and is not willing to acknowledge its failure.”
Federation leaders are in Jerusalem this week for a meeting of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. One of those leaders, Stephen Solender, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said he spoke with government officials who assured him that the two primary recommendations for the commission were being implemented.
Those called for the chief rabbinate to set up special conversion courts and for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis to establish institutes to train potential converts.
“Those are the facts as I understand them,” said Solender, who added that he had not spoken with any Reform or Conservative leaders.
But according to Rabbi Yoffie, the failure of the chief rabbinate to endorse the joint conversion institute means that the entire proposal is dead. He pointed out that in endorsing the commission’s recommendations, the Knesset did so only after the wording was changed to indicate that the recommendations must be adopted in their entirety.
Rabbi Yoffie said that although the chief rabbinate agreed to set up the conversion courts, it is not possible to ignore its statement denouncing non-Orthodox Jews and calling on all to refuse to work with them in the conversion institutes.
“What we have is a desperate attempt by the government to say the process is a success and to say that the chief rabbinate did not do what it did,” said Rabbi Yoffie.
He said that for the government to contend that the chief rabbinate’s decision to create special conversion courts clears the way for implementation of the commission’s recommendations is “ridiculous. It means nothing of the sort. We don’t trust the government’s analysis of what is happening. It has no ability to deliver here. What it really wants to do is to have us pull back on our court cases. It’s all a fraud and we are not buying any of it.”
The executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, agreed in an interview from Jerusalem that “in some respects the government is perpetrating a fraud, but it may be a fraud for good purposes.”
He said the Knesset vote might exert sufficient pressure on the chief rabbinate to convince it to work with the non-Orthodox or to at least appoint liberal rabbis to conversion courts who would accept those who graduate from the joint institute.
Both Rabbis Meyers and Yoffie said they would work with the government to create and staff the institutes.
“The government is now trying to set up a mechanism that would make the institutes operational,” said Rabbi Meyers. “It is trying to see if they would fit in the Jewish Agency, who would oversee them and decide on the funding.”
Solender said he believed the institutes should be placed within the Jewish Agency because that would be “consistent with the aliyah mission of the Jewish Agency.”
As many as 200,000 former Soviet Jews in Israel reportedly may wish to seek conversion.
Rabbi Meyers said it may not be known whether the Neeman proposals are going to work until the joint institutes have graduated their first students and they appear before the conversion courts. That could take as long as a year.
“We’ll participate and see what happens down the road,” he said.
In the meantime, both the Reform and Conservative movements will continue to operate their own conversion programs and fight the issue in the courts. On Tuesday, the Reform movement asked a district court to order the government to register as Jews 23 people it converted to Judaism.
The relatively large turnout for Monday’s Knesset vote — 80 members of the Knesset had earlier signed a statement in support of the Neeman proposals — was seen as growing evidence of the importance this issue has assumed in recent months.
The chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, noted that just last month a poll in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz confirmed this view. It found 63 percent of Israelis polled believed the secular-religious divide was the most important issue confronting Israel; only 30 percent believed it was the peace process.
“There has been an explosion of new thinking about the status quo,” said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who overseas Conservative conversions in Israel. “All of a sudden, people want to change it.”
One of those calling for a change is Alex Lubotsky, a Knesset member who disclosed at a recent conference of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem the “new covenant” he drew up with Yossi Beilin of the Labor Party.
Among other things, it calls for the elimination of religious councils, the introduction of civil marriage, non-Orthodox burials and adoption of the Neeman Commission proposals.
“It calls for a radical rethinking of the state’s status quo,” said Rabbi Schorsch. “My hope is that it will generate some serious public discussion. I think it is a major contribution to changing the present arrangement of state-synagogue in Israel. It will take some time and will have to gain momentum, but clearly there is a circle of Modern Orthodox ready to disassociate itself from the status quo.”