Umbrella Jewish group prevents walkout by Orthodox Union

NEW YORK — The Jewish community's national public affairs body has averted a walkout by the Orthodox Union after meeting the group's demands on permitting dissent from collective policy positions on religious issues.

The agreement paved the way for the approval of what has been a controversial plan to strengthen the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the umbrella body for local groups such as the S.F.-based and East Bay Jewish Community Relations Councils.

The plan, whose highlights include a new presence for NJCRAC in the nation's capital, was passed overwhelmingly by a special plenary session after the adoption of an O.U. amendment on the right of religious dissent within the organization.

The discussion leading up to the vote on the O.U. proposal was impassioned and sometimes poignant. Much of it focused on the technical question of whether and when NJCRAC letterhead would be used to issue statements that religious movements might not endorse.

But the underlying challenge clearly was how to balance the need to keep all three religious movements — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — in the NJCRAC fold and to maintain the integrity of all parties with the need to preserve NJCRAC's ability to make an impact with its public statements.

After undergoing significant revisions before Monday's vote, the plan had been heralded as a compromise that would keep NJCRAC intact as an umbrella body of 117 local community relations councils and 13 national agencies, including the O.U.

The new plan, for instance, abolished the veto enjoyed by each of the national agencies. The veto, when exercised, effectively blocked NJCRAC from adopting public policy statements. This had been a thorn in the sides of community members who felt that their voices were being squelched in an anti-democratic fashion.

But the O.U. had strongly protested any plan to eliminate the veto, making it clear that it could not remain in NJCRAC without the ability to distance itself from positions that violated its fundamental religious convictions.

The O.U. has exercised the veto only twice in 14 years, both times in the 1980s. One was over the endorsement of a Shabbat march for housing, and the other was over a resolution voicing concerns about the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had just been elected to the Knesset.

As a compromise, the new plan retained a special provision for a "religious conviction exception" to be available exclusively for religious bodies. The provision was widely seen as an attempt to placate the O.U. and keep it in the "family."

Still, under the new plan, such policy statements, if supported by a majority of NJCRAC members, would have been issued in the name of a "community caucus" under NJCRAC's letterhead.

At Monday's session, O.U. representatives who had worked out the compromise announced that their own board had deemed the pact unacceptable.

The O.U. board instead proposed that statements subject to the "religious exception" provision be issued only in the name of a "community caucus" without NJCRAC's imprimatur.

"Our board said no one in the world will understand the difference" between a position issued by a community caucus on NJCRAC letterhead that has been vetoed by the O.U. and a position endorsed by a majority of NJCRAC members, said Richard Stone, an O.U. representative.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism allied itself with the O.U.

Religious denominations should have the right not to be identified "even by misperception" by a decision of the collective, said the United Synagogue's Menachem Rosensaft. "This was not an unreasonable ultimatum by one group.

"This was about strengthening the Jewish community collectively to express its point of view as effectively as possible," he added. "You can't have such a voice without including the religious movements."

The Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations also voiced support for the O.U. amendment, as did the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

"I think it is imperative to retain them in the agency," Phil Baum, AJCongress executive director, said of the O.U.

But the vote clearly was a blow to some of the plan's authors and a setback to the plan's efforts to strengthen NJCRAC's clout.

"NJCRAC tried to be accommodating, spending more time with [the O.U.] than any other agency," Lynn Lyss, chair of the strategic planning committee, said before the vote.

Indeed, a vote for the O.U. proposal "would render us invisible and our communal voice moot," Lyss said to the plenary."No single agency should be able to arrest the expression of a national public affairs consensus."

Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman, welcomed the "thoughtful" debate. As a result of the vote, there will be "progress toward collective expression, though not as much as we would like," he said.