Liberal movement leaders frustrated by Netanyahu

NEW YORK — Reform and Conservative rabbinic leaders are frustrated — but not surprised — that they have failed to stop pending Israeli legislation banning non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

The latest effort by U.S. Reform and Conservative leaders came Saturday night in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The only thing he promised us was a continuation of the discussion in a friendly way," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Meanwhile, Orthodox leaders emerged from a separate meeting with Netanyahu confident that their position on conversion will soon be written into Israeli law.

The tone of their meeting was one of "being among friends," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union.

The meetings took place at Manhattan's Essex House on the last night of Netanyahu's visit to Washington and New York.

According to participants in each of the meetings, Netanyahu reiterated his intention to keep the commitment he made to the Orthodox parties last year to persuade them to join his coalition.

Netanyahu "listened, expressed some degree of empathy and basically said that his hands were tied," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"I don't think he understands that he's delegitimizing 85 to 90 percent of American Jewry," which is represented by the liberal movements, Epstein said.

"The meeting allowed us to express to him the real possibility for a schism in world Jewry."

The proposed Israeli legislation, while affirming the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel, would not affect the current practice of recognizing conversions performed abroad.

However, the bill would require all residents and citizens of Israel who want to convert to Judaism to do so within the Jewish state.

"We do not believe the arguments that this in any way delegitimizes anyone," said Ganchrow.

The bill will "just take care of a loophole," he said. "If someone lives in Israel and goes to the U.S. or Cyprus or Europe for one day and says they were converted, it is a subterfuge. We're talking about intent here."

Currently, non-Jews can study and prepare for conversion to Judaism in Israel under the non-Orthodox movements' auspices and then finalize the process in the diaspora.

Under the Law of Return, they arrive back in Israel with their status as Jews recognized by the government.

Last year, the Israeli government authorized the conversion of 350 people in Israel. Several times as many people were converted by the Reform and Conservative movements in the diaspora, returning to Israel as Jews, say representatives of those movements.

Orthodox leaders maintain that permitting non-Orthodox conversions, rather than denying them, is the source of the schisms between Israel and the diaspora, and between Orthodox and liberal Jews.

"We are concerned that with different streams" of Judaism being recognized, "the children of those conversions will not be able to marry the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people," said Ganchrow, whose group represents centrist Orthodox Jews.

"The problem is that the Reform and Conservative [movements] have not won the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. They need to not fight this legislatively, but to bring 200,000 or 300,000 Jews on aliyah if they want to be recognized as legitimate in Israel."

Netanyahu first met with leaders of the Reform movement's UAHC, Central Conference of American Rabbis and Association of Reform Zionists of America, and the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Later, Netanyahu met with leaders from the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America, National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America.