East Bay federation plunges into pluralism battle

Fearing Jewish religious diversity in Israel is under attack, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay has launched a campaign to fortify alternatives to Orthodoxy.

In a unanimous vote May 28, the East Bay federation's board pledged to raise more money — in addition to its annual overseas donations — for programs promoting pluralism in Israel.

This drive comes on the heels of the federation's February resolution urging Israeli religious pluralism and opposing a proposed law banning Conservative and Reform conversions in Israel. The federation's call echoed a national Council of Jewish Federations vote late last year that Israel take steps to ensure Jewish pluralism.

The East Bay federation's move reinforces a new trend among some Jewish charities — including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Federation of San Jose — to go outside traditional ways of sending funds to Israel, letting donors give money to specific causes.

Federation officials and East Bay rabbis say the pluralism campaign arises out of intense anger among Conservative and Reform Jews, who comprise the bulk of affiliated U.S. Jewry, over the conversion bill and renewed talk of amending the Law of Return.

They further warn that the ban, if approved by the Knesset, will drive a deep wedge between Israel and the diaspora.

"The whole thing is threatening and insulting," said the federation's outgoing president, Julian Wolf. "I think world Jewry will revolt tremendously. You're seeing murmurs of it now."

Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette's Reform Temple Isaiah says his congregants are feeling increasingly distanced by Israel's moves to marginalize the liberal movements.

"The more Israel becomes a country that reflects a vision of religious fundamentalism, the more Northern California Jewry will feel they are strange cousins," Graetz says.

Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the federation, says the pluralism campaign not only protests the conversion bill, but also aims to revolutionize Israel's religious life, which until now has been dominated by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

"The situation in which the non-religious majority [in Israel] accepts the tyranny of the right-wing Orthodox is only possible when you have one Jewish option," he says.

"This initiative goes beyond the conversion legislation," Nahshon adds. "It goes to the whole issue of addressing diversity in Israel."

So far the mechanics of how such a shift would work remain on the drawing board. The federation's resolution calls for forming a "special committee to administer this initiative," which in turn will recommend to the federation's board how to spend any money raised.

Any money earmarked for what is being called the "Funding Initiative to Promote Jewish Religious Pluralism in Israel" will be funneled through the Oakland-based federation's Fund for Israel and World Jewry, which is part of the federations' new Family of Funds.

Those accounts were opened about one year ago, before the federation's annual fund-raising campaign. Besides pledging to the general fund that goes to the United Jewish Appeal and Israel's Jewish Agency, donors can target their money to specific aims: social justice and human needs, Jewish learning and culture, Israel and world Jewry, and spiritual renewal.

To date, those accounts have raised $210,000, Nahshon says. He hopes to initially raise $100,000 for pluralism. Some East Bay Jews are interested in the new campaign because they are upset about moves by right-wing and ultra-religious partners of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud coalition to allow only Orthodox conversions in Israel.

"We have had discussions with a couple of donors who made it clear that they would be unable to support the overseas portion of our campaign," Nahshon says. "They're contemplating making gifts to the pluralism initiative."

The federation hasn't decided which specific Israeli programs to aid. However, Amy Friedkin, co-chair of the CJF's committee on religious pluralism and past federation president, says projects such as Gesher ("Bridge"), which brings secular and religious Israeli Jews together, are the type of efforts that should be nourished.

Still, Nahshon acknowledges that "American-style pluralism" in the Jewish community may not export well to Israel, where a largely secular culture generally considers Orthodoxy the only form of religious Judaism.

"It's very clear to us that the vast majority of non-observant Israelis have had little exposure to the range of options that we have developed so well here, under which Jewish life can be experienced and lived."

Rabbi Howard Zack of Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation agrees with Nahshon on one matter.

If this were "an initiative to take North American religious practice and standards and superimpose them, and to a certain extent impose them, on Israeli society — I don't know if that's the right way to go," Zack says.

"There is no silver bullet that will solve all the problems of world Jewry."

Backers of the new campaign admit it poses other problems. Friedkin, like Nahshon and others, says there is a risk in trying to support specific projects rather than raising dollars for Israel as a whole.

For this reason, the pluralism plank states that it "shall not be made to the detriment of the annual campaign."

Friedkin is hopeful that donors will support both efforts.

"We are not talking about switching campaign funds," she says. "We're talking about sending a message from concerned individuals who want to see religious diversity promoted."

Rabbi Mark Diamond of Oakland's Conservative Temple Beth Abraham welcomes the move as a "courageous" step, one he says many of his congregants feel is "long overdue.

"People are just tired of somebody telling them they're not a Jew, or telling them that their rabbi is not a rabbi," he says.

"People are fighting back."

The pressure has been building since rightist members of Israel's ruling Likud coalition vowed to cement the country's historic but unofficial religious status quo — by which the Orthodox control the rabbinate and do not sanction Conservative or Reform lifecycle ceremonies.

Those moves, to amend Israel's conversions law, have passed the first of three readings, or votes, in the Knesset, and are scheduled to move ahead this week.

Meanwhile, some ultra-religious leaders in Israel have vowed to allow only Orthodox Jews on city religious councils, and to amend the Law of Return so that anyone seeking automatic Israeli citizenship as a Jew who was converted outside Israel must have been converted according to halachah (Jewish law).

Even if the conversion bill does not succeed, — and Netanyahu himself held out hope this week for a compromise — Jewish activists here say the pluralism issue will not die.

The conversion bill and similar efforts "pose significant risks to how American Jews feel about their relations to the Jewish state," says the East Bay federation's incoming president, Jerry Yanowitz.

"People feel it's a statement about their identity as Jews."

That depth of resentment spreads across denominational boundaries — and has taken root in the Jewish organizational world. The East Bay federation's move, while perhaps the first of its kind, follows a UJA announcement that it will invest $20 million in the pluralism battle.

However, the rush to create separate funds will not likely hurt the economy in Israel, whose annual budget is around $40 billion and which receives nearly $3 billion in U.S. aid annually. Nor will it take a big bite from the East Bay's overall campaign, which last year hit $2.7 million.

At the same time, the S.F.-based JCF has shown its support for pluralism. When JCF officials met in April with their panel in Israel, the Amuta, members discussed pluralism for two hours in one meeting, says JCF's overseas committee chair, Joelle Steefel.

"I'm pleased that [the East Bay federation] is focusing on this battle for religious empowerment, because it's important that all American [Jewish] communities become involved in this," Steefel says.

The JCF is also putting money behind its agenda: So far the JCF has targeted at least half of the $250,000 set aside for overseas spending, drawn from a record $19 million raised overall last year. This money will go to support Jewish pluralism in Israel.

No matter how much money is redirected toward Israeli religious pluralism, Nahshon and other federation officials believe their campaign will have a political impact.

They hope other federations will follow their model.

"The Reform, the Conservative, the federations, even the modern Orthodox, have not paid adequate attention to this issue in Israel," Nahshon says. "We all have some explaining to do."