News Analysis: Deal on conversion bill unlikely if rhetoric is any sign

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JERUSALEM — Now that the Israeli government has reached agreement with the Conservative and Reform movements on a process to resolve the conversion controversy, is a solution really attainable?

Reform and Conservative leaders appear confident that last week's widely touted accord establishing an interdenominational committee will lead to a compromise in the stalemate over the recognition of conversions in Israel.

But if comments by Orthodox Knesset members are any indication, the prospects of achieving a mutually satisfactory understanding may be dim.

If Reform and Conservative "converts say they want to be equal with Orthodox converts, the answer is no, " said Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism, one of the religious parties in Israel's governing coalition that would have to sign off on any deal.

Knesset member Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party said the NRP accepted the committee's formation "because it is not a compromise. The committee buys us time."

To pave the way for the agreement, Reform and Conservative leaders last week agreed to freeze their court petitions on behalf of non-Orthodox Israeli converts.

In exchange, the Likud-led coalition will freeze a pending bill, which would codify the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on conversions performed in the Jewish state.

The lingering question is whether this interim agreement has done more than just buy time.

For the non-Orthodox movements, the establishment of the seven-member committee, which will include representatives of the three main religious streams, is a significant breakthrough.

"Probably for the first time in Israel's history, the government has recognized the Conservative and Reform movements by putting their representatives on the committee," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"We have a commitment by the prime minister [that] there will be no plan that is not acceptable to the Reform and Conservative movements," Epstein said upon returning to New York.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said he expects that a solution worked out by the committee that meets "our satisfaction will either be `sold' to the religious parties or else the prime minister will carry it out in spite of their reluctance."

The conversion crisis erupted a year ago after religious parties secured a commitment from newly elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek conversion legislation. The Knesset passed the first reading of the bill in April, and final action on the measure was expected by the end of this month.

But Reform and Conservative Jews, both in Israel and the United States, went to work vigorously opposing the measure, saying that it would delegitimize the non-Orthodox movements.

Last week's agreement came after more than two months of talks between coalition representatives and Reform and Conservative leaders, including last-minute marathon talks here that involved Netanyahu himself.

Under the agreement worked out last week, the committee will present its recommendations to the coalition by Aug. 15. If the coalition, which includes the 23 Knesset members from the religious parties, adopts the recommendations, the Knesset would likely pass legislation in September.

But interviews with members of the religious parties, whose support for any compromise will be critical, suggest that such support remains doubtful.

The NRP is opposed to any solution "that would put non-Orthodox converts on the same legal level as Orthodox converts," said Yahalom, who chairs the Knesset Law Committee.

One compromise proposal on the committee's agenda would list the first letter of a person's religion, such as the letter "J," instead of the word "Jewish," on Israeli identity cards. But the Interior Ministry would record on its population registry the type of conversion.

Yahalom appeared to reject this proposal, maintaining that by identifying all converts by the letter "J," the government would be giving equal status to Israelis converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

"For nearly 50 years, the laws of marriage and divorce and conversion, and the religious councils, have fallen under the purview of the Rabbinate, and that must continue," he said.

Although he rejects any proposal that would "equalize" Orthodox and non-Orthodox converts on identity cards or other public documents, Yahalom said he is willing to work with non-Orthodox Jews on educating prospective converts.

Yahalom said he might consider a proposal based on what he called the "Denver Model." Although the arrangement is no longer in effect, several years ago, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in Denver formulated a set of mutually acceptable conversion criteria.

Prospective converts from all streams of Judaism went before a joint committee, which in turn referred appropriate candidates to the Orthodox religious court.

"The idea is that all streams will agree on two institutions, the beit din [rabbinical court] and an educational body," Yahalom said.

"In addition to accepting the authority of the Orthodox beit din, the streams will establish an institution that will deal with all conversion candidates and teach them about Judaism."

One non-Orthodox insider said this week that the Denver model was too politically volatile to be considered a credible solution in the short term.

Ravitz of United Torah Judaism said he would also consider an educational role for the non-Orthodox movements within a strictly Orthodox conversion process. He added, however, that he would not sanction a conversion process that does not require complete adherence to the commandments.

"The first thing a convert must say is, `I want to accept the Torah, I want to be a part of you, the Jewish people.' True, a lot of Jews don't keep the mitzvot, but converts must be held to a higher standard." Like Yahalom, Ravitz flatly rejected any compromise based on the concept of religious pluralism.

By agreeing to a multihued Judaism, Ravitz said, "we are agreeing that Israel will be open to different expressions of Judaism. How can this be, when we view the Reform movement not as a religious movement at all?"

In contrast to the Orthodox parties, Reform and Conservative leaders say their committee representatives will push for full equality under the law.

"Under the ideal solution, the government will treat all streams of Judaism equally," said Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. "Conversions will be recognized regardless of whether they're performed by a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox rabbi."

Despite the wide gaps between the Orthodox and liberal movements, the Reform and Conservative leaders are looking forward to the upcoming dialogue.

The members of the committee were expected to be appointed by the end of this week, and it is slated to begin its work next week.

"We've hopefully begun a period during which Jews will be speaking to Jews," said Bobby Brown, the prime minister's adviser on diaspora affairs, who has played a key role in negotiations with the non-Orthodox movements.