Conversions in Israel remain unresolved

NEW YORK — The head of the Israeli committee charged with resolving a crisis over conversions in the Jewish state said a solution could come soon, but at the same time he warned against imposing the pressure of a deadline on the effort.

Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, whose committee members represent the three major religious streams, made the comments here on Friday of last week at a briefing before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"The fact that we are at one table is in itself an important part of the solution," he said of the committee effort.

"I wouldn't push for a deadline because this will bring us to a dead end," he said.

Ne'eman's formal remarks focused on the Israeli economy, but the discussion inevitably turned to the volatile topic of religious pluralism in spite of the conference's traditional resistance to holding forums on what it considers to be divisive matters.

There has been a steady trickle of reports of various proposals on which the committee is nearing agreement.

But Ne'eman did not spell out any of the plans either at the briefing or at the closed meeting he held afterward with the leadership of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.

The committee was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a compromise that would avert the passage of a controversial bill pending in the Knesset.

The bill, spearheaded by the Orthodox parties, would codify Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

Netanyahu's coalition has agreed to suspend the legislative effort, and the Reform and Conservative movements have agreed to suspend litigation in the courts while the committee worked.

The non-Orthodox movements want to attain recognition of their conversions performed in Israel.

The committee was slated to present its recommendations by Aug. 15, but members have yet to reach an agreement.

"I cannot assume the politicians will approve such a decision," said Ne'eman, "but I am confident" that the committee "will come up with a viable proposal for coexistence in dignity and in harmony and in unity."

Ne'eman underscored the complexity of the committee's challenge and, in essence, asked for patience from American Jewry, the vast majority of which is not Orthodox and has reacted angrily to the bill.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, thanked Ne'eman for what he said were "unprecedented efforts" to find a solution to the conflict.

But he also reminded him that it was Netanyahu who set the deadline and that equality is "a fundamental principle of democracy."

Ne'eman replied, "Let's not create conflicts; let's not put more flames into the fire."

"The question is not `Who is a Jew,' " he said. "All of us worship the same God, each in his own way, and nobody can deny, under Jewish law, the recognition of his brother as a Jew."

But, he said, "the problem is intricate because it does not relate only to the immediate question of conversion."

He indicated that the committee had broadened its scope to try to find some solutions to the dilemma posed by roughly 100,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish "by any standard" in a country where matters of personal status are governed by the Orthodox establishment.

Philip Meltzer, president of ARZA, said it was apparent Ne'eman came to show American Jews how seriously Israel was approaching the problem and to ask for cooperation.

He said Ne'eman made it clear in the closed meeting "that if it is not worked out, it will be disastrous for the Jewish people."

Meltzer added that his movement accepts Ne'eman's stance "with hope" along with "pessimism" about the committee's ability to reach a solution.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said Ne'eman privately asked leaders "to give the process time."