Flap over mikveh may lead to boycott of Israel hotels

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JERUSALEM — Tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel have found a new battleground — the mikveh.

And diaspora Jews once again have entered the fray.

Dozens of Conservative rabbis and congregants in the United States have threatened to boycott the Dan chain of hotels in Israel on the grounds that its sole Jerusalem-based hotel, the five-star Dan Pearl, is insensitive to non-Orthodox.

The threats come in the wake of the Dan Pearl's refusal to permit the Conservative movement, known in Israel as the Masorti movement, to use its mikveh, or ritual bath, when performing conversions.

The hotel also has stipulated that its synagogue be used only in accordance with Orthodox law, meaning that men and women may not sit together and that egalitarian services are prohibited.

The threatened boycott comes at a time of heightened religious tensions in Israel, where the non-Orthodox movements have been calling for legal recognition.

Much of the current controversy stems from the lack of recognition of non-Orthodox converts in Israel.

The Dan Pearl is the only mainstream Jerusalem hotel — as opposed to some small hotels that cater to haredi, or ultra-religious, customers — with its own mikveh.

Both the mikveh and the synagogue are owned by the hotel but administered by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which also provides kashrut certificates to hotels throughout Israel.

The rabbinate has threatened to withdraw its rabbinical stamp of approval from the hotel if it accedes to non-Orthodox demands.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, said the hotel's policies are a symptom "of the tragedy of state-religion relations in Israel and the power and monopoly of the rabbinate."

Bandel said he is pleased by the concern being shown by his American counterparts, who were alerted to the matter by Israel-based Conservative Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who sent an alert out over the Internet.

But, Bandel added, "We never called for a boycott."

Stressing that all major hotels are subject to the rabbinate's supervision and may therefore have similar policies, Bandel said, "The Dan Pearl may not be the address to direct anger and frustration."

Instead, he said, "pressure should be put on the government and the Knesset to break the monopoly" of the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls all aspects of religious life.

The movement decided to use the mikveh at the Dan Pearl for convenience, according to Sacks.

He said the movement has its own mikveh, at Kibbutz Hanato, a three-hour drive north from Jerusalem. "Many of our potential converts don't have cars, and coming to Jerusalem is much easier."

Although their conversions are not recognized in Israel, the Conservative movement converts between 100 and 150 Israelis yearly.

"The fact that the government does not recognize our conversions does not negate our right to perform them," said Rabbi Einat Ramon, a spokeswoman for the Conservative movement.

"By not doing the conversions, or performing marriages or circumcisions, we would be giving in to Orthodox pressures."

Sacks said the Conservative movement had used the mikveh at the Dan Pearl to perform three conversions in June.

But problems arose, he said, when the movement tried to convert an adult and six children in August.

"We had just converted the first person, an adult, when Rav Katz, one of the hotel's rabbis, demanded to know whether we were Reform."

Katz "began yelling at the children and then put his hand on the faucet to empty the mikveh," Sacks said. "We told him that if he wanted us to leave, he would have to call the police. He said that Conservative Jews don't belong to Klal Yisrael," the Jewish people.

"He left, but informed the management that we could never again use the mikveh."

The Conservative rabbis converted the six children and filed a complaint with the hotel.

A week later, Sacks met with Dan Pearl manager Rafi May.

During that meeting, Sacks said, the manager apologized for the incident, as well as for the fact that the hotel's mikveh could not be used for conversions in the future.

"Then he introduced Rabbi Eli Routenberg, the hotel's chief mashgiach," or kashrut supervisor, who, Sacks said, agreed that "Conservative Jews aren't part of Klal Yisrael."

Sacks said he decided to share the incident over the Internet after May refused to fire the two rabbis.

In his Internet message, he wrote, "It was unthinkable that people with such a view, who held in contempt so many of the hotel clientele, would be employed by the hotel."

No one at the hotel would be interviewed on the matter, but an official written response was issued by Simcha Weiss, general manager of the entire Dan chain.

He said that while every guest "is welcome to make personal use of the all hotel's facilities, including the mikveh, we do not permit the mikveh to be used for ceremonies."

He added that "the Dan Pearl hotel acts precisely in line with all other hotels in Israel" on kashrut and religious matters.

Although Sacks said he did not call for a boycott of the chain in his Internet message, he urged his readers to share their disapproval through faxes and e-mail messages.

Many of those who contacted the hotel said they may avoid using the Dan chain.

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, of the Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego, wrote that he and his congregation "will have to rethink our use of your hotel, and indeed, any hotels in the Dan chain.

"Why would anyone want to stay in a hotel in which all of the facilities are not available to them and where they have been explicitly told that they are not wanted and not even part of Klal Yisrael?"