Pluralism controversy adds spark to UAHCs biennial

DALLAS — Reform movement leaders are sharply challenging the Israeli government and Orthodox leaders, pledging not to be deterred in their fight for official recognition there.

Their challenges were enthusiastically received by the 4,500 members of American Judaism's largest denomination attending the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which met here Oct. 29 to Nov. 2.

But what lies behind the standing ovations and ardent applause Reform Jews gave their leaders' words? How do they feel about Israel? How do they show their support?

The Reform convention came at a time of intense controversy surrounding religious pluralism.

Last week, Israeli leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements suspended their court actions on religious matters, and Orthodox Knesset members postponed efforts to pass legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel and bar non-Orthodox representatives on local religious councils.

The actions by both sides enabled a government-appointed committee headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman to have three more months to work out a compromise.

"This battle energizes our people, and particularly among the committed, it demonstrates how important it is to do this work," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, in an interview after the convention.

Rousing applause greeted Yoffie when he said in his Shabbat-morning sermon, "Israel is far too important to be left to Israelis."

Rhetorically addressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoffie said, "You have two constituencies: one that votes, and another that needs you even if it doesn't vote" in Israel's elections.

He also asked Netanyahu to give Reform Jews permission to pray near the Western Wall and to promise protection from Orthodox Jews angered by their presence.

Against this backdrop, Reform Jews who gathered here last week expressed strong opinions regarding the current situation in Israel.

Ricki Olean, a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, said she originally didn't want to let her daughter spend a year in Israel next year after she graduates from high school, but now she's inclined to let her go.

"I want my daughter to go as a Reform Jew," she said. "My tolerance of fundamentalist Orthodox representing my Judaism is maxed out."

The classical Zionist response to Israel has been to settle there.

But few American Jews make aliyah, and just a tiny number of these are Reform. Most are Orthodox, for whom settling in the land of Israel is a religious commitment.

For his part, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, said aliyah would be a more effective path toward change.

"To effect change requires more than impassioned rhetoric and threats of financial punishment," he said. "If Israel is too important to leave to Israelis, then show it, show it!"