Pluralism crisis permeates talk at CJF convention

INDIANAPOLIS — North America's Jewish federation world pulled out all the stops here this week to try to prevent the rifts over pluralism in Israel from widening into an unbridgeable divide.

But it is far from certain how the current crisis, which threatens Jewish peoplehood, can or will be resolved.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party Leader Ehud Barak addressed the volatile Middle East political landscape in their remarks before the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Of course, there were also countless workshops, seminars and discussions on Jewish education and identity, spirituality, lay-professional relations and fund-raising.

But it is incontestable that the theme of preserving Jewish unity dominated the conference for the more than 3,500 delegates on hand.

The Jewish fund-raising establishment has been stunned by the explosion of anger triggered in the last year among grassroots non-Orthodox Jews over legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

It was exactly a year ago, at last year's General Assembly in Seattle, that CJF entered the fray. Delegates passed a resolution protesting the Orthodox-sponsored conversion legislation, departing from their typical unwillingness to enter the arena of Israeli religious affairs.

Since then, CJF and the United Jewish Appeal have directed enormous efforts to try to assuage the anger of the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent some 85 percent of affiliated American Jews.

The fear was that these constituents would be encouraged to divert money from the campaign in protest.

At the same time, campaign officials have tried to ward off attacks by the Orthodox, who believe that the UJA/federation system should stay away from political and religious affairs.

Publicity has been intensified in recent months to get the word out about central campaign support for the three streams in Israel. Despite these efforts, the annual campaign for both local and overseas needs, run by local federations and UJA, has taken a blow, bringing in $20 million less in 1997 than had been projected. However, at $735 million, it is still 2 percent above last year.

But concerns at the General Assembly ran beyond money. Thinkers, teachers, pundits and politicians preached that Jewish peoplehood must not be torn apart by the conflict over conversion legislation.

"My prayer is that you won't walk away," pleaded Donniel Hartman, the Orthodox director of education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "You have a lot of allies in Israel. Find them and join them."

Avraham Burg, Jewish Agency chairman, passionately echoed the call. The conversion crisis should be "an invitation for involvement," he said, not a cause for alienation and despair.

Netanyahu and almost all the other speakers pinned enormous hopes on the special commission appointed by the prime minister and charged with finding a solution by the end of January, the latest deadline after a series of extensions.

The head of that commission, Israeli Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, was one of the keynote speakers here who underscored the high stakes.

"History will judge us all by how we respond to this challenge and responsibility," he said.

At the same time, speakers warned that whether it failed or succeeded, the divisions between Israeli and diaspora Jews and among the Jewish streams would continue and would require long-term attention.

"After this crisis, we will be different, whatever the outcome," said Alex Lubotsky, a Knesset member from The Third Way Party who has helped mediate the conversion conflict.

In the meantime, Richard Pearlstone, UJA president , said the Jewish people and the fund-raising campaign, which meets humanitarian needs, should not be held hostage to the outcome.

"Whether we win or lose" on the conversion legislation, "it shouldn't be the defining determination of whether we should have ties to Israel."

On a panel made up of the three streams, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, echoed the call of many when he said, "We must use our combined strength" to "force a consensus among the parties in Israel."

At the same forum, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he was not optimistic about the ability of the Israeli commission to reach a solution.

He said that while he would be satisfied with a short-term technical solution to the conversion impasse, Ne'eman had overreached the committee's original mandate by broadening its agenda to include a host of other complex religious matters.

Yoffie also said he was not open to continued delays. "Waiting indefinitely is an endorsement of the status quo," he said.

For his part, Rabbi Irwin Kula, the charismatic president of CLAL, a training center for Jewish communal leaders, said the controversy should be understood and welcomed as an effort by Jews to grapple with who they are and with "redefining Judaism" at the end of the century.

He said the "journey" into the future has "different roadmaps" for different Jews.

What is needed, he said, is "a covenantal commitment to go on the journey together" and "unconditional love" must be at the heart of it all.