Reform outlines conversion battle plan

NEW YORK — The Reform movement is drawing its line in the sand: It has issued a seven-page statement outlining what it would and wouldn't accept from negotiations with the Orthodox on religious pluralism in Israel.

The report makes clear for the first time the movement's bottom line for the talks — a solution based on a cooperative conversion program developed jointly by rabbis from all three major streams in Denver two decades ago.

The Reform movement is also insisting that any conversion solution be accompanied by one that legally recognizes the right of its rabbis to officiate at weddings in Israel — in the presence of Orthodox witnesses.

The Reform document — signed by the lay and professional heads of the movement's congregational, Zionist and seminary arms — comes in advance of the Jan. 31 deadline set for Israel's Ne'eman Committee.

The committee includes representatives of each of the movements and is attempting to craft a compromise acceptable to all on matters of religious supervision over conversions and marriages.

But as the deadline rapidly approaches, neither Reform nor Orthodox leaders are optimistic a solution can be found.

Indeed, Agudath Israel of America, the major organization representing the interests of the devoutly Orthodox, has announced a $2 million advertising campaign to counter Reform and Conservative efforts to attain official recognition in Israel.

For its part, the Conservative movement plans to issue its own report on the issue shortly.

The Reform document, "Report to the Reform Movement: Chronicle of a Crisis," expresses intense frustration with the conversion negotiations.

Among the key positions of the report, which was distributed last week to the 875 synagogues that belong to the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations:

*If the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox authorities in Israel are unwilling to accept a conversion solution similar to the Denver program, then the Reform movement will "strongly urge" an administrative solution to the issue of conversions, such as deleting the category of "nationality" from the identity cards that Israel requires its citizens to carry.

*Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should publicly withdraw his commitment to support conversion legislation, which, if passed, would codify into law Orthodox control over all conversions.

*Leaders of Reform synagogues should stay in close contact with local Jewish federation leaders to "ensure that they're not co-opted by the Israeli government to endorse a proffered compromise if that `compromise' is unacceptable to the Reform and/or Conservative movements."

According to the document, federation leaders have been pressuring Reform representatives to stick with the negotiations as long as it takes to come up with a solution, a concept the movement rejects.

*Federation leaders should be urged to implement the supplemental United Jewish Appeal fund-raising campaign to help raise an additional $10 million for the three religious movements in Israel.

The Reform movement issued the paper now, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the UAHC's president, because Reform movement leaders are worried that if they do not set the record straight, they might be blamed for the committee's failure to produce a workable solution.

"This is an effort to make clear the principles that guide us in these negotiations. We want to clear up what's really happening and what's at stake here," he said.

Bobby Brown, Netanyahu's adviser on diaspora affairs, reacted to the document by saying that "if all sides would use their energy to help find a solution we could live with, it would be better than people looking for tactical ways not to be blamed."

Brown said the negotiating committee chairman, Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, has been trying to convince the Orthodox establishment to accept the Denver model.

Ne'eman has held meetings with more than 130 Orthodox religious and political leaders over the past few weeks, said Brown, who was visiting New York this week.

The Reform movement would also accept a proposal on marriage that would allow Reform rabbis to perform weddings permitted by Jewish law — which would exclude those between two people of the same gender or between a Jew and a non-Jew — as long as two witnesses approved by Israel's Orthodox rabbinate were present.

Yoffie himself has doubts about the likelihood of reaching any compromise.

"The chief rabbi has ultimate authority over the conversion process, so it's very significant when he refers to the Reform movement as `clowns,'" Yoffie said, referring to a recent statement made by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron.

"They can't continue to use that kind of language and at the same time suggest a cooperative effort."

What's more, Yoffie said, some within the Reform movement aren't interested in a Denver-based model, which ultimately cedes all authority over conversions to the Orthodox rabbis who oversee the final steps in the process.

It's rare for Orthodox leaders to agree with Yoffie on much, but they do agree with his pessimism about the outcome of negotiations.

"The Denver program simply cannot work because any Reform candidate can't be expected to be too observant, and there can be no recognition of conversions without Shabbat, kashrut and the basic elements of Judaism," said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization representing ultra-religious Orthodox Jews.

It is also disingenuous for the Reform movement to advocate for such a solution, Sherer said, "since their long-range plans call for absolute equality."

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, which represents centrist Orthodoxy, questioned what sort of compromises the Reform movement is willing to make to permit a Denver program to work, since the Orthodox would view their own participation as an enormous compromise.

"I would like to see them say, for the sake of Jewish unity, that they're going to do away with patrilineal descent because the Conservative and Orthodox movements and Torah cannot accept it, and that they're not going to allow their rabbis to perform intermarriages," he said.

That would be a "forward step on their part," Ganchrow said, referring to the Reform policy of recognizing as Jewish children born to a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, as long as they are raised as Jews.

Yoffie said the Reform movement has already "compromised significantly" by even considering a plan under which Reform rabbis would have no true authority.

He said the goal of the negotiations should be finding a narrow, administrative solution to the problem, rather than an ideological compromise.

"The issue now," said Yoffie, "is what are we going to come up with?"