JCF petition seeks backing for pluralism fight in Israel

Hoping to turn local Jewish voices for religious pluralism into a resounding chorus, the JCF is circulating a petition showing support for the Israeli committee working to mitigate the controversy.

If all goes according to plan, the signed petitions will be gathered by the first week of January and delivered to the Ne'eman Committee. That body, headed by Ya'acov Ne'eman, Israel's finance minister, is charged with finding a compromise to the pluralism question.

"We look to you to find a solution which will maintain Jewish unity and build an Israel where all Jews feel at home," the petition reads. "Your decisions will influence the destiny of the Jewish people."

The one-page petition appears in an advertisement on Page 11 of this week's Bulletin. In addition, donors from the last three years — about 18,000 people — will receive a copy in the mail sometime between Dec. 25 and New Year's.

Many other federations around the country are mounting similar "send a message" campaigns.

"There's a lot of concern that the leadership in Israel may not be hearing the grassroots in the Jewish community in America," says Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. With the petition, the JCF wants "to give people an opportunity to at least express their concerns and point of view."

The introduction to the petition reads, "The strength of the Jewish people has always been our sense of community, our commitment to help each other without regard to personalities or politics. But the ties that bind can hurt if they are pulled in different directions."

The JCF doesn't have a numerical goal in mind for the petitions, Feinstein says. But he notes that in 1988, when Israel's religious parties attempted to pass a "Who is a Jew?" amendment to the country's Law of Return, the Bay Area produced more than 5,000 petitions expressing opposition.

In all, American Jews produced a million petitions on that amendment, which would have changed Israel's legal definition of a Jew to exclude people who are converted according to the standards of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

The American outcry — which consisted not only of petitions but follow-up visits to Israel by American Jewish communal leaders — helped produce results. Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, who was then foreign minister, agreed to stave off the deal.

The extent to which American voices will sway the current religious pluralism debate remains to be seen. Feinstein, however, found himself encouraged when he and other federation heads met with Ne'eman at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations last month in Indianapolis.

Delegates of all denominations expressed their concern about pluralism to Ne'eman. According to Feinstein, he appeared receptive.

"Here is this highly respected mediator who is saying that these expressions from American Jewry are important," the JCF leader says. "We feel we have a duty to try to organize that for our community."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.