Bay Area sends 4,000 petitions on pluralism to Israel

Hoping to sway the outcome of the pluralism debate, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation delivered petitions with 4,000 signatures to Israel over the weekend.

The signed petitions support the work of the Ne'eman Committee, a governmental body attempting to resolve the power struggle between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox over conversions.

Alan Rothenberg, the federation's president, was pleased with the local return.

"By direct-mail standards, this is an incredibly high response rate," he said on Friday of last week. "It shows a lot of people are concerned…This hit a chord."

Petitions were mailed in late December to about 17,500 Bay Area households that have donated money to the federation since 1995.

Though the bulk of the signatures came in response to the mailing, copies of the petition also appeared in the Jewish Bulletin and were available at the federation's building in downtown San Francisco. A few Bay Area rabbis, speaking from the bimah, also urged congregants to sign the petitions.

The federation joined about 75 other American Jewish communities in distributing the petitions. The total number returned is unknown at this time, according to the Council of Jewish Federations.

Addressed to the Ne'eman Committee, the petitions do not request a specific outcome.

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

The Ne'eman Committee, headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, is trying to find a compromise between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements on the pluralism question. Its deadline for reaching some resolution is Jan. 31.

The committee began work last year after a Knesset bill was introduced that would have codified Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

The petitions were sent to Israel Friday of last week and were delivered to the committee on Monday.

In addition to the 4,000 signed petitions, about 20 of them were returned unsigned from donors who disagreed with the petitions.

A number of local petition-signers added personal comments to the form. They included:

*"This is a very good idea. However, the Ne'eman Committee addresses only one of the many problems of the Netanyahu government which concern us so much here."

*"If you are so concerned move to Israel and vote in Israel. Israel must govern itself without interference."

*To the Israel government, "Please clean up your act if you expect any help from me or any member of my family."

*"Thank you so much for organizing this petition. It means so much to me as a person, a woman and a Jew. Thousands of years of Jewish tradition of compassion are at risk. Let's be an example to the world once again — in strength — by overcoming our ideological differences."

Meanwhile, to help clear up a controversy closer to home, Rothenberg met Wednesday of last week with about 30 Holocaust survivors who were upset over another federation attempt to address the religious pluralism issue.

Rothenberg wrote a letter to about 2,000 top donors in December, reminding them that the portion of their money sent overseas "does not fund the Israeli government." It instead supports the Jewish Agency for Israel, a non-governmental entity whose work includes settling immigrants.

In a Bulletin interview, Rothenberg added that he believed donors wanted to know that their money "is going to some poor immigrant and not to Bibi Netanyahu's au pair."

About 120 Holocaust survivors, their relatives and their friends who interpreted the letter's tone as disrespectful of Israel took out a full-page ad in the Jan. 2 Jewish Bulletin criticizing the federation.

In response, Rothenberg wrote a letter to all of them last week. He apologized for upsetting them and asserted that he hadn't meant to imply that the federation doesn't support Israel. He followed up the letters with the meeting.

"We agreed that we aren't going to agree," Rothenberg said after the meeting, adding that he did learn a lesson.

"I have the bad habit of trying to be cute," he said. "I am going to try to curb my sarcasm a bit."