News Analysis: 2 conversion plans spur chaos

NEW YORK — They set out to save the unity of the Jewish people. But they only created more confusion.

Architects of two proposals intended to defuse the long-simmering crisis over conversion to Judaism in Israel this week ended up with more chaos than clarity.

The developments will likely do little to bridge the deep rift between Israel and American Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom support the Reform and Conservative movements' push for recognition in Israel.

And neither proposal — one that would find a religious way to accept non-Orthodox converts, another that would grant more limited, civil recognition — got a green light from Israel's Orthodox religious establishment.

The real tests could come next month, when petitions by the Reform and Conservative movements to have their converts registered as Jewish by the government are scheduled to come before Israel's Supreme Court.

Parties to the two, mutually exclusive proposals say they hope their recommendations will obviate the need to continue the lawsuits. They also hope that they can avert any move by the Knesset to push forward legislation that would close the doors on legal recognition of Reform and Conservative converts.

After seven months of complex and intensive negotiations, a committee of Israeli representatives of the three major streams developed a compromise plan that was presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday of last week.

The proposal by the Ne'eman Committee would have the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements jointly prepare potential converts. The formal conversion would be conducted by Orthodox religious courts.

Under that plan, the Reform and Conservative movements will forfeit their right to perform conversions in Israel while the Chief Rabbinate would be implicitly giving its recognition to Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Simply put, the Ne'eman Committee plan is a deal in which the Orthodox establishment gets a monopoly over conversions while the Conservative and Reform movements get their longed-for recognition. Monopoly over conversions is exactly what the conversion bill, which was the impetus for the committee's establishment, would legislate.

But the success of the proposal depended on a nod from Israel's Chief Rabbinate, which currently has sole control over conversions in Israel.

Even before there was any word from the chief rabbis, an alternative plan was announced with great fanfare in Jerusalem on Sunday.

That plan — developed secretly by representatives of Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the liberal movements and Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel — is a technical solution limiting recognition of non-Orthodox converts to the civil realm.

The plan's creators say it was developed as "a safety net" in case the Ne'eman Committee's proposal failed.

The purely technical solution would circumvent the need for — or possibility of — a more comprehensive approach to resolving other issues related to the recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel, said those involved with the process.

Some say it could also be an easier solution for Israel's Orthodox authorities to accept because it does not extend any religious recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

But Ya'acov Ne'eman, Israel's finance minister and head of the committee that reached an earlier compromise, denounced the Burg-backed proposal and said it has undermined his committee's work.

Even the creators of the technical proposal are uncertain how it could be implemented.

The proposal would require the national identity cards carried by all Israelis to indicate whether someone is a convert or born Jewish. It would change the religion category to the letter yud, from the current yehudi, for Jew, and add two numbers indicating one's year of birth or date of conversion.

Under the arrangement, those converted in Israel by the non-Orthodox streams would be listed as Jews on their identity cards, but the population registry would keep a record of the type of conversion.

That arrangement would not affect a convert's rights as an Israeli citizen, but the Religious Affairs Ministry could continue to deny recognition of their marriages and burials because they were not converted under the aegis of the Orthodox.

While Orthodox authorities would probably not recognize such converts as Jewish, an agreement to record them as Jewish on identity cards would be a significant breakthrough for the non-Orthodox movements.

Though it falls far short of what some said they had hoped to accomplish through the Ne'eman negotiations, the Burg proposal is being welcomed as "a victory" by Reform and Conservative leaders.

"This gets the state out of the discrimination business on conversions, which is a step forward," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Proponents also say it would provide a legal precedent, which could then be used in court to try and demand the same government neutrality on marriage and other matters of personal status, which are now the sole province of the Orthodox rabbinate, said a source involved in the discussions.

For now, few Israelis seem to believe that the Ne'eman Committee's proposal to solve the conversion crisis in Israel may still be viable.

Ne'eman, however, contends that "it is inconceivable that the chief rabbis would not agree" to his group's compromise solution, because the Reform and Conservative movements had agreed to allow only Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions, a move he called a "breakthrough."

"If the Orthodox rabbis do not agree to it, it would be a disaster," Ne'eman said.

He denounced the Burg alternative as "unconstitutional" and "against Jewish law" because it would distinguish converts from those born Jewish.

Rabbi Uri Regev, the Reform movement's representative in the negotiations for both proposals, responded to the criticism, saying he had hoped for a technical solution all along "but Ne'eman was locked into his `ultimate solution' concept and wouldn't hear of it."

Still, questions were raised about why the same Reform and Conservative movement representatives involved in the committee's negotiations would seem to undercut its feasibility by developing another approach just as the process was drawing to a close.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement said they believed all along that Israel's chief rabbis would not approve the Ne'eman Committee's more comprehensive proposal.

The separate track seemed to provide a more realistic solution, they said.

Every current sign indicates that they were right about ultimate rejection of the Ne'eman proposal.

The politically powerful ultra-religious parties in Israel — Shas, Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah — issued a joint edict Tuesday rejecting the Ne'eman Committee's approach.

The statement termed the Conservative and Reform movements "destroyers of religion trying to get their claws into the Holy Land."

For his part, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau said he needs several weeks to consider the recommended solution put forward by the Ne'eman Committee.

Lau's decision to delay was interpreted by Reform leaders as "an emphatic rejection by the chief rabbi and other rabbinic leaders," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said during a news conference on the issue Monday.

But representatives of the ultra-religious Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said they were not certain the Burg proposal would fly either.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudah, said if the Burg proposal seems to confer legitimacy on the Reform and Conservative movements, "there will be great opposition to it" among the same people opposed to the Ne'eman Committee proposal.

Despite their last-minute retreat from the Ne'eman Committee proposal, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements say the committee process was worthwhile.

"The Israeli media have been constantly explaining what is Conservative and Reform Judaism to Israelis. The public has come to better understand what we're all about," Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, said at a news conference Monday.

"That's a tremendous gain," he said.