Pluralism poll results irk Orthodox sponsors

A study of 500 adult Israeli Jews was conducted Jan. 22 by the Gallup Institute/Israel for the Orthodox Union, a New York-based organization that represents centrist Orthodox congregations and concerns. The poll had a margin of error of a little more than 4 percent.

Those responding to the O.U. poll were asked 16 questions. The answers to just six of them were made public by the O.U., which then tried to withdraw one of the findings from its news release because it was "confusing," said the O.U.'s president, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow.

That finding was that nearly half of those surveyed said there can be only one standard regarding conversions to Judaism, while 43 percent feel that more than one standard is acceptable.

Officials of the liberal movements suggested that the finding was revoked because it didn't support the O.U.'s claims that the liberal movements are virtually unknown and unwanted in the Jewish state.

The survey was conducted just as the most recent chapter in the ongoing battle over the rights of non-Orthodox movements in Israel was concluded. Two different proposals have been put forward in an effort to resolve the controversial issue surrounding the lack of official recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel.

The fate of those proposals is far from certain, but it made the O.U. survey results especially pertinent.

The poll found that while 53 percent of Israelis don't know any Reform or Conservative Jews and 33 percent know very few, the Israeli public is evenly divided on how much it knows about the liberal movements.

About one-third of Israelis polled said they don't know anything, or very little, about Reform and Conservative Judaism; one-third said they know something about the liberal movements; and one-third said they know a lot about them, said Charles Levine, a public relations representative who spoke for the O.U. during its conference held in Israel last week.

The O.U., like many Orthodox groups in Israel and in America, has been lobbying hard to ensure that the Chief Rabbinate retain sole control over conversions and other matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce.

Ganchrow said the O.U. plans to use the data as a basis to determine the extent of its outreach in Israel and how the group should be spending its time and money.

The survey also found that:

*Nearly 45 percent surveyed feel the Chief Rabbinate is the most appropriate body to decide the question "Who is a Jew?" contrasted with 27 percent who prefer that Israel's courts decide, and 15 percent who think the matter should be determined in the Knesset.

*For a circumcision, wedding, funeral or other personal ceremony, 42 percent of respondents said they would prefer that an Orthodox rabbi officiate, 22 percent said they would prefer a Reform rabbi, 10 percent a Conservative rabbi and 11 percent said they didn't care. Six percent said they preferred none of those options, and 8 percent said they didn't know.

*Seventy-seven percent said they would not be interested in joining a Reform or Conservative synagogue or community.

Conservative and Reform reaction was swift.

"I'm very grateful to the Orthodox Union," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. He said he believed the findings underscore the potential for the Conservative movement's success in Israel.

Epstein said that if 45 percent of respondents prefer that the Chief Rabbinate be the sole arbiter of Jewish status, then over half do not.

"That's basically what we've been saying: Yes, the Chief Rabbinate has the legal right to do what they're doing, but they don't have the support of the people," he said.

For his part, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, found it "extraordinary" that almost half as many respondents, given a choice, would prefer Reform officiation at a lifecycle ceremony as would prefer Orthodox."

"These numbers tell me that given how small we are, we're remarkably well-known and there is sympathy [for] us because people are simply unhappy with the coercive monopolistic nature of religious life in Israel," Yoffie said.

"The numbers are not unfavorable to us. But even if they were, political rights are not determined by polling.

"Israel has to be a democratic country which allows for freedom of religion," he said. "And you do that because it's the character of democratic government and it's the right thing to do."