News Analysis: U.S. liberal movement leaders dig in for long battle

"This battle won't be over very quickly. I don't believe we can even foresee the end of it," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents about 800 congregations with 1.5 million members.

"Change requires patience and persistence. My biggest fear is that people will throw up their hands and walk away from supporting Israel" out of frustration, he said.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, warned that "this is only the beginning" of the religious pluralism fight.

"Let's get the conversion issue behind us one way or another and get on to what's next. We want to advance the larger cause — a more tolerant society and the equality of all the religious streams" in Israel, he said.

"We also expect to bring about the dispossession of the Orthodox from their monopoly over religious life."

The Chief Rabbinate's reaction was decried as harmful by leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements in the United States.

"The council's action is a slap in the face to world Jewry," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which has over 850 member congregations with about 1.5 million members.

"The Chief Rabbinate prefers to exploit and expand its monopoly over religious life in Israel, rather than choose the course of dialogue and cooperation with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism."

His feelings echoed those of the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, which said the rabbinate had "declared war" on them.

The Orthodox Agudath Israel of America called the statement on war "incendiary" and "slanderous."

"The only war proponents of classical Judaism are fighting is a defensive war — against Jewish assimilation and intermarriage on behalf of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudah.

For his part, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, welcomed the rabbinate's position as "courageous."

Orthodox groups in the United States have lobbied hard in Israel for no change in the status quo, which grants Orthodox control over conversions and other matters of personal status, such as marriage and conversion.

Meanwhile, few leaders of the major American movements believe that the technical solution — offered by Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, and the Jewish Agency for Israel's chairman, Avraham Burg, just before the Ne'eman Committee's proposals were released in late January — is likely to work.

Observers said that this solution, which would enable the Israeli government to register as Jewish — with a special marking — any convert who came through any of the movements, would be a short-term measure that could potentially discriminate against converts and doesn't have any significant political support in Israel.

Immediate plans for both the Reform and Conservative movements focus on reviving court cases that they have held in abeyance as the Ne'eman Committee worked out a compromise.

Because the Chief Rabbinate has rejected any notion of compromise with the non-Orthodox movements, the Reform movement now feels "free to resume our activities on legal and political fronts," said the UAHC's Yoffie.

Yoffie said that in addition to conversion issues, his movement would pursue matters related to religious pluralism, including its quest to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall and to allow non-Orthodox Jews to sit on local religious councils.

"We'll go back now and prioritize but expect to proceed very aggressively on all fronts," he said.

Hirsch, of ARZA, said that pressing for the right of liberal rabbis to officiate at weddings in Israel will also be high on the agenda.

Though on the surface, the Ne'eman Committee's attempts to work out the tension between the Orthodox went nowhere, much good came of it, some said.

"Many significant Orthodox voices came to the fore in support of Conservative and Reform rights in Israel," Hirsch said, adding that the support among Israeli and American Jews for their cause has been a "huge victory."

"They will prove to be an important asset as days and weeks go on."