Jews can achieve unity, Yaacov Neeman says in S.F.

"Even our worst enemy in this century, Hitler, was not successful in exterminating the Jewish nation," he told an audience of 200 Tuesday at a San Francisco luncheon sponsored by Hebrew Academy's Institute for Jewish Law. "Eighty percent intermarriage. Within a few years we will disappear. There will be no Jewish education. No observance of Jewish law."

Ne'eman, who was also in the Bay Area for another Hebrew Academy speaking engagement, discussed government involvement in health care Sunday at the ninth annual International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in Burlingame.

Turning to the health of world Jewry at Tuesday's luncheon at the Marines' Memorial Club, Ne'eman said he was optimistic about peace among Jews in Israel and Jewish unity.

He was also upbeat about the long-awaited report on the conversion process, which was released in late January by his namesake committee.

"I didn't think they could reach an understanding," Ne'eman said of the committee. "The fact that we were able to sit together. One Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, five Orthodox rabbis for seven months to have an open dialogue to convince one another, to debate the principles of Judaism, indicated how we can work together."

Still, the conversion issue is far from being resolved — with the Chief Rabbinate's apparent rejection last week of a provision giving Reform and Conservative rabbis a role in the conversion process.

But Ne'eman said the Chief Rabbinate wasn't asked to approve or disapprove such a provision. It was simply asked to approve the establishment of more courts to deal with conversion expeditiously, which it did unanimously.

He called the Ne'eman Committee a model for resolving future disputes.

The Knesset is scheduled to debate his committee's recommendations next week. Ne'eman expects 80 of the 120 member to endorse the three-page report. Among the recommendations:

*The establishment of an Institute for Jewish Studies under the auspices of the Jewish Agency.

*Conducting studies in various locations and in various languages according to the needs of the public.

*Guidelines for the education necessary for conversion.

*The establishment of special rabbinical courts for conversions.

*Establishing a board of directors to oversee the Institute for Jewish Studies.

The committee recommends that the "composition of the Board of Directors will reflect a representation of the entire Jewish population of Israel, in all its variations and streams."

Although Ne'eman calls the anticipated Knesset vote unprecedented, he acknowledged there still is a long way to go before the issue of conversion is laid to rest.

Rabbi Doug Kahn of the Jewish Community Relations Council said that although American Jews are confused by the actions of the Chief Rabbinate, most respect the efforts Ne'eman has made to solve the crisis.

"I did not walk away from [today's luncheon] thinking the perfect formula has been found," Kahn said. "I have the feeling that after months and months of endless meetings to try and resolve the conversion issue that [Ne'eman] is genuinely committed to the principle of Jewish unity. And that [Ne'eman] believes that it must remain at the top of the agenda for Israeli and diaspora Jewry."

Kahn added that achieving an acceptable result remains an extraordinarily difficult task.

Aware of tense relations between Israel and the diaspora, Ne'eman said that conversion in Israel has different repercussions than in the United States.

"We as a Jewish nation have no separation between our religion as Jews and our nationality as Jews," said Ne'eman. He went on to explain that in Israel, conversion confers a legal status, such as the right to the financial benefits associated with the absorption process or the right to be prime minister or president.

"In Israel we need a uniform system because of the legal status," he said. "Therefore the committee unanimously recognized that the conversion in Israel should be one conversion, the conversion that was recognized by the Jews since we left Egypt 4,000 years ago."

In spite of the contention over conversions, Ne'eman advocates worldwide unity among Jews.

"As much as Israel needs the diaspora as the backbone of its fight for existence, the diaspora needs Israel for its fight to exist as a Jewish nation," he said, adding that there are responsibilities on both sides.

In response to a query about another hot topic — the peace process — Ne'eman said, "I am confident there will be peace [between] ourselves and our neighbors because there is no other choice. We shall overcome."

Information and analysis of the Ne'eman Committee report is available online at, on the Jewish Community Relation Council's Web site.