Non-Orthodox leaders say Neeman overly optimistic

NEW YORK — Never let it be said that Ya'acov Ne'eman is a pessimist.

According to Ne'eman, the Israeli finance minister who heads a government-appointed committee that is seeking a conversion compromise that would be acceptable to the three main streams of Judaism, the crisis is well on its way to being resolved.

But according to non-Orthodox leaders, Ne'eman is being overly optimistic — and it is unclear exactly how he intends to have his committee's recommendations implemented.

In late January, the Ne'eman Committee presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a proposal intended to give the non-Orthodox streams — who are seeking to break the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel — a role in performing conversions that would be officially recognized by the Jewish state. The efforts were the culmination of seven months of work by the committee.

According to the proposal, an interdenominational conversion institute would be established under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel, while leaving the actual conversion process under the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate's control.

Speaking with reporters Monday in New York, Ne'eman said a team had been created to implement the committee's recommendations. He added that a budget was now being created for the team, which would work with the Jewish Agency to establish the conversion institute, and with the Chief Rabbinate to establish additional conversion courts.

The committee's proposal has been endorsed by the Knesset.

But the rabbinate's stance has been far less clear.

The Chief Rabbinate Council, in a unanimous decision issued last month, pledged to set up more religious courts to handle conversions.

But the council declined to address the crucial part of the proposal — the creation of the joint institute to prepare candidates for conversion.

Ne'eman reiterated Monday that the Chief Rabbinate had not been asked to vote on the institute. This presumably meant that implementation of the Ne'eman Committee's proposal could proceed without any hindrance.

Indeed, Ne'eman's carefully chosen comments Monday were those of a person seeking to prevent anyone from rocking the boat.

"Anyone who challenges [the committee's recommendations] will be challenging the unity of the Jewish nation," the minister said, seeking to end months of controversy.

But non-Orthodox leaders are crying foul.

They are still irked by a Chief Rabbinate statement issued last month, which, without referring explicitly to the non-Orthodox movements, blasted "those who are trying to shake the foundations of the Jewish religion, causing rifts among the people and causing them to stray from the generations-old heritage."

"The sages of Israel have barred any cooperation with them and their methods, and no one should consider establishing joint institutions with them," the statement added.

To the non-Orthodox streams, this was a straightforward condemnation of the conversion institute — and they therefore wonder how the Ne'eman Committee's proposal can be implemented.

"It is an utter absurdity," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said in an interview this week. "The Chief Rabbinate rejected the proposal at length. The notion that you can go ahead and implement the plan in the absence of the rabbinate makes no sense."

A similar viewpoint was offered by Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who served on the Ne'eman Committee.

He accused the committee of playing "let's pretend that the rabbinate did not reject" its proposal.

Meanwhile, Israel's High Court of Justice on Sunday postponed again a hearing on a petition to recognize Conservative conversions of adopted children. The court accepted the state's argument that the Ne'eman Committee should be given time to implement its recommendations. The hearing was postponed until Monday, April 20.