Neeman approach failed, rabbi says here

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Rabbi Michael Boyden feels like he's been run over by a steamroller of disinformation. And Israeli Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman is the man in the driver's seat.

For months, Ne'eman has been telling the public — including Bay Area groups in late February — that his namesake committee solved the quandary over conversions in Israel. But Boyden, one of two Reform representatives on the committee, has a different story.

"Ne'eman doesn't want to admit it failed," Boyden said during a visit to San Francisco earlier this spring. "I'm very aware of the need to clarify what actually happened."

Not only did the Ne'eman Committee's eight members not sign the final proposal, but the Reform movement has already returned to Israel's secular courts for relief.

Even the endorsement of the committee's proposal by 80 Knesset members doesn't change Boyden's mind.

"This is nonsense because we haven't signed the document."

The Likud-led administration created the committee to end the battle over who is authorized to conduct conversions in Israel. Right now, only the conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis are officially recognized.

Boyden joined the committee because of his deep involvement in Israel's Reform movement. He is immediate past president of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis. He also oversees the Reform movement's beit din, or rabbinic court, which handles conversions.

Boyden won't go so far as to say Ne'eman is lying about the outcome of the committee, which finished its work in late January.

"I think he's a very clever politician who has his own agenda."

As Boyden now sees it, Ne'eman was interested in several outcomes. Pressing for rights for Reform and Conservative Jews wasn't one of them.

"I'm probably more aware of that today than when the commission was sitting," said Boyden, whose visit here was sponsored by the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

"It was very clear from an early stage there was no real recognition or respect for our position. In retrospect, the whole thing was a skillful political maneuver."

Instead, Boyden said, Ne'eman wanted to solve the problem of the estimated 200,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have been seeking to convert to Judaism but don't want to become strictly observant — which has generally become a prerequisite for conversion in Israel.

Ne'eman regarded non-Orthodox indignation as a good leverage to pressure the Orthodox into liberalizing the conversion process for these emigres, Boyden asserted.

The finance minister also wanted to salve the tensions between American Jews and Israel over the conversion issue, Boyden said.

In addition, Boyden said, Ne'eman wanted to prevent "Who is a Jew?" legislation from reaching a final vote in the Knesset. If the measure ever came to a vote and failed, the Orthodox parties would likely topple the government. Ne'eman was willing to do almost anything to avoid this scenario, Boyden said.

"That was his prime interest."

Boyden is even less impressed with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's response to the committee's work.

Ne'eman took only the document's main body to the Chief Rabbinate. But that text didn't include any references to religious pluralism or creating a more liberal conversion process.

Those points were in the introduction, which Ne'eman never brought to the rabbinate to review, Boyden said.

The document's body stated that the Chief Rabbinate will create special rabbinic courts for conversions and that conversions will be conducted according to Jewish law. The Chief Rabbinate, Boyden said, basically reconfirmed its own powers and sanctioned conversions performed according to Jewish law.

"What the body says is the Chief Rabbinate is the Chief Rabbinate is the Chief Rabbinate."

So how should American Jews react to the committee's work?

Boyden doesn't call for a boycott of local federations or of United Jewish Appeal because he doesn't want to split Jewish communities through any efforts to punish Israel. But he does hope American Jews will make sure their local federations pressure the Jewish Agency to funnel more money to non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

In addition to spreading information about the committee's work, Boyden also came to the Bay Area to raise money to construct the first permanent site for his congregation in Ra'anana near Tel Aviv.

The congregation, Kehilat Ra'anan, tried for seven years to acquire the land free, as all Orthodox congregations are allowed to do in Israel. Under the threat of a High Court lawsuit, the city government finally gave in last year.

But the head of the city's building and planning committee, who is sympathetic to the congregation's cause, is up for election in November. He told Boyden that the congregation should start building before the election, in case he is defeated.

The congregation needs $3 million for the building, which will be called Beit Yonatan in honor of Boyden's son who died at age 19 while serving in the military in southern Lebanon.

The building will hold the synagogue, a community center, day care, a kindergarten and a library.

Though he wasn't satisfied with the Ne'eman Committee, Boyden said the effort wasn't completely in vain. For one, Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis actually sat down together.

He considers this the first de facto recognition of the non-Orthodox in Israel's history.

"In San Francisco, it's pathetic," he said. "In Israel, it is a major step."