Controversy still swirling over conversion institute

JERUSALEM — A joint institute aimed at resolving the conversion crisis is moving forward despite protests by Israel's Reform and Conservative movements and an impending renewal of the pluralism battle in court.

The seven-member board of the Institute for Jewish Studies, set up by the Jewish Agency for Israel, includes five Orthodox representatives, and one each from the Conservative and Reform movements.

It held its first meeting late last month, and meets again Sunday.

Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the committee's chairman, said the first institute, planned for the southern town of Beersheva, where many new immigrants live, could be established "within two months."

Conservative and Reform leaders say they will continue to send representatives to the meetings. They say, however, that they are only participating in a dialogue to advance mutual understanding and stress that the institute is not the solution proposed by the Ne'eman Committee.

That committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, worked for months to find a compromise between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel over the right to perform conversions in Israel, where the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate now has sole authority.

Under the compromise proposed by the Ne'eman Committee, rabbis from Judaism's three leading streams would participate in training potential converts, while the Orthodox clergy would perform the conversions.

But the Chief Rabbinate refused to sign on to the plan, so the proposal was never formally implemented. The government allocated a budget for the institute anyway.

But Reform and Conservative leaders have expressed dismay that the rabbinate has rejected working with them and have vowed to return to court.

"This is not the institute discussed in the Ne'eman Commission," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel's Masorti, or Conservative, movement.

"We conditioned our acceptance of the Ne'eman Commission recommendations on the Chief Rabbinate accepting the conclusions in their entirety. The Chief Rabbinate has not done this."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post that "the mutual recognition, dialogue and cooperation that would have resulted from the original proposals" have been "entirely eliminated, leaving the status quo essentially intact."

Bobby Brown, the prime minister's adviser on diaspora affairs who has been a central player in compromise efforts, rejected the liberal movements' complaints and said the conversion institute can become a viable solution.

"I don't know why they are complaining," he said. "A year ago, all of the achievements we've made were undreamed of. The government has taken a position that is different from the rabbinate, and turned the Reform and Conservative movements from small, marginal groups into full-fledged partners."

The institute's chairman, Ish-Shalom, said his interpretation of the Ne'eman Committee was that the Orthodox rabbinate did not have to be a party to the agreement.

In any case, he added, "the rabbinate has said it would consider any candidate for conversion from any program."

Bandel, however, insisted that without explicit agreement from the rabbinate, the institute would be meaningless.

Meanwhile, the Conservative movement is gearing up to return to court. Both the Conservative and Reform movements had put on hold several cases related to religious pluralism to give the Ne'eman Committee a chance to work.