Israels Who is a Jew battle will continue in court

JERUSALEM — Israel's Reform and Conservative movements are heading back to the courts to press their efforts to gain recognition for their conversions.

In the latest round of the pluralism battle, the movements rejected a request by Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister of diaspora relations and social affairs, to delay an upcoming hearing on Conservative conversions.

The request came last week as a new governmental committee was forming to deal with conversion and other pluralism issues, including who can serve on local religious councils, and mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall.

The committee represents the first high-level attempt to address the controversial issues that have divided the movements since Prime Minister Ehud Barak was elected in May.

The liberal movements have repeatedly sought to gain recognition for their movements and institutions in Israel. The Orthodox fear that any change in the so-called status quo, which gives the Orthodox control over Jewish religious issues, would weaken the Jewish character of Israel.

The committee is also the first high-level effort to tackle religious pluralism issues since the dissolution of the Ne'eman Commission, formed under Benjamin Netanyahu.

Melchior, a modern Orthodox rabbi, said the committee's purpose is to "strengthen unity among the Jewish people in Israel and the diaspora" and to promote "dialogue between the streams."

Although Reform and Conservative leaders support his goal, they say they don't expect much from the committee and are disappointed that they are not on the committee itself.

Only three of the 11 ministers on the committee showed up for the first meeting last week.

"I do not have high expectations from this committee," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center.

"The committee does not have the authority to decide. It will have to go back to the government, and I feel that the committee may be an unfortunate exercise in further prolonging the process."

Regev's comments reflect the feeling among the liberal streams that pressing ahead in court may be the only way to keep the government moving on the pluralism issues, including conversion and inclusion on religious councils.

On Monday, an expanded panel of 11 Supreme Court judges is expected to hold a hearing on the cases of Conservative conversions of adopted babies. Only one family remains of the original 12 petitioners, but the Conservative movement insists on a precedent-setting ruling.

Several other cases, including another 40 converts represented by the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, are being held up until this case is completed.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel's Conservative movement, known as Masorti, said he prefers not to go back to court. "I prefer to reach an agreement not by conflict, but by compromise," he said. "We must renew a framework for dialogue."

Conservative and Reform leaders are pushing for a "technical" solution, such as removing the nationality clause from identity cards. This idea, which has been floated in the past, would mean that the state would not decide who is a Jew.

Currently, the interior ministry, controlled by Natan Sharansky, actually registers citizens. Sharansky, who also sits on the new ministerial commission, is urging the liberal streams to embrace a joint-institute solution.

Sharansky said his ministerial absorption committee recently agreed to seek a sevenfold budget increase for the institute, from $1.2 million this year to $8.8 million next year.

This would dramatically increase the capacity of the institute from the three classes and about 65 conversion candidates of today to 2,000 candidates next year, and as many as 20,000 within five years, he said.

Liberal movements, said Sharansky, should see this as a "tremendous opportunity" to influence increasing numbers of immigrants.

He said "the first serious test" will be in six months, when the institute's first graduates become eligible for conversion.

If the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate will not agree to convert the graduates, he said, the liberal movements will have "a much stronger case" for going back to court.

Sharansky also promised to consider finding a solution that would grant a temporary residency solution to the dozens of non-Orthodox converts whose status has not yet been determined by the courts.