3 major religious streams win in Zionist vote

NEW YORK — The three major religious streams have emerged as the clear victors in the American Zionist elections to the World Zionist Congress — with the Reform movement once again leading the pack.

Although participation declined by nearly 20,000 from the last elections in 1997, close to 90,000 Jews cast their ballots.

The 650-seat World Zionist Congress convenes every four to five years in Jerusalem and determines policies and programs of diaspora Jewry. The international forum gives diaspora Jews a direct voice on a number of issues affecting the Jewish state, including how funds raised abroad are allocated.

That means influence over the Jewish Agency for Israel's $350 million budget, which is involved in immigration and absorption, and runs religious, political and educational programs throughout the world.

Of the total 145 delegates elected by Americans, comprising 29 percent of the 500 elected seats, ARZA/World Union, the Zionist arm of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, won 61 seats.

That number equals the combined number won by the Conservative arm's Mercaz USA, at 32 delegates, and the Religious Zionist Movement, supported by the Orthodox, which took 29.

The Reform movement swept the electorate with even greater numbers — 70 delegates — in the last election in 1997.

But the most significant change this time around is the greater weight of the Orthodox movement, nearly doubling its representation from 16 seats five years ago.

While the Conservative stream eked out second place this time, they lost six delegates from the last election.

The last elections drew more attention than usual because they came amid fighting over the status of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.

The 1997 victory for the Reform and Conservative movements led to increased visibility and political clout in Israel as well as increased Jewish Agency allocations for non-Orthodox institutions in Israel and abroad.

This time around, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the suicide bombings in Israel, religious pluralism was not on the front burner for many people.

Still, the movements spent a lot of time, money and energy galvanizing their constituencies.

"These elections affirmed the importance of Reform Judaism in the American Jewish community," said Philip Meltzer, president of ARZA/World Union.

At the same time, he said that this year's elections were more about support for the State of Israel than about religious divisions.

He also said he thought the current situation dampened voter participation.

"When there are no issues that divide, a certain number of people just didn't participate. I look forward to the time when peace will come to Israel and the social issues and the future character of the state will become the primary concerns."

Despite the renewed sense of unity, pluralism remained an important vehicle for voter mobilization.

The Religious Zionists of America made a major push after the Reform movement gained more control of Jewish Agency committees after the last election.

"We decided it was time to take it back," said Eric Weisberg, assistant director of the group.

Weisberg, whose group's slate includes its sister organization, AMIT, said members are "excited to have such a strong representation at the upcoming Congress."

For the Conservatives, "we did as good as we could," said Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz, which he said spent more on campaigning this time around than it did in 1997 but was outspent by both the Orthodox and Reform movements.

Although the number of voters was down from nearly 108,000 in the last election, officials at the American Zionist Movement, which organizes and oversees the elections, noted that almost 80 percent of registrants voted, up from 72 percent of registrants in 1997.

This election also marked the first time people could register and vote by the Internet as well as regular mail, and more than 27 percent of the people cast their vote online.

Two new groups also made the cut — the environmentalist Green Zionist Alliance, which won one seat, and the extreme right-wing Herut Party, which took three.