conservative - Norm Blinder - March 2011
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Tzipi Livni at the meeting. Photo by Norm Blinder
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WASHINGTON - 300 rabbis coming to Las Vegas might sound like a beginning of a joke, but the most populous city in Nevada is also home to the fastest growing Jewish community in North America. According to the city of sin's Jewish mayor Oscar Goodman, there are about 100,000 Jews in Las Vegas.

The Conservative movement has a large presence there, so there is little surprise that the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis kicked off its annual convention in Vegas on Sunday with hundreds of rabbis in attendance, plus Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

The rabbis aren't even the only Jewish game in town. Next Sunday, one of the city's many resorts will host the Republican Jewish Coalition winter leadership meeting, with U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, potential presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is not, and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

The rabbinical convention leadership admitted with a smile they are aware that the public relations can be tricky with Vegas' less than squeaky-clean reputation. But the atmosphere was serious - the conversion law debate stirred deep emotions - and even Tzipi Livni shed her usual defense that she didn't travel abroad as the opposition head. Instead she admitted the situation was far from ideal and stressed her desire for religious pluralism.

"For me a Jewish state is not a halakhic state, but also not just one of a Jewish majority," she said. "For me a Jewish state is the homeland of a Jewish people. I don't have the answers to all of the questions but I do know that if the biggest parties in Israel, Kadima and Likud, would work together, we could change the reality in Israel. There are those in Israel believing that a Jewish state means a Jewish majority. I say it's not enough, but it is needed. To keep a Jewish majority, we must promote the idea of two states for two people."

Livni then called on Netanyahu to abandon his "natural partners" to move toward peace and an Israeli constitution.

Israel, as usual, was a big part of the discussions, and a special prayer was composed following the last week's Jerusalem terror attack. Participants took particular offense at a recent comment by Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi's that "there are no streams in Judaism," meaning non-Orthodox movements have no place in the Israeli religious establishment.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, told Haaretz that she sees it as if "Israel's own minister is saying that the Rabbinate has control not over religion in Israel, but around the world. And that the religious streams that represent 85% of Diaspora Jewry don't exist."

Admitting that the issue became highly emotional, she wondered how blind the Israeli religious establishment could be.

"We are the largest Zionist bloc outside the Jewish state," she said. "Does that mean that everybody is in lockstep with every action of the Israeli government? No. But we see the health and well being of the Jewish state as a large part of our future. Margi's remarks that we don't exist, it's such an inversion. We exist, and part of our existence is for you. To love you, to defend you, to care for you, you are our family. We are your agents on the ground."

Schonfeld says Judaism needs to be more open to inclusiveness.

"You need things defined not in a negative and coercive sense, in order to be Jewish, but you look to strive to what we see as an essence of Judaism in a most positive sense," she said. "That's where the streams have so much to offer this country. We offer a pass that is so passionate and committed to Jewish tradition - but is also recognizing that someone is actually as a complex human being is engaging not only with a tradition but a living community and coming to it in an honest way. They don't have to pretend that they meet Minister Margi's exact definition, but they are striving to be Jewish, that's what our tradition is about. ... The message we are trying to send to Israel over and over is: You are sending our best young people away. You are telling them that they cannot be Jewish in Israel. This is bad news for Israel for Minister Margi - he could succeed. He could make them not exist."

At the convention, the Conservative movement tried to tackle a new pattern of community engagement.

"The paradox of growth in the Conservative movement is that we have to separate movement from institutions," Schonfeld said. "How do you build a youth movement that inspires young people to pursue Jewish values and ideals? We have to increase our Hebrew fluency so that we can communicate better with our brothers and sisters in Israel. We can create something in addition to Birthright Israel; and a different kind of adult learning, some of it will take place in using online learning in ways we never tried before."

The cognitive dissonance that many young U.S. Jews feel between the values taught to them and certain policies of the state of Israel can be resolved if there is a stronger dialogue, Schonfeld believes.

"What Judaism teaches us is that we have to figure out what is the best way to operate within the messy realities of life, not in some ideal world," she said. "These statements of the young Jews should be taken as from the people who are really struggling, who want to be engaged. What would be terrible is for them to be totally disengaged. We cannot send J Street away. But we are sort of shouting at each other over barriers. There was a marvelous article in The Atlantic on the moral training of Israeli army commanders. How are you going to act on the spot. It gave voice to the depth and breadth of the deep morality of this army and the society. Birthright Israel was one kind of important step. We need to look at this as a beginning of a larger series of encounters to help to understand each other better."