David Rotem
MK David Rotem speaking at the committee meeting on the conversion bill, July 12, 2010. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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WASHINGTON - When Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, landed in Israel at the end of the week and found out that the Conversion Bill was about to be voted on in the Knesset, he did not hide his anger. In a letter to federation heads on Sunday, he noted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to work with the bill's sponsor, MK David Rotem, "to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties involved."

Instead, Rotem canceled scheduled meetings with Sharansky, and the two have yet to meet or discuss the bill.

"Despite assurances that discussions will take place, in recent hours it has come to light that Rotem intends to present his bill to the Knesset committee tomorrow (Monday ) for a first reading," the letter said. "Worse, the bill that is intended for presentation tomorrow contains a number of clauses that are even more problematic than versions we had recently seen."

Silverman also wrote to Netanyahu on Sunday. In this letter, he reminded the prime minister that American Jewish leaders had been involved in "constructive meetings with various ministers and members of Knesset on this issue.

"We were certainly very encouraged by your statements on the matter and especially by your request to Jewish [Agency] Chairman Natan Sharansky to lead efforts to find a formula acceptable to all parties. We have great faith in Sharansky's ability to represent Jews from across the world, and to find a path that is acceptable to all.

"That is why we are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from Sharansky or Diaspora communities. All of the discussions, understandings and efforts seem to have disappeared overnight and we are left feeling upset and even betrayed by MK Rotem and those behind the bill."

Silverman said that Netanyahu must certainly be aware of the issue's acute sensitivity for Jews around the world, "and I have no doubt that you appreciate the significant damage that such a bill could cause to ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, at precisely the time when we are all working so hard to build bridges."

Asking the prime minister to "please forgive my blunt and direct tone," he concluded by saying: "I do feel that this is a critical moment whose gravity cannot be understated."

Netanyahu also received a letter penned jointly by the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, which was co-signed by 14 other Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada. In it, the signatories expressed their dismay over Rotem's decision to put the conversion bill to a vote in the Knesset committee and stressed that the decision was contrary to the assurances they had received.

"Those portions of the bill that give responsibility for the process of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate constitute a dramatic change in the status quo, are an affront to millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, and are dangerous on every level to the principles of Klal Yisrael," Yoffie and Schonfeld wrote.

They added that the bill did not even fulfill its own purpose, which was "to encourage the growth of our community and welcome with open arms those that wish to join and support our people and our land."