U.S. Jewish Leaders: Jewish Pluralism Is in Crisis

The U.S. Jewish community: Content with Netanyahu’s response to the conversion bill, but larger issue of religious pluralism in Israel is far from being solved

American Jewish community leaders have expressed support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to block a proposal that would give the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions, but warned that the issues surrounding religious pluralism in Israel were far from being settled.

“The issue is clearly far from solved,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of The Rabbinical Assembly, told Haaretz. “In the short term what we hopefully have – is the situation that the bill will not be brought unexpectedly and precipitously before the Knesset."

Some 320,000 people who are not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law ) live in Israel, most of them from the former Soviet Union. Though they are Israeli citizens, they cannot marry in Israel, and after their death, they cannot have a Jewish funeral.

Western Wall - Emil Salman - 2009
Emil Salman

Yet many converts who invested many years and large sums of money in converting, including some who made personal sacrifices for their choice to be Jewish, have either discovered that their conversion is not recognized by the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox ) who dominate the Chief Rabbinate or even had it annulled by the rabbinical courts.

"The issue of conversion for people all over the country who need to have access to conversion in Israel that they are not afforded because there is only one narrow view of how it is conducted, but issues of religious pluralism are anything but solved," said Schonfeld. "It’s a very powerful wake up call, another one in a series that we’ve seen recently in this country, tragically as we have Tisha B'Av as the reminder to what can happen to the Jewish people when there is inner hatred."

"The political system in Israel allows a small group of people to gain tremendous influence which is destroying the possibility of most Israelis to have access to Judaism that can enrich their lives. And this is the real struggle – it’s far beyond this bill."

"The real struggle is – will there be a way for the people of Israel to enjoy the wisdom and beauty of Judaism," she added. "I have great faith in people of Israel – that this is the moment where it is beginning to flower at the very deep level in people. These are first murmurings of it. We have faith in the democratic process in Israel”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that the bill – proposed by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu - would "tear apart the Jewish people." This opposition has sparked coalition woes, particularly between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteiny.

American Jewish leaders are well aware of the crisis, but prefer not to look at the issue in its political context.

“We haven’t been addressing it as a coalition issue, political issue. Our concern from the beginning has been that of the unity of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative synagogues in North America. "We recognized the need for conversions for Russian olim, but rejected the notion of David Rotem that this bill is actually going to do that – and from our point of view, this bill will actually be detrimental to the Jewish people."

Marc R. Stanley, Chair of the NJDC (National Jewish Democratic Council), said in a statement: "The passage of such a bill could have serious implications not only for the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, but also for the growth of the Jewish people as a whole."

“We frequently speak of the values that are shared between the United States and Israel. One of those values is the commitment to diversity," he added. "This bill is counter to that aspiration and will be deeply detrimental to furthering the diversity in Israel's Jewish community and beyond."

"We support Prime Minister Netanyahu in his efforts to ensure that this damaging legislation does not pass."