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‘Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core’

 

Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

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David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee by a 5-4 vote on July 12. Flash90/JTA

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.

“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision-makers.”

JTA

 
 

Conversion wars undermine Israel and its image

 

Reform Judaism in transition

Local synagogues ready to plan the future

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After 16 years as leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie handed the reins to Rabbi Richard Jacobs at last weekend’s convention.

Local leaders of Reform congregations returned from the movement’s biennial convention in a Washington suburb floating on clouds, energized, and determined to meet the challenge — set by the movement’s leadership — of more than doubling synagogue participation by high school seniors by the end of this decade.

“We all came back so charged up,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “It was a fantastic renewal opportunity.”

With more than 6,000 attendees, the biennial was the largest ever, the first to be sold out, and one of the largest indoor gatherings of American Jews ever.

“It was amazing,” said Irene Bolton, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It is the most awesome experience to sit in a space with 6,000 other Jews and to participate in Shabbat services as a group, and to be awed by the feeling of spirituality that permeates a space like that,” she said.

“You have to walk out of the biennial saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s hope for the Jewish people,’” she said.

The president of the Union of Reform Judaism leads the denomination in a way unmatched by his Orthodox or Conservative counterparts. This is a function of the URJ’s centrality within the Reform movement’s constellation of organizations, as well as the fact that, unlike the parallel organizations, the presidency of the URJ is a full-time position. Both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union are nominally headed by lay leaders who hold relatively short tenures.

Biennial pronouncements and initiatives by URJ leaders are subsequently quoted in a way reminiscent of how Chabad-Lubavitch followers quote the teachings of their late leader.

This year, the theme seemed to be reinventing Reform congregations to create “sustainable” communities that can retain the next generation.

The scope of the challenge was highlighted by the farewell sermon of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose 16 years at the URJ’s helm ended at the event. Yoffie noted that neither of his children belong to Reform synagogues.

Yoffie’s son, 28, is not a member of a synagogue, “but feels very much connected to his Jewish identity, and Israel and social justice are big passions for him,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

“His daughter is married and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue, but still considers herself a Reform Jew. She reads Torah on Shabbat morning,” said Mosbacher.

“Things need to change in how we educate our kids and how we sustain our families. That’s the challenge of the movement, and the opportunity, if we think big and creatively,” said Mosbacher.

With its new “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the URJ is focusing on the statistic that “80 percent of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no connection of any kind to their Jewish community by the time they reach 12th grade,” in the wording on the campaign’s web site.

“We can’t abide that,” said Mosbacher. “We can’t move forward as a movement with those demographics. We have to figure out ways to engage our youth and, by extension, the families that belong to the congregation in a different kind of way.”

“The goal of the campaign is that by 2020, we move that number from 20 percent to 50 percent who will stay involved through high school,” he said.

While the campaign defines a goal, it does not prescribe set programs to achieve it.

This reflects a bottom-up approach that attendees connect to the agenda of the new URJ president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

“We’re really moving away from that hierarchical corporate approach to how we do business, to a sense of looking outside of ourselves and saying, who needs us, how do we draw people in, how do we engage Jews in a meaningful way,” said Frishman.

“The youth engagement campaign is about helping the congregations ask intentional, challenging questions about themselves, about whether everything is as excellent as can be,” said Mosbacher. “If it’s not excellent, what are the other methods that are out there that can make the synagogue excellent?

“Rabbi Jacobs said we should not be talking about the unaffiliated; we should talk about uninspiring congregations. We need to look at what’s inspiring people.

“My educator and my cantor and my lay leadership have come back eager to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we ask those hard questions of ourselves, we will necessarily need to come up with new and creative alternatives,” he said.

The changes called for at the biennial are less a U-turn than an acceleration of changes Reform congregations are making to deal with a changing world.

Take the example of Hebrew school — clearly central to engaging teenagers.

“To say that ‘I hated Hebrew school and you my child will hate Hebrew school’ is not a sustainable model. But there are excellent models. We need to see how to use them,” said Mosbacher. “Drop-off Hebrew school is not the most excellent model we can offer,” he said.

Seven years ago, his congregation began a family school, where children and adults study Hebrew and Judaics together. Data show that participating families are more connected to the synagogue — “though whether that’s because they’re self-selected is for the professional demographers to figure out.”

The challenge now: how to make the family school the rule, not the exception.

At Barnert Temple, said Frishman, “we’re involved in an educational self-study looking at how we teach our youth and our adults. We’re looking to completely re-examine our methodology and our outreach, as a way of engaging people meaningfully.”

The study held its initial focus groups two weeks ago, and the plan is for the study to be completed in about a year.

“This work is as much about engaging people in the process, and having the process be determined by participants. By the time we have figured out what we’re doing, we’ll already be doing it. This is all the thinking that goes on behind community organizing, which is at the heart of the leadership that goes on at the URJ,” said Frishman.

The fact that the process is already underway, however, did not diminish the significance of the biennial. “When you’re with all these other synagogues and everybody is hearing this message, It’s a chance to say, ‘it’s not just us, this is the way it’s being done,’” she said.

Similarly, Temple Beth Or is in the initial stages of a major educational change. The congregation has just begun a new program for its post-bar mitzvah students — the focus of the youth engagement initiative — in the wake of the ending of the closure last year of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism.

“As a congregation, we picked up that piece after BARJ. We understood that there was a need to integrate students into Jewish life and learning. We were sad that BARJ was no longer in existence, but you know the expression that God closes a door and opens a window? We were able to open the window.”

“We found we had very few students attending BARJ. Today, we have 25 students in a post-bar mitzvah program who are learning together, who are having fun together, who are building community together, and who are here on the same night as the younger students.

“We can find ways to involve the teens in coming back and reading Torah again, or being present for a minyan if we have a shiva minyan, or helping us with our caring committee,” said Bolton.

Her work as an educator is not just focused on the “classroom environment, but I’m thinking about what kind of programs can we provide, what kind of mentors and role models can we provide, how are we going to work with them on an intergenerational basis so there will be a charismatic adult in their life,” she said.

This shift from classic textbook education to experiential education is something that Bolton said was evident in the way the biennial convention has changed over the years that she has attended.

“This biennial was much more about experiencing, feeling, and participating, whereas when I began in Jewish education over 30 years ago and went to my first biennial, it was much more about what class can we offer, what project can we do, what program will work. Today, it was much more about the big picture, about helping people internalize and find meaning.

“Teaching Torah is what this was all about. Building community, finding ways for us to link together, to connect, to become a more caring community that puts Torah at the center,” said Bolton.

The bottom line, said Frishman, “is understanding how living Jewishly as a Reform Jew is powerful. It gives you a voice in the work of the world. Our mission is not just to light a Chanukah menorah; it’s to light it and think ‘How can the light of Judaism inspire me to light the world and open my arms to everyone? ‘It’s the message of Reform Judaism, part and parcel of who we are as Reform Jews, to know that what I’ve learned as a Jew isn’t for me alone, but for the way I interact with the stranger and help the life of the stranger to improve.”

 
 
 
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