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Foes of conversion bill give Israelis an earful
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Foes of conversion bill give Israelis an earful

Opponents, including Netanyahu, see harm to Jewish unity

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, said that if it passes, the bill would have “a very negative impact.”
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, said that if it passes, the bill would have “a very negative impact.”

Local Jewish leaders were relieved after Israel’s prime minister came out against a controversial conversion bill, but vowed to press their case until the legislation died in the Knesset.

Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposes a proposed conversion bill that “could tear apart the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu made the comments Sunday at the regular Cabinet meeting.

The bill, which has been roundly condemned by the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, in Israel, and in other countries in the Diaspora because it centralizes conversion in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, could come up for a first reading this week.

Netanyahu said he is working to make sure that the bill does not reach the Knesset floor. On Sunday he said he would instruct his Likud Party lawmakers to vote against the bill if it comes to a vote. {See UPDATE, at right.]

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, said he was relieved that Netanyahu came out against the bill, although he said its fate, under Israel’s complex coalition system, wasn’t assured.

Kleinman returned July 16 after a week-long visit to Israel, where he joined Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, in an intensive lobbying campaign with Israeli legislators.

“We are doing everything we can for it not to pass,” said Kleinman. “It would have a very negative impact on American Jews and their attitudes toward Israel.

“It also will not accomplish its goals because a rigid standard will not generate converts,” he said. “There are moderate Orthodox alternatives that can be more succesful. This bill has to be defeated.”

Kleinman said a key mission of the federation system “is to promote the Jewish community, Jewish peoplehood, and connections with Israel and Jews throughout the world. Israel is a state for all of the Jews, and if any of them feel less connected because of the symbolism of this bill, it is detrimental to the Jewish people.”

Many synagogues in the MetroWest area are urging congregants to send letters or e-mails to Netanyahu opposing the bill.

“What concerns me most is the continued movement to the right of the Chief Rabbinate and the continuing and unrelenting determination to put everything into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Rabbi Stanley Asekoff of B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange.

“This will ultimately drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora and between Israel and America, because we will continue to feel more and more alienated and delegitimized by the rabbinate that represents the State of Israel,” he said.

Matthew Gewirtz, senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, is asking his congregants to write letters as well. Gewirtz is concerned about the dozens of conversions he performed at his previous pulpit at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“We have to make sure our voice is heard in this matter so that the Israeli government knows there will be a million Reform Jews who will be affected by this,” he said. The proposed bill “wipes out a whole bunch of people who live very connected and deeply resonant Jewish lives who are suddenly not allowed into their homeland. It is very troubling.”

UJC MetroWest president Gary Aidekman has been working with members of its Religious Pluralism Subcommittee to round up opponents.

“Our relationship with Israel is a big piece of what we do, and anything that causes members of the community to have lower regard for Israel has an impact,” he said.

Ava Kleinman of Morristown, a subcommittee member and chair of MetroWest’s Legow Family Israel Program Center, called the bill “a step backward in the pluralistic conversion process.

“This bill will foster greater divergence and discord,” said Ava Kleinman, a congregant at the Conservative Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael. “For young people who are less connected to Israel, who are already disaffected from the actions of the current government and prior governments, this is just one more nail in the coffin of their disaffection. It is terrible.”

Murray Laulicht of West Orange also opposes the measure.

“Unfortunately, there are times when you have to recognize that the chief rabbis are wrong, and this is one of them,” said Laulicht, a past president of UJC MetroWest and a past chair of the Religious Pluralism Subcommittee. As an Orthodox Jew, he said, “I have no conflict. My understanding of Judaism is there is a very important principle of loving fellow Jews, and what they are doing violates that.”

But Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of the Lubavitch Chai Center-Shul at Short Hills believes the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate should have control over conversions in Israel.

He called the controversy “a tempest in a teapot. It is a lot of political posturing, frankly, whether Israel considers somebody a Jew, for the 2 percent who make aliya. This has more to do with how the Conservative and Reform movements view themselves vis-a-vis being validated by Israeli society. It has absolutely no impact on any of the movements outside of Israel.”

“It is no tempest in a teapot to us,” said Arthur Sandman, associate executive vice president of UJC MetroWest. “It is a question of Jewish unity.

“Our federation’s position is not intended to advance the beliefs or interests of any one segment of the Jewish community,” he said. “Rather, it is intended to preserve a sense of unity across the diversity of the Jewish people and to ensure that all Jews can view the State of Israel as theirs.”

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