Many of the 4,000 delegates from the United States and Canada here for Reform Judaism's biennial assembly seem to have their minds elsewhere -- in Madrid, Spain, the site of the current Middle East peace conference.
The peace talks "will dominate conversations at the biennial," said delegate Karen Stromberg of Paradise Valley, Ariz., echoing the sentiments of other conventioneers as they registered yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center downtown.
Resolutions seeking to shape Reform policy on the Middle East will be taken up during plenary sessions of the 61st General Assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The organization represents 1.3 million people from 856 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada.
Of the three major Jewish movements, including the Orthodox and Conservative branches, Reform Judaism generally is the most liberal in social, political and theological matters.
The assembly, with the theme "The Reform Jew: Values, Practices, Visions," began yesterday and continues through Monday.
Ilena Blicker, a delegate from Glendale, Calif., said yesterday, "Certainly everyone is focused on the Madrid talks."
Blicker and other convention-goers expressed cautious optimism about the peace conference attended by Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian delegations.
"The fact that they're all sitting together is a start," Blicker said. "I think they'll make some inroads. Nothing everlasting, mind you. After all, they have 40, 50 years of hatreds to overcome. But they'll at least open the doors."
Malcolm Mendelson, a delegate from Lafayette, Calif., said, "I'd like to see peace in the Middle East, with accommodation of Israel's neighbors. I've heard the talk about giving up [Israeli] land to the Palestinians, and if that's what it takes to achieve peace, then I say it should be done."
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the UAHC president, appeared to set the direction for the assembly by commenting on the Madrid conference during a meeting yesterday of the UAHC's resolutions committee.
"If the purpose of the Arab states is merely to get land back without the intention of recognizing Israel, signing a peace treaty and normalizing relations, Madrid will fail and the hopes for peace will be crushed," said Schindler, who will give the assembly's keynote address during a Sabbath service tomorrow at theConvention Center.
Arab and Muslim spokesmen also were to have their say at the assembly. Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab-Americans, was to participate today in a workshop on the Palestinian view of the peace process. World Muslim League chairman Gutbi Ahmed is scheduled to take part Sunday in a panel discussion of Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
Dozens of others issues will be examined at plenary sessions, workshops and less formal meetings. Among the topics to be covered are acquired immune deficiency syndrome, substance abuse, bioethics, suicide prevention, cults and missionaries, music, anti-Semitism in Europe, Christian-Jewish relations and the 50 percent of the Jewish population who are unaffiliated with any movement.
The relationship between the black and Jewish communities was to be the subject of a news conference today. "Common Road to Justice: A Programming Manual for Blacks and Jews," a new book by the Reform Religious Action Center in Washington, was to be discussed by officials of the center and leaders of the local Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore, also known as BLEWS.
"The book is based on actual cases of cooperation between black and Jewish groups around the country," said Richard Cohen, a UAHC spokesman. "The manual is meant to serve as a blueprint for others. It says, 'Go and do likewise.' "