Orthodox rabbis reject two branches of Judaism Group to declare Reform, Conservative are not Jews

March 22, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

In an escalation of a divisive debate over who is a Jew, the nation's oldest body of Orthodox rabbis will formally declare that the two largest branches of Judaism in the United States are not Jewish.

The unprecedented declaration by the 600-member Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, its officials said, is intended to prod U.S. Jews to withdraw from Conservative and Reform temples.

It is estimated that between 80 percent and 90 percent of affiliated Jews in the United States are members of either Reform or Conservative congregations.

Reaction from Reform and Conservative leaders, as well as a moderate Orthodox rabbi and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, was one of alarm. They called it an attack on Jewish unity.

"Those are fighting words," said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the moderate Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. He added that it is unlikely that the Rabbinical Council of America -- the more moderate Orthodox rabbinical body with more than 1,000-member rabbis -- would endorse the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

Nevertheless, leaders of the Orthodox union said they hope to lend strength to Orthodox Jews in Israel, who are exerting pressure on the Israeli parliament to uphold the practice of denying legitimacy to all but Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

Many Orthodox rabbis have long refused as a matter of practice to recognize Reform and Conservative denominations, including the legitimacy of their ordinations, divorces and conversions.

But the rabbinical union said its formal declaration -- scheduled to be announced March 31 at a New York news conference -- will mark the first time that an Orthodox rabbinical body has made such a declaration as a ruling in Jewish law.

While some characterized the Union of Orthodox Rabbis a "right-wing" group that was out of the American Jewish mainstream, they said its declaration must be quickly answered with a forceful denunciation by the majority Jewish community.

All sides saw the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada as an attempt to influence the outcome of an emotional debate in the Israeli parliament over a controversial bill that would for the first time explicitly ban all non-Orthodox rabbis from performing marriages, burials and conversions in Israel.

The conversion issue is especially sensitive because under Israel's "Law of Return," any Jew is eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. But under strict Jewish religious law -- which Orthodox rabbis in Israel want codified in legislation -- only a person born of a Jewish mother can be considered a Jew, or a person converted under Orthodox standards.

That means American converts, for example, who adopted Judaism in a Reform or Conservative congregation would not be eligible to become Israeli citizens.

In an interview from his home in Brooklyn, one of the Orthodox rabbis behind the coming declaration against Reform and Conservative movements said he hoped it would drive Jews from Reform and Conservative congregations.

"The hope in America is that the many Jews now affiliated with the Reform or Conservative movements will rethink their continued associations," said Rabbi David B. Hollander, a member of the executive board of the union.

"There are hundreds of thousands of Jews in America who are in Conservative or Reform movements. They are innocent. They are being misled. They are being told they are being taught Judaism. It's a deception of innocent Jews," Hollander said.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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