Religion splits Jewish community Pluralism: Since Israel's founding, Orthodox Jews have controlled religious institutions. Now, the two other branches of Judaism -- Reform and Conservative -- are fighting back.

Sun Journal

November 07, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Jacqueline Koch Ellenson studies at a Jewish institute. She attends synagogue weekly. Her children speak Hebrew and belong to a religious youth group. But Ellenson says Israel's religious hierarchy makes her feel like "a second-class citizen."

Ellenson is a Reform Jew from Los Angeles.

A raucous debate is raging in Israel over religious pluralism. Since the state's founding, Orthodox Jews have controlled religious institutions. Only marriages and conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis are recognized. But the two other branches of Judaism -- the Reform and Conservative movements -- are fighting back.

They filed a lawsuit challenging the Orthodox hegemony. Orthodox supporters countered with proposed parliamentary legislation that would confer sole authority on religious matters to the rabbinate -- in effect, codifying existing practices and policy. To head off a showdown and encourage a compromise, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a committee headed by the finance minister, an Orthodox Jew, to study the issue.

Last week, both the legal and parliamentary fronts heated up, and Ellenson, a rabbi on sabbatical in Israel, found herself in the midst of the controversy.

When the Reform and Conservative Jews refused to postpone a hearing on their lawsuit, supporters of the Orthodox threatened to force a vote on their legislation. Ellenson joined a group of rabbis to lobby Israel's parliament to defeat the conversion bill. She returned home exhilarated, frustrated -- and with a three-aspirin headache.

"I'm understanding what it's like to be a [religiously] liberal Jew in Israel," she says. "I'm being told by many of the powers of the state that I'm a second-class citizen."

The lobbying delegation got a reprimand from the Israeli trade minister, Natan Sharansky, the former Russian refusenik whose fight to emigrate personified Soviet repression of Jews.

The Reform and Conservative leaders don't trust Netanyahu's compromise panel, because they fear that any recommendation it produces is unlikely to be accepted by Israel's chief rabbis, even though two Orthodox rabbis sit on the panel. The Orthodox religious parties in Israel vociferously oppose any recognition of the Reform or Conservative movements.

Eventually, the Reform and Conservative leaders agreed to another -- the fourth -- three-month delay in their lawsuit, after Netanyahu and other government leaders accused them of being obstructionist and of dividing the Jewish community.

The prevailing sentiment among the Orthodox was reflected in the community's newspaper, Hatzofe, where an editorial urged Israelis to "resist the contemptuous customs of the Reform Jews.

"Should, God forbid, the Reform be allowed to get a foothold in the state of Israel, the Jewish state would lose its character as a state of the Jews and Judaism," the newspaper said. "It is no secret that the Reform movement has with its sordid deeds divorced itself from its Jewish essence."

Ugly words have been matched by ugly deeds.

During the summer, Orthodox Jews attacked a group of Conservative and Reform Jews near the Western Wall because men and women prayed together. Police said they could not protect the group and told them to leave the area.

In the past eight months, the Har El synagogue in Jerusalem, one of the oldest Reform synagogues in the country, has been defaced with swastikas and acid. The synagogue's rabbi, David Ariel-Yoel, says the attacks threaten Reform and Conservative Jews.

"It is absurd for me -- for me who is Israeli, who wants to live here because it's a Jewish state -- that the only place I feel threatened as a Jew is Israel," he says.

For American Jews, the majority of whom belong to one or the other non-Orthodox movement, the issue strikes at the core of their Jewish identity. And Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations are venting their anger.

In San Francisco, the congregation at Beth Shalom, the city's largest Conservative synagogue, discussed canceling the annual fund-raising drive for Israel.

Trying to head off such a move, but acknowledging the depth of feeling on the issue, Rabbi Alan Lew read aloud to the meeting a column in which Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times suggested that American Jews target their donations to religious causes of their choice in Israel.

"Some of my colleagues have spoken about this [issue] every single week for the last year," Lew says. "I'm very uncomfortable with an us versus them mentality. At the same time, I'm as angry as everybody else."

The rabbi says that the attacks on Reform and Conservative Judaism "infuriate people" because of the identification between American Jews and the country that "is at the center of their Jewishness."

In Baltimore, Conservative Rabbi Mark Loeb urges American Jews to rethink their financial support of Israel. American Jewry, he says, has its own pressing problems that require its moral and financial support: "Why should we send money to people who despise us and feel we are not Jewish?"

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.