The Dirty Little Secret of the Pluralism Debate

Reuven Hammer is an American-born Conservativerabbi who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973, working as a writer andteacher — Conservative rabbi is not much of a career option inIsrael — and raising five kids along the way. Among variouspart-time jobs, he heads the bet din, or rabbinical court, whichoversees Conservative conversions in Israel.

Alert readers may stop here and ask: What on earthdoes a Conservative conversion panel do, in a country that forbidsConservative conversions? A fair question, Hammer says. Israel doesnot actually prevent Conservative or Reform rabbis from convertingnon-Jews to Judaism. It simply doesn’t recognize those conversions –not for citizenship, not for marriage, not even burial near one’sfamily. Conservative converts get none of the state benefits ofJewishness in a Jewish state. But Rabbi Hammer can call them Jewishif he wants. It’s a free country.

And yet business is booming. “Right now we haveabout 150 people in conversion classes,” Hammer says, up from perhaps20 per year a decade ago. Why do they bother? Because thousands ofnon-Jews in Israel want to join the Jewish people and become part ofthe Israeli mainstream. They include spouses of Israelis who studiedabroad, foreign children adopted by Israeli couples, and perhaps200,000 Russian immigrants with non-Jewish mothers. Most won’tqualify for state-sanctioned conversion: the Orthodox rabbinatedemands that converts vow to live a fully Orthodox lifestyle, and feware willing. An unrecognized non-Orthodox conversion is their onlyoption.

The real question is not why so many hundreds havejoined Hammer’s program, but why thousands more have not.

The reason is simple. Few Israelis have heard ofit, despite all the passion and drama of the decade-long struggle forReform and Conservative legitimacy.

This mass ignorance results from a little-noticedfact, the dirty little secret of the religious pluralism battle: TheReform and Conservative movements have no real allies in Israel. Theynever bothered to develop any.

In the three decades since Orthodox politiciansbegan pushing to bar their conversions, American Reform andConservative strategists — if that is the word — have lookedautomatically to Israel’s secular majority for backing. Non-OrthodoxIsraelis, famously resentful of Orthodox coercion, were expected tojoin hands with non-Orthodox Americans to protect non-OrthodoxJudaism.

Time and again the Israelis have disappointed.Although 80 to 85 percent of Israel’s 4.8 million Jews are notOrthodox, few practice non-Orthodox Judaism. Most don’t even know itexists. Their schools and media teach them little about Jewish lifein the Diaspora except that it is empty and doomed. Nobody tells themotherwise.

Lacking a grasp of the issue, Israelis oftendismiss the religious pluralism campaign as a power-play by Americanleaders without followers. Knesset members, asked to supportpluralism at the expense of issues they genuinely care about — thepeace process, for example — drop pluralism without blinking.

What have the American Reform and Conservativemovements done about it? Not much. The two movements, claimingtogether some 80 percent of affiliated American Jews, spent anestimated $4 million between them last year on programs to spreadtheir beliefs in Israel (not counting money muscled out of the UnitedJewish Appeal). That comes to less than $1.50 per American Reform orConservative Jew.

Results match the effort. The Conservatives,spending some $3 million a year, have about 50 congregations inIsrael with between 5,000 and 25,000 adherents, depending on howgenerously one counts. Reform, spending about $1 million, has some 20congregations with between 2,000 and 10,000 adherents. Scientologyhas more Israeli followers than Reform and Conservative Judaismcombined.

This lost opportunity has a tragic irony to it.Masses of Israelis are searching for something like non-OrthodoxJudaism and spiritual quest — from Jewish text study to born-againOrthodoxy — is one of Israel’s most talked-about topics. In shosrt,Israelis are seeking a path to God; few will adopt Orthodoxy and mostdon’t know any other way.

“There’s a generation that’s grown up in Israelwith no connection to Judaism,” says Beth Wohlgelernter, executivedirector of Hadassah and a keen observer of Israeli life. “We saw iton television after the death of Yitzhak Rabin — thousands of kidssitting on sidewalks, lighting candles, singing folk songs, trying toinvent a religion to comfort themselves. Judaism has a rich traditionof mourning, but those kids didn’t know about it. If they’re notgoing to go into Orthodox synagogues, someone has to find a way toteach them Judaism.”

The work has begun, too late and too little, butjust enough to show what might be done. The movements’ spending inIsrael, though meager, is up radically from a decade ago. Additionalfunds from the UJA and the Jewish Agency will help.

Moves are afoot to find political allies, too.Just last month the UJA brought eight Knesset members here to seenon-Orthodox Judaism up close. Participants said they were astoundedby the vibrancy of American Judaism, and most said they went homewith a new appreciation for its legitimacy. A handful of similardelegations have been brought in the last three years by the Reformmovement, the American Jewish Committee and others — perhaps 200 or300 Israelis in all.

American Reform and Conservative Jews havesomething many non-Orthodox Israelis are desperate to find: a modernpathway to God. If they had shared this gift years ago — byorganizing exchange visits, publishing Hebrew texts, sending rabbisand teachers to Israel as shlichim — they would now have an army ofIsraeli allies. The Orthodox parties would not be in a position todictate government religious policy.

And Rabbi Reuven Hammer could have worked in hisown profession.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes from NewYork.

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