Echoes of Selma: Angeleno recalls Alabama summer of ‘65

How big of a “We” were the Jews in “We shall overcome”?

Since the nationwide release of “Selma” a week before the national holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I have wondered about the extent of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Was it just the Selma marches? Was our support also financial, in the voting booth? Or something more?

Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein concluded in their 1998 book “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” that “Jews served in the forefront of the fight to end racial segregation in education, public accommodations and voting.” But wanting to hear it from someone who was actually in the “forefront,” I spoke with a Jewish recruit in the fight.

David Sookne may not sound like someone who served on the front lines of our nation’s battle for civil rights. The semi-retired mathematician and computer programmer — a resident of suburban Los Angeles with whom I pray a couple of times a month — is exacting in speech and even tempered.

David Sookne in 2013. (Edmon J. Rodman)

He’s also blessed with an excellent memory: Sookne can name the people in the Roosevelt administration down to the level of the undersecretary.

So he vividly recalls his seven weeks spent in Alabama’s rural Crenshaw County as a foot soldier in the voter registration campaign for blacks organized by King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was the summer of 1965 — after the Selma marches but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act that would be one of their outcomes.

Sookne, then 22 and enrolled in a doctoral program in in theoretical mathematics at the University of Chicago, signed up after following the news stories about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer — a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 in which several supporters and volunteers were murdered, including two young Jewish men.

After first driving home to Springfield, Md. — his parents didn’t want him to go — he headed for Atlanta.

Sookne had already had his first taste of the risks involved with working for civil rights.

During spring break in ’65, he was among three dozen University of Chicago student volunteers in Somerville, Tenn., helping to build a structure to be used as a meeting place for voting rights activities.

In the local home of the organizer, John McFerren, who was black and a World War II veteran, Sookne heard a car pull up outside, a “pop-pop-pop” and the car pulling away.

“McFerren went to the living room wall and pulled something out,” Sookne recalled. It was a bullet from “a .22,” he recalled McFerren saying.

“‘They are just trying to scare us,'” McFerren said, according to Sookne. “If they were trying to kill us, they would use something bigger.’”

“That was my introduction to the danger of voter registration,” Sookne said.

As part of the training in Atlanta, Sookne and hundreds of volunteers heard King speak, as well as Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights leader. He also went through about a weeklong training session that would help prepare him for the domestic battle ahead.

“We practiced various things like not reacting to insults,” said Sookne, who had a student deferment from service in the Vietnam War. “We also practiced curling up on the ground, protecting vital organs in case we got beaten up.”

At the end of the week, the volunteers were given their assignments, and Sookne drove his pale green Volkswagen Beetle in a caravan that stopped first in Montgomery, Ala. From there he drove to the small town of Luverne, where he met up with six others, including organizer Bruce Hartford, also Jewish, who had found the group housing in a local residence.

Sookne recalled that about five minutes after they reached town, they were met by the local police chief, Harry Raupach.

“He told us to write down name, address and next of kin,” Sookne said, “just in case something happened to us.”

He also recalled that Raupach, who was originally from the North — “and not a Klansman,” Sookne said — saved the group more than once from being beaten up.

Knocking on people’s doors at a time when the passage of the Voting Rights Act seemed imminent — the law would make registration easier — made signing up voters a hard sell. So the group members turned their efforts toward another goal: integrating local restaurants.

In the town of Brantley, they ran into trouble.

“They didn’t want their all-white restaurants integrated,” Sookne said.

At a nonviolence training session on a ball field there, he recalled “three carloads of young men in their late teens and 20s” pulling up, with perhaps five of them getting out.

“They told us we better get out of Brantley or they would beat us up,” Sookne said.

Hartford, who was also present, has written that the locals — he refers to them as “All Klan” — had “ax handles and chains and clubs.”

Sookne said the volunteers made a dash for his VW.

On the highway trying to make it back to Luverne, he could see that two cars were in close pursuit, with perhaps others farther behind. When the highway widened a few miles before the relative safety of Luverne, Sookne recalled one of the cars passing, pulling in front and boxing him in.

“We slowed to about 25 miles per hour,” Sookne said.

He took a turnoff and veered left “onto a winding gravel road where the VW had an advantage.” His car pulled ahead, but turning onto a second highway to Luverne, the Klansmen were still in pursuit.

Suddenly, Hartford recalled, a couple of cars “filled with black men armed with shotguns” got between the VW and its pursuers. Hartford, who was in the car, believes some people in Brantley had called them about the situation.

“They escorted us back into Luverne. The Klan didn’t want to mess with them,” Hartford wrote.

In the fall, back at college, Sookne received a letter from King sent to all the SCLC volunteers — 20 to 30 percent of whom were Jewish, both Sookne and Hartford estimate.

“It is a rare privilege in life to participate in the fulfillment of an idea whose time has come,” the letter began.

For Sookne it was also a way, he said, of expressing “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Even if, as it turned out, he was also being pursued.

Paul Shapiro’s ‘vout’ mishegoss

In 1945, the hippest Hollywood nightlife destination was Billy Berg’s, on the corner of Vine and DeLongpre.

A tall, suave black man named Slim Gaillard, who favored pinstripe suits, held court there. Black entertainers were seldom booked west of Western Avenue in those days, and Gaillard’s appearances at Berg’s were, in a very real sense, where Hollywood’s racial integration began.

With supreme self-confidence, Gaillard and his rotund bassist, Tiny “Bam” Brown, mesmerized audiences (which included Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman) with original novelty songs that mixed Harlem jive, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish and plain old gibberish. His favorite invented word was vout, and Gaillard used it liberally. When Hollywood committed him to film, a feature movie was titled, “O’Voutie O’Rooney.”

The polymath entertainer spoke seven languages, sang, played the guitar and piano (with the backs of his hands), and was capable of extemporizing whole songs in the moment. Gaillard, who died in 1991, was extremely resourceful. He could practically make an entire song out of the word “avocado.” Gaillard had a million-selling record in 1945, “Cement Mixer.” The tune came together as Gaillard took a break from a recording session, walked outside the studio and saw some men doing street repair. One of his most endearing records was a ditty called, “Dunkin’ Bagel” (1946). It’s largely a 4/4 instrumental, with Gaillard hollering rhythmic epigrams (“Matzoh balls!”) to Brown’s exercised responses (“Matzoh balls-oreeny!”). Gaillard gave the term mishmash a good name.

Fast forward to the present. Saxophonist Paul Shapiro, a mainstay of New York City’s downtown creative nexus, recognizes Gaillard as one of his musical forebears. Shapiro’s background in jazz and funk led him to recording session work with Michael Jackson, Rufus Wainwright, Queen Latifah, Lou Reed and Jay-Z, among many others. The saxophonist recorded two albums on John Zorn’s Judeocentric Tzadik label as a leader: “Midnight Minyan” (2003) and “It’s in the Twilight” (2006). They were both serious instrumental collections of traditional Jewish songs and standards, seen anew through the contemporary prism of Shapiro’s working aesthetic of jazz, funk and rhythm ‘n’ blues. But a funny thing happened on the way to downtown hip street cred. Shapiro encountered songs from the 1930s and ’40s like Gaillard’s “Dunkin’ Bagel” and Cab Calloway’s “A Bee Gezindt” that clearly indicated a significant musical exchange.

Prolific songwriter Henry Nemo, who died in the Pacific Palisades in 1999, wrote “A Bee Gezindt.” Nemo was an academy of jive (like Calloway and Gaillard), but also a fine tunesmith. He wrote several Cotton Club revues with Duke Ellington and contributed the lyrics to Duke’s evergreen “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” In 1992, I asked Nemo about the black stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, Ellington’s piano mentor and the cantor of the Harlem synagogue. “We got along great,” The Neme recalled, “because I was usually the only one on the scene he could talk Yiddish to.”

On his new album, “Essen” (Tzadik), Shapiro explores the cultural mash-up that occurred in American popular music when Jewish music Yiddish theater songs, vaudeville tunes, klezmer songs and novelties met blues, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues and swing. The result is a collection that touches history in several ways, yet always manages to make a contemporary statement that’s fun to listen to. His crack band, Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket Revue, can sound like a Lower East Side wedding outfit, an R&B group, a strip club combo and a cooking funk band. Brian Mitchell alternates traditional Jewish theme chords and manic, eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie piano on Gaillard’s “Matzoh Balls.”

From a phone in central New York, Shapiro talked about the ways Jewish culture melded with other cultures. “You know where I think a lot of it occurred?” he asked. “The Catskills resorts. It wasn’t just Jewish bands that played in those hotels. Jews were mad about Latin music in the ’50s, and many Latin musicians went up there. They learned some Jewish songs, like any good musician would. But there was a connection, I think, because the Sephardic among us came through North Africa and Spain, with our Ladino music. There was not only a natural affinity between cultures but it was also a work opportunity for the bands.”

The Ribs and Brisket Revue has two great assets in singers Cilla Owens and Babi (pronounced Bobby) Floyd. Their vocals are both exuberant and nuanced. Floyd sounds like a crazed cantor on his vilde chaya vocal for “Utt-Da-Zay.” Torrents of pidgin Yiddish that would have delighted Gaillard have occasional bits of irony bobbing to the surface (“you actually vant this thing?”).

Owens would have made a fine singer for swing era orchestras like Lucky Millinder or Andy Kirk (in fact, she brings to mind Kirk’s vocalist June Richmond). She displays fine blues feeling on “A Bee Gezindt.” She also manages to play both sides of the coin on Sophie Tucker’s “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,” where she delivers some of the lyrics in Yiddish. The band plays like a juke joint combo used to dodging beer bottles and bullets. Shapiro’s nasty alto sax breaks would have qualified him for duty at Duffy’s Gaieties on Cahuenga Boulevard, when Lenny Bruce emceed for the peelers in the ’50s.

Tucker is also a seminal figure for Shapiro. “I hear in her,” he said, “a serious blues infection. She had the Yiddish inflection from her background but she seriously studied the blues. It was absolutely unique that she had both. Loren Sklamberg of the Klezmatics works at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on West 16th Street in New York. He showed me a copy of the 1922 Okeh record of ‘Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,’ and it’s printed in Yiddish and English. It was recorded by many singers, including Ida Cox, the black blues singer and later, Kay Starr. I took a little from each version and gave it to Cilla. I think she’s one of the great stylists in this day and age.”

Shapiro is unequivocal in his praise for Zorn’s benevolence, through Tzadik. “It’s really Zorn,” he stated flatly , “who let me do my own music.” It was an opportunity that came with a price, though. “When I came to him with the idea for my earlier albums, he insisted that I not take this lightly. He wasn’t going to let me get away with just passing references to Jewish music. It’s very important for him that the music that he releases in his Radical Jewish Culture series be real artistic statements. He doesn’t want to be seen as a cultural appropriator.”

How have the Tzadik albums and their creative processes affected Shapiro on a personal level?

He thought for a moment and chose his words carefully before answering: “I would say that while I haven’t been transformed religiously like, I haven’t become a more regular, religious temple-goer it has deepened my interest and understanding of my Jewish roots. I may not have had a change of religious orientation, but I have become more aware of certain important connections.”

Paul Shapiro — Dunkin’ Bagel

Slim Gaillard 1946

* Mishegoss (Yiddish) — craziness, foolishness.

‘War on terror’ needs Muslims to be part of solution

Imagine for a moment a Muslim teenager somewhere in Europe, “with the Internet in his living room, the world in his mind and his heart torn apart by a million
identities,” as Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan described him.

How do you prevent that young Muslim from being lured by radical ideas? That was the question at the heart of a conference organized at The Hague recently by the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism.

The answer often depended on the religious background of the speaker. Muslims said historical grievances — real or imagined — that had left the Islamic world feeling wronged by the West must be tackled. The sense of being wronged, they said, fuels anger that could push a young Muslim into the arms of radicals.

Non-Muslim speakers said the gap between the values practiced inside the home of that European Muslim teenager and those practiced outside his front door were the points of vulnerabilities. The truth is somewhere in the middle and probably best understood by Muslims who live in the West.

Unfortunately, not enough of them were present to offer their solutions. Ramadan and I were the only ones on the conference list of speakers. One Dutch Muslim was co-chair of one event. Had more Western Muslims been invited to speak, they could have posed some questions — about historical grievances, about values — that would demand self-criticism from all of us.

Historical grievances are indeed important, but how far back should we go? The Spanish defeat of Muslims in 1492? The end of the Ottoman Empire in 1912? The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Palestinian dispossession? The European colonization of several Muslim countries during the 20th century? The two U.S.-led wars in Iraq, the second of which continues its bloody spiral to this day?

Radical groups are particularly fond of using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and numerous studies have shown what a jihadi magnet the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has become. It is foolishly dangerous to deny that.

Who can forget Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old British-born-and-raised Muslim, who killed himself and six others in one of the suicide attacks on the London Underground on July 7, 2005? In a message he recorded before the attacks and aired on their anniversary a year later, Tanweer warned of more attacks in the United Kingdom unless it pulled its soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq and stopped its “financial and military aid to America and Israel.”

But Muslims must acknowledge and take responsibility for the manipulation of historical grievances, as Osama bin Laden’s latest message clearly shows. In an audio recording that appeared on a jihadi Web site during our conference, Bin Laden called on followers to go to Darfur to fight “Crusader invaders” — by which he meant a U.N.-African peacekeeping force to be sent to the war-torn Sudanese region.

But here’s the catch: Muslims are killing Muslims in Darfur. This is no Israeli occupation or U.S.-led invasion with which he inflames the masses. Bin Laden is manipulating the sheer ignorance among many Muslims about events in Darfur. And just as importantly, he is playing on grievances, which in this instance are only perceived.

The sad fact is that more Muslims today are dying at the hands of Muslims than by acts of Israelis, Americans or any other perceived enemies, whether it’s from almost weekly suicide bombings in Pakistan, intra-Palestinian fighting or sectarian violence in Iraq.

History shows external influences have certainly been brutal in all those areas, but a clearer focus on the present could help Muslims realize it is not all about “us vs. them,” but also “us vs. us.”

It would be na?ve to deny that there is a problem over common values in Europe today. When Muslim men deny their wives treatment at the hands of male doctors in the emergency rooms of European hospitals, it’s a problem. When young girls and women are considered “too Western” and murdered by their families for the sake of honor, of course it is a problem.

But it would be simplistic and prejudicial to assume that all Muslims share such views or values. Had more Western Muslims been invited to the conference to share their experiences — dealing with radicalization or as liberals who identify with “European values” — that diversity would have been made clearer.

At one point, frustrated by questions of “where are the moderate Muslims” from various European delegates — one even said his country had invited a liberal group all the way from Indonesia, because they could not find one closer to home — I offered to connect them with various “moderate,” liberal and secular Muslim groups I had found throughout various countries on the continent. It was disheartening to think that I had found them while some from the counterterrorism community could not.

As Ramadan reminded the conference, preventative methods are bound to fail unless they include Muslims as part of the solution. To only view Muslims as potential radicals is the quickest way to alienate the very people needed to solve the problems.

The word “prevention” is not heard enough in the chatter over the “war on terror.” So kudos to the Dutch for including it on their counterterrorism agenda.

They would be wise to also include European Muslims in future conferences on how best to promote that prevention.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Iranian Jews struggle with segregation, presumption and assimilation

A little historical anecdote tells much about the transition of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles over a 25-year span, from strangers to integral — though distinctive — members of the larger Jewish community.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, the first sizeable wave of Iranian Jews arrived in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Many chose the conveniently located Sinai Temple in Westwood, a prominent Conservative synagogue, as their Shabbat gathering place.

Soon their large, extended families, speaking Persian, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings, ate oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about “free rides” for the newcomers, quite unaware that to the Iranians, paying membership dues to a synagogue was a foreign concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzvah or wedding.

Things actually came to the point where a new Sinai Temple president “solved” the cookie problem by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services altogether.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other’s background and customs.

Today, Sinai Temple is a model of “integration,” with Iranians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a president emeritus.

There is no demographic study of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, although its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants.

This figure is well below the 100,000 in Israel but ahead of New York City’s 12,000 — the only other large concentration in the United States — and bigger than the some 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

In a thumbnail overview, Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, describes his constituency as economically “extremely successful,” though, despite urban legend, there are poor Iranians, especially in the San Fernando Valley and the Pico-Robertson area.

However, the poor are not publicly visible, mainly because they are generally kept afloat through an extended and extremely tight-knit family structure, one of the hallmarks of the community.

One such family network is the Nazarian clan, in which the accomplishments and wealth of individual brothers, sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews and cousins combine to make the overall family clout and assets bigger than the sum of its parts.

The Journal recently met with the family patriarch, Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha, to listen to an up-to-date version of the Horatio Alger story.

Nazarian was born in Tehran 77 years ago into an impoverished family and went to work at an early age after his father died when Parviz was 5.

In 1948, he arrived in Israel three days after the country declared its independence and immediately joined a tank brigade, was seriously injured in a mine explosion and spent five months in a hospital.

After the war, he bought a truck for construction work, but soon advanced from driver to contractor. Over the next 30 years, he launched a remarkable entrepreneurial career, shuttling between Israel and Iran, and establishing joint enterprises in construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.

At the same time, he took an active role in the Tehran Jewish community, campaigned for women’s rights, aided Jewish refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped Israeli diplomats escape the country when the Islamic Revolution broke out.

In June 1979, Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, along with their three daughters and one son left Iran for good and settled in Los Angeles.

“We were attracted by the climate, which is similar to Tehran’s, and we were readily accepted by the Jewish community, which wasn’t the case in other American cities,” Nazarian said.

Arriving in the new country and city, Nazarian hit the ground running.

He took over, expanded and still chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, he founded Omninet to develop the first satellite-based data communication system, and when Omninet merged with Qualcomm in San Diego, Nazarian became a major stockholder in the pioneering cellphone company.

Currently, Nazarian chairs Omninet Capital, a diversified investment firm in the fields of private equity, real estate and venture capital.

As a community activist and philanthropist, he helped organize the secret emigration of Soviet Jews through Armenia to Israel. He co-founded the Magbit Foundation, which has provided $6.5 million to more than 5,000 students in Israel. He is a supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The total wealth of Nazarian and his extended family, which includes his brother, Younes Nazarian, and son-in-law, Neil Kadisha, is estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Currently, Nazarian is focusing much of his considerable energy on the Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel, which seeks to educate the country’s citizens toward the goal of adopting a more functional electoral system.

Holidays are celebrated by the entire clan, with Parviz and Pouran Nazarian hosting around 50 family members for Passover seders, and 25 for Shabbat, including 10 grandchildren.

The Nazarian family tends to be very private and, for the most part, has avoided the media spotlight afforded some of this city’s prominent families. Nevertheless, some scrutiny is impossible to forgo.

According to a recent front-page report in the Los Angeles Times, son-in-law Neil Kadisha has been ordered to pay $100 million in damages following a four-year civil trial in which the judge ruled that Kadisha, as a trustee for a young widow, had taken large sums from her account.

Kadisha has asked for a new trial and a spokesperson said he was eager to refute the charges in public as soon as he is legally able to do so.

In their occupations, Iranian Jews are full participants in the business and professional life of this city, and they support the work of established American Jewish organizations.

Civil Rights Redux

“Farther Along: A Civil Rights Memoir”

by Marvin Caplan.

Louisiana State University Press, $29.95

Black and white liberals, among them an inordinate number of Jews, who fought the civil rights battles of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, are now often seen as faintly archaic figures.

Except for Martin Luther King Jr., few of their names are remembered, and even some of their victories, such as affirmative action legislation, are now under widespread attack.

It is the merit of Marvin Caplan’s “Farther Along” to recall the idealism and fervor of the pioneers in a struggle that changed the face of American society and went a long way in overcoming deep-rooted institutional prejudices.

Caplan was born into a family that boasted generations of kosher butchers, first in Russia and then in his native Philadelphia. He was liberated from following the family tradition by joining the army during World War II.

After his discharge, Caplan accepted the invitation of army buddy Harry Bernstein, later to serve with distinction as labor editor of the Los Angeles Times, to establish the monthly “Southern Jewish Outlook” in Richmond, Virginia.

One of the sprightliest chapters in the book describes the efforts of the two young vets to keep the paper afloat, pugnaciously dedicated to end racial segregation and discrimination in the capital of the old Confederacy.

In the morning, Caplan might sell a badly needed ad to the Jewish owner of a large laundry and dry cleaning establishment, and in the afternoon turn out to support the black women pickets trying to unionize the place.

He also did battle, during Israel’s War of Independence, against the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism and founded the local chapter of the Labor Zionist Organization of America.

After four years in Richmond, Caplan moved on to Washington, D.C. and became a reporter for the Fairchild chain of business publications, but he carried his ideals and ideology with him.

He became a founder and first president of Neighbors, Inc., a group that formed the first integrated housing bloc in the strictly segregated national capital.

After participating in the civil rights struggle as a grassroots volunteer for 15 years, Caplan became a full-time professional in 1963 as executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

For the next 18 years, Caplan was a participant and ringside observer of the country’s most crucial civil rights battles, which he ably documents.

Caplan fought the good fight not only in the halls of Congress, but an equally difficult one within his own family. Despite the clear unhappiness of his three children, he insisted on their attendance at a 90 percent black public school, which had been deserted by almost all other white students.

Now in his seventies and still living in an integrated Washington neighborhood, Caplan, a widower, looks back on his life’s work with pride, but few illusions. “In the decades that followed [the ’60s], victories that once seemed indisputable advances to us — affirmative action, racial integration, for instance — are often questioned by the very ones we thought would benefit from them,” he writes.

A Conversion Solution

Softly, softly, Israel has launched a joint Orthodox-Conservative-Reform program to solve the problem of quarter of a million Russian immigrants who are Jewish according to the Law of Return (at least one Jewish grandparent), but not according to Halachah (a Jewish mother).

They feel outsiders. The Orthodox rabbinical authorities, who enjoy a monopoly in such matters, will not marry them, or bury them in Jewish cemeteries. The Interior Ministry refuses residence to their dependent relatives. Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, denounces them as “goyim”, who want to flood the country with pork-eating pimps and prostitutes.

The immigrants want to be integrated into Israeli society. Many of them recognize that the way in is through the Jewish religion. Yet most of them refuse to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle on which the courts insist for conversion. The more flexible Reform and Conservative movements, a tiny minority here, are still fighting for legitimacy.

With a deliberate lack of fanfare, a joint “Institute for Jewish Studies”, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, opened its doors a couple of months ago in Karmiel, north-east of Haifa. The first 30 immigrant candidates in their early twenties have started a part-time course (three evenings a week), designed to qualify them for Orthodox conversion after one year. Two more centers are planned in Ra’anana, near Tel-Aviv, and Beersheba in the south.

The compromise, following the lines recommended by a commission headed by the former Finance Minister, Ya’acov Ne’eman, is this: the Orthodox are giving a degree of de facto recognition to Reform and Conservative, while those movements are settling for an Orthodox beit din at the end of the converts’ road.

The institute’s board combines representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements with respected “non-representatives” of the Orthodox establishment. Its chairman is Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, an Orthodox Zionist educator with a liberal reputation. The Chief Rabbinate has given the institute its blessing, but not its hechsher (kashrut certificate). That would mean recognizing the non-Orthodox streams, which it refuses to do.

“Relations are very warm and friendly and supportive,” testifies British-born Mickey Boyden, a former chairman of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis, who settled in Israel 14 years ago and heads a Reform congregation in Ra’anana. “We share common aims and ideals. This is the first time in the history of the State of Israel where members of the three streams are working together in a religious area in order to offer a joint solution to a major issue.”

His board colleague, Amnon Shapira, who teaches biblical studies at the Orthodox Bar-Ilan University, adds: “I am not compromising my beliefs, but the question is how we are going to live together. I would like all Jews to be like me, but it’s not like that today. I have to ask how I can do my best for my faith, for my God and for the people of Israel.

“The best way to encourage the Reform is to fight them. What we have to do is show that Orthodox is better. We have to fight on the spiritual level, not on the political level. Otherwise, we’ll fail.”

The outgoing Israeli Government invested an initial $1 million in the institute. Rabbi Boyden argues that they will need hundreds of millions from Ehud Barak’s new Government if they are to make an impact on the huge numbers of not-quite-Jewish immigrants. The board is already exploring education television and Internet options to reach them.

Whatever their personal preferences, the Karmiel students learn together. The teachers are drawn from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Instruction is in Russian. Classes are strictly factual: what Judaism says about the sabbath, the festivals, dietary laws, and so forth. The denominational differences are spelled out in panel discussions with speakers from the three streams.

As part of the Ne’eman package, the Chief Rabbis agreed to set up special, relatively liberal, conversion courts, though they have not yet named the judges. The unanswered question is whether these dayanim will convert the Karmiel graduates.

All Dr Shapira will say is: “We can’t promise anything, but I see a good chance to think that the results will be OK. The curriculum is the same as the Orthodox curriculum. We don’t take one step without consulting the Chief Rabbis. So far, they have given us their blessing. They are not happy, but they do it.”

Bobby Brown, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Jewish affairs adviser, believes the rabbis will have no choice. ” If they want the conversions done in Israel according to Halachah,” he says bluntly, “this is the best they are going to get.”