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Religious pluralism a theme at General Assembly

It is a cause that elicited cheers from a roomful of participants at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (G.A.).

Leading politicians have long championed it and are now trying to push it through a divided Knesset. Nearly two-thirds of Israelis support it, and activists say it’s crucial for ensuring Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Opponents say it could augur the downfall of Israel as we know it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance is hard to read.

It’s not peace with the Palestinians or a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. It is the institution of civil marriage in Israel.

Under current law, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel controls marriage for Jews, which leaves Conservative, Reform, civil or same-sex marriages — not to mention interfaith marriages — unrecognized by the state.

Responding to growing calls for change, a bill proposed last month by the centrist Yesh Atid Party would institute civil unions with the same rights as the marriages now permitted by the Chief Rabbinate.

The Jewish Federations, which held its annual G.A. in Jerusalem this week, may soon be joining that fight. CEO Jerry Silverman said in an interview that the federations are “studying the issue” without a definite goal in mind.

But advocating for religious pluralism in Israel was a recurring theme at the assembly. Susie and Michael Gelman, the confab’s North American co-chairs, laid out that goal on opening night.

“We look forward to the day when Israel will realize the dream of being a Jewish, democratic and pluralist state,” they said.

A panel discussion moderated by Susie Gelman on Nov. 11 specifically addressed the issue of civil marriage, with five of six panelists advocating before an enthusiastic crowd.

“The panel charged those of us who attended to get involved and to raise our voices,” Susie Gelman said. “In terms of civil marriage, this is an issue that touches all of us. It is not just an Israeli issue.”

On Monday night, Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich said her party is planning to introduce its own civil marriage bill.

“We support civil marriage and gay rights, including same-sex marriage,” Yachimovich said. “We currently have a unique opportunity. Parties in the coalition and opposition are capable of joining forces to pass this law.”

Her speech followed calls by Finance Minister Yair Lapid to “equalize” the Jewish denominations.

“It’s very important to us that Israel would be pluralistic,” Lapid said.

Civil marriage would not be the first religious pluralism fray that the Jewish Federations has entered.

The umbrella group of American Jewish Federations was stridently opposed to the 2010 Rotem bill, which would have consolidated authority over conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. Silverman called it a “betrayal,” and Netanyahu suspended debate on the bill, which three years later has not come to a vote.

More recently, the Jewish Federations advocated for a plan formulated by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to expand Robinson’s Arch, a non-Orthodox prayer site immediately south of the Western Wall plaza.

The plan has received support, in principle, from Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group whose monthly services at the wall brought global attention to the issue. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz also has given the plan his tacit approval.

Netanyahu endorsed the idea to raucous cheers in his Nov. 9 speech at the G.A.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” the prime minister said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

On Nov. 12, the G.A. ended with hundreds of delegates walking from Jerusalem City Hall to Robinson’s Arch, where they participated in an egalitarian prayer service. Speaking afterward, Sharansky praised the service as an example of Jewish unity, though he acknowledged that the current temporary platform erected there is only a first step to a solution.

“We’re not fighting to defeat the other,” Sharansky said. “We’re fighting to see how we can be one people with one God, one prayer and one Kotel.”

Regardless of whether the federations support it, Yesh Atid’s civil unions bill likely will fail in the Knesset. The Jewish Home Party is expected to block the measure — a prerogative it enjoys as a member of the governing coalition.

Yesh Atid ran for Knesset on a platform opposing Orthodox privileges in Israeli law. But while the party has won Jewish Home’s support in ending the Charedi Orthodox exemption to Israel’s mandatory military draft, Jewish Home opposes any change to the religious status quo.

A Jewish Home bill passed last month allows Israelis to register for marriage anywhere in the country, not just in their home districts — a move that eliminates one of the more onerous restrictions of the current marriage laws but leaves the Orthodox-controlled system intact.

But judging from the tenor of this year’s G.A., such changes won’t satisfy North American Jewry. While he emphasized that the Jewish Federations had not made a decision on whether to engage in the civil-marriage debate, Michael Gelman said he personally feels American Jews should be assertive in advocating for marriage reform in Israel.

“When it comes to things that affect worldwide Jewry, we need to get involved,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be a lot of noise coming out of North America on this issue.”

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