UAHC The Union of American Hebrew Congregations The Synagogue Arm of the Reform Movement
Reform and Conservative Leaders Meet with Prime Minister Private Talks "Rrespectful" but No Progress Reported
New York -- February 16, 1997
A private meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanayahu and the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements was "friendly and respectful," but did not make much progress in addressing the growing split in the American Jewish community, according to the meeting's participants.
"The Prime Minister listened to all our concerns, and we listened to his," said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews. "But he did not do much to address our concerns that, as a leader of the Jewish people, he must be a unifying force in Jewish life, speaking for all Jews, of all denominations."
A major focus of the meeting was the proposed legislation regarding conversions, which would grant a monopoly to Orthodox rabbis and would deny the legitimacy of conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. The legislation is sponsored by the Orthodox religious parties in Israel, who are a major voice in Netanyahu's coalition government.
"The Prime Minister indicated there is little he can do about the legislation," Rabbi Yoffie said. "We, however, stressed that the implications of what is happening in Israel today are much broader than this single issue. Our concern is the ongoing attempt to deny religious and civil liberties to non-Orthodox Jews, and to make us second class citizens in the Jewish state."
Rabbi Yoffie said he invited the Prime Minister to pray at a Reform or Conservative synagogue, either in the United States or Israel, to demonstrate that he understands the important and positive role that these movements - which represent 90 percent of non-Israeli Jews - plays in the Jewish world. Mr. Netanyahu did not respond directly to the invitation.
As a growing sign of the division between the liberal and fundamentalist Jewish communities, the Prime Minister met separately with the leaders of the American Orthodox community. The meetings were held at the Essex House in New York City, the Prime Minister's headquarters for his New York City visit. No press were invited - not even to take a photo of the Prime Minister greeting the Reform and Conservative leaders.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, the chancellor of the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said the world looks to the Prime Minister as more than just a political leader. As such, "he needs to be responsible to the needs and welfare of Diaspora Jews. The debates in Israel are having a deleterious impact on Jews here," he said. "They are a direct attack on our authenticity." The attacks on the authenticity of Reform and Conservative Judaism are being felt throughout the American Jewish community, the leaders said, and are raising questions about American support for Israel.
"We're not prepared to accept the status of second class citizens," said Rabbi Charles Kroloff of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, noting that the issue is a grassroots concern that is uniting the liberal communities. They find it unacceptable that they have more religious freedom here than in Israel, which was created as a homeland for all Jews.
Other participants in the meeting were: Jerry Somers, UAHC Chairman of the Board, UAHC Chairman of the Board; Phillip Meltzer, President of the ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America); Rabbi Joel Meyers, President, Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Director, United Synagogue of America; and Roy Clements, President, MERCAZ.