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Jewish Journal

Power Play

Rabbis and congregants call on

by Ruth Stroud

July 10, 1997 | 8:00 pm

After Shabbat services at a Conservative temple recently, one Los Angeles fund-raiser for the Jewish Federation Council was confronted by an angry congregant who has long been a generous donor to Israel.

"They're letting the Orthodox dictate," said the man, who, with his wife, annually earmarks large contributions to fund rescue and resettlement efforts in the Jewish state. They were now having second thoughts.

"They were very wounded by what was going on in Israel," said the fund-raiser, who was taken aback by the fury of the verbal assault.

The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has continued to receive a steady flow of contributions to its United Jewish Fund, part of which goes toward mostly humanitarian, non-ideological programs in Israel. But there is no question that anger and frustration over the recent Western Wall attack on a group of Conservative Jews and the continuing debate over the conversion bill are having an effect.

"Most of us have observed a discernible decrease in support for Israel," reads a statement issued by a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis prior to a meeting with Federation leaders last month. "Some of our people are angry and resentful; others are profoundly alienated from a state with which they find it more and more difficult to identify.... We believe that the vast majority of American Jews will not support the Jewish state unless they believe it to be democratic, inclusive and respectful of all religious streams within Judaism."

The rabbis then called on the Los Angeles Federation to take "concrete steps to show our community that the Federation is responsive to our concerns."

Among the proposed measures: articulating its commitment to religious diversity in Israel; diverting some money allocated to the Jewish Agency to promote religious diversity among Israeli Jews; and looking into designated-giving programs that allow donors to earmark their contributions to local causes and to support religious diversity in the Jewish state.

The Federation has met with rabbis, lay leaders and congregants throughout greater Los Angeles and is moving forward on many of these suggestions, said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel. "We're talking with them about some ideas we have, to encourage greater tolerance among the different streams of Judaism, both here and in Israel, and we're making it clear that we feel strongly that Jewish unity is the goal," he said. "We don't feel it is appropriate for Jews to be attacking other Jews."

The discussions between Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Federation was facilitated by Rabbi Janet Marder, regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an organization of Reform temples. Marder disagrees with the school of thought that says that Diaspora Jews should act as cheerleaders for the state of Israel. "I and my colleagues feel that Israel belongs to the Jewish people and should be a place that expresses respect for all Jewish religious streams," she said. "As Americans, we all feel free to express our views on the street or anywhere in the world. I see no reason why our freedom should be limited regarding the state of Israel."

Rabbi Allen Freehling, senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood, said that he was impressed with the openness of the discussion with the Federation. "Our major concerns is to have the Federation maintain its position that religious diversity is vital to the continued growth and evolution of the Jewish community here, nationally and abroad." A number of congregants at his Reform temple are "greatly alarmed and confused" about schisms in the Jewish communities, both here and in Israel. "They hear klal yisrael and am yisrael and they wonder why certain segments within the Jewish community are attempting to lay those concepts aside. They really feel that they're under attack, and wonder what the future is with regard to their children, especially if they choose to make aliyah or if they're Jews by choice."

At Temple Beth-El and Center, another Reform temple in San Pedro, Fishel met with the executive board to discuss increasing support for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. "He convinced us that the Federation was doing some serious proactive work on this issue," said Rabbi David Lieb. "But it isn't finished."

As for his own feelings about what is going on, Lieb said: "I'm pissed off. Does that answer your question? I think that if all this proceeds to the logical extreme, the state of Israel will find itself in a position where the vast majority of the Jews of the world are considered neither authentic nor credible Jews."

However, neither the Federation nor the rabbis who spoke with The Jewish Journal on the subject expect things to go so far. "I certainly don't see it as a terminal division," Marder said. "Recent developments are encouraging. The government has apparently heard the message." But, she added, "a few more incidents like the Shavuot outbreak will do a lot to turn American Jews against the state."

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