Jul 23, 2010

A Letter from Chancellor Eisen on the Rotem Bill

Dear JTS Community,

Those of us who care passionately about drawing North American and Israeli Jews closer together can breathe a sigh of relief this Shabbat. This year's first haftarah of consolation marking the passage from Tish'ah Be'Av to Rosh Hashanah carries the added consolation that Israel's prime minister has responded to an outcry from Diaspora Jews and deferred Knesset action on the Rotem conversion bill that would have vested sole authority over conversion in the office of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. Another year, another government, another struggle over the power to define "who is a Jew." Let's hope that in 5771, the forces seeking to unify the Jewish people will prevail over those content or eager to pull us apart. We can thank Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Rabbi Gilah Dror and the rabbinical assembly, Rabbi Steve Wernick, Yizhar Hess and the Masorti Movement, Jerry Silverman and the JFNA, and Natan Sharansky for rising to this challenge.

If you have followed press coverage of the Rotem Bill, you know that proponents and opponents alike express confusion over exactly what the bill says and what it will mean—for Jews Orthodox and not Orthodox, in Israel and the Diaspora, for Jews by birth and Jews by choice. Most critics of the bill agree that its original intent was sound and praiseworthy: it sought to ease the conversion process for Israelis, particularly for recent immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. But it has become clear that whatever benefit the bill intended to secure has been far outweighed by the danger it poses to religious pluralism and relations between Israel and the Diaspora. Never before this proposed legislation has unrestricted authority over conversion—and the definition of Jewishness—been consolidated to such an extent in the hands of the Israeli chief rabbinate. Never before has the insult to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism come this close to being codified into Israeli law. Gains in the direction of unification and pluralism would be erased. Power would become more concentrated. Jewish unity would suffer.

We at JTS have a deep interest in the removal of the proposed bill in its current form from the Knesset agenda or, failing that, in the bill's defeat. The prime minister opposes its passage. We who care so deeply about religious pluralism, about the connection linking North American Jews to Israel, and about the vitality of our Jewish tradition in these radically altered circumstances need to continue to make our voices heard.

If you have already called or written to the prime minister and others in Israel, I urge you to continue to do so. If you have not yet made yourself heard, please use this link to the Masorti website to raise your voice now. I hope you will join me in continuing to contact the prime minister and members of the Knesset now and in the months to come. We must not be lulled into complacency; the Rotem Bill has only been postponed, not defeated. The Jewish people must be as unified as possible to meet the unprecedented challenges we face. Jews of all persuasions have got to work together, hard as that sometimes may be, in order to keep our tradition a force to be reckoned with in the lives of Jews and to share its blessings and wisdom with the world.

May the month of Elul, soon to be upon us, set us firmly on the path of return and renewal.


Arnold Eisen signature 

Arnold Eisen
Chancellor, JTS