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Theologians Clash But Still Support Israel

By J. Michael Parker
Express-News Religion Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Friday, Sep 18, 1998


Though Samuel M. Stahl has performed dozens of weddings as senior rabbi at San Antonio's Temple Beth-El, there's one place he's banned from the ceremony: Israel.

"Israel is a Jewish state, yet a Christian minister can perform a wedding in Israel and I can't," Stahl said.

He's banned not because of anything he's done, but because of what branch of Judaism he represents.

Stahl is a Reform rabbi, and religious life in Israel is controlled by Orthodox rabbis who refuse to recognize marriages, conversions and burials performed by the non-Orthodox.

As millions of American Jews -- 90 percent belong to Reform and Conservative congregations -- prepare for the High Holy Days that start at sundown Sunday, they're finding their faith unwelcome in the land of their fathers.

What most American Jews want, leaders said, is for Israel to embrace pluralism, not theocracy.

"It's important to help create an Israel that's more in keeping with our vision of what Jewish life should be, which is pluralistic," said Rabbi Richard Spiegel of Agudas Achim, San Antonio's Conservative congregation.

"Most Jews in Israel emigrated from Russia and other countries with Orthodox backgrounds," Spiegel said.

"Conservative Judaism originated in Germany, and Reform was an American development. Most Jews in Israel have no experience of Conservative or Reform Judaism," he said.

A greater non-Orthodox presence in Israel, Spiegel suggested, might enrich the nation.

"I've had Jews visiting from Israel come to my synagogue, never having experienced Conservative Judaism. They love it.

"Conservative Judaism should have every opportunity to develop in Israel," Spiegel said.

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, believes that view unfairly imposes American assumptions of separation of religion and the state on a nation that purposely is religious in character and has a right to determine who can perform religious ceremonies in its name.

"The real question is not who is a Jew but who is a rabbi," Foxman said.

"Israel is not the United States. Just as the state of Texas regulates who is qualified to be a doctor or a lawyer in Texas, Israel determines who is qualified as a rabbi to perform certain functions on its behalf -- and it's said they will be Orthodox rabbis."

Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Orthodox Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio said the controversy would be a minor issue for Israelis if it weren't for intense pressure from American Jews.

"A group of Jews who don't live in Israel want to change a system in Israel that Israel wasn't concerned about.

"I can certainly commiserate with those who feel their dignity and legitimacy are being insulted; on the other hand, I can also sympathize with those saying, 'If you want to change Israel come and live here.' "

But that's not likely to happen. Virtually nobody expects enough non-Orthodox Jews to move to Israel to break the Orthodox monopoly in the foreseeable future.

Few non-Orthodox Jews emigrate from the United States, @ while Orthodox Jews take seriously the ancient commandment to live in Israel.

Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews emigrate to Israel each year, the overwhelming majority from the former Soviet Union.

Despite the difference of opinion among American Jews, one thing is certain: It hasn't diminished their philanthropic support for Israel.

"One reason the conversion controversy hasn't hurt contributions to Israel is that Jews have always been interested in unity; we've never been interested in unanimity," said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, which coordinates most of American Jewry's humanitarian support around the world.

Allen said while actual funds received by his agency have dropped slightly, they're still around $200 million a year and designated contributions to other Jewish philanthropies in Israel are up.

"People give more to designated philanthropies than they used to. But it's a phenomenal record of accomplishment that Jews still give $200 million a year to causes in Israel without designating it," he said.

"I don't think the fact that our actual numbers are down slightly reflects concern over the conversion controversy," Allen said.

Allen said his agency supports a variety of programs that promote tolerance and diversity among all streams of Judaism in Israel, and more funds would be channeled toward such programs as a result of the controversy.

Maxine Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio's community relations council, said questions of Jewish identity have always been around and are unlikely to go away soon. But, she added:

"In this century, Jews have come very close to extinction. Our overriding concern must be our continuity as a people.

"We must learn to talk things out and find a way to live together," Cohen said. n

"When a Jew, in America or in South Africa, talks to his Jewish companions about 'our' government, he means the government of Israel."

- David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister

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