Non-Orthodox Press for Access to Israeli Mikvehs

Government Minister Compares Liberal Conversions to Baptisms

By Vita Bekker

Published June 09, 2006, issue of June 09, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — The Israeli movements for Conservative and Reform Judaism are protesting disparaging statements made last week by the government minister in charge of religious affairs, Yitzhak Cohen of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who dismissed non-Orthodox conversions as “virtual” and undeserving of ritual immersion in publicly funded ritual baths.

Cohen told a reporter May 30 that “conversions of the Reform and Conservative organizations are virtual conversions, and therefore are deserving of a virtual immersion.” In the interview, published on Ynet, the Web site of Yediot Aharonot, Cohen added that the only immersion familiar to the Reform movement is baptism, so “they should continue walking on water and leave the people of Israel alone.”

Cohen was reacting to a petition filed May 7 before the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center on behalf of the Israeli Conservative and Reform movements. The petition argues that publicly funded ritual baths, or mikvehs, run by Orthodox rabbis violate Israeli law by discriminating against non-Orthodox rabbis. The petition demanded that the government allow Conservative and Reform rabbis access to public mikvehs to permit their conversion candidates to undergo ritual immersion.

Official reactions from the Conservative and Reform movements, both in America and in Israel, have been sharp. David Lissy, executive director and CEO of the New York-based Masorti Foundation of Conservative Judaism in Israel, sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Daniel Ayalon, demanding that Cohen be rebuked for his “offensive and immature” comments. Attorney Nicole Maor of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public arm of Israel’s Reform movement, said in an interview that Cohen’s statements “have no place in a democratic and pluralistic country.”

Israel’s government distanced itself from Cohen’s remarks. Asaf Shariv, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s media adviser, said ithat Cohen’s statements “don’t represent the position of the government of Israel.” He added, however, that “we don’t rebuke ministers for statements they make to newspapers, including these harsh words.”

Still, Shas — the third-largest member of Olmert’s governing coalition — stuck by Cohen’s words. Roei Lachmanovich, a spokesman for Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, said in an interview that the party “stands behind the spirit of the statements expressed by Minister Cohen.” Yishai himself, in remarks to the daily Ma’ariv in October 2005, said that when the Reform and Conservative movements performing conversions, they should choose “between a private bathroom or a community pool” rather than a mikveh.

Israel’s Conservative and Reform movements have long complained of being denied access to the country’s public mikvehs for ritual immersion, which is required for conversion by all three streams of Judaism in Israel. According to the court petition, attempts to schedule advance appointments for mikvehs also have been unsuccessful. Instead, rabbis have been performing immersion ceremonies in the sea, which they complain lacks privacy and can pose dangerous conditions. Together the two movements perform about 400 conversions a year in Israel.

The petition cites specific examples in which non-Orthodox rabbis were prevented from performing immersion at mikvehs. During one such occurrence in 1999, an attempt to bring Conservative conversion candidates into the public mikveh in the city of Modi’in during the morning hours was disrupted when the Shas official working there called on members of his party to come and intervene, the petition says. A commotion ensued, resulting in the police being summoned by one of the conversion candidates. All the conversion candidates eventually left with their rabbis, according to the petition.

IRAC took over the case from the Conservative movement in 2005 after several years of complaints from the non-Orthodox movements to the Israeli government yielded no results. The government now has until the first week of July, or 60 days from the time the petition was filed, to respond, according to IRAC attorney Adam Shinar.

Israeli Conservative and Reform officials blame politics for their lack of access to mikvehs.

“This problem won’t be resolved until the government accepts the notion that every Jew ought to be entitled in a Jewish state to live, pray and observe in keeping with the tradition of their movement,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the rabbinical arm of the Masorti Movement in Israel, in an interview.

The appointment of Knesset member Cohen as the minister in charge of religious affairs was itself a result of coalition negotiations between Olmert and Shas, which had made control of the post a condition for joining the coalition.

Still, Cohen’s role isn’t as prominent as Shas would have liked. The government abolished its full-scale Ministry of Religious Affairs at the end of 2003, under then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, as a condition for the anti-clerical Shinui party to enter Sharon’s coalition. The ministry had been under fire for years over allegations of corruption related to salaries, hiring and insufficient supervision of local religious councils. Last year, the National Authority of Religious Services became an independent unit of the Prime Minister’s Office. Cohen now holds the title of minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office, with responsibility for religious affairs.

The religious affairs ministry was created at Israel’s birth and was controlled for decades by the National Religious Party, which is associated with Modern Orthodoxy. With the explosive growth of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox sector in the 1980s, control passed to Shas.

Government officials offer conflicting explanations of Israel’s policies on mikvehs. Meir Spiegler, who has coordinated religious affairs since the ministry was dismantled and now serves as director-general of the religious services unit, said he has issued directives ordering full and open access to mikvehs. “My policy is clear,” Spiegler said. “Everyone should be given the possibility to immerse as needed.”

Conservative and Reform officials claim that mikveh policy is far from clear, and say they aren’t expecting change anytime soon.

“We are facing an identity crisis in Israel,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, political coordinator of IRAC. “The traditional and ultra-Orthodox Jews are becoming less and less obligated to democratic values, the secular are becoming less and less attached to their religious identity, and unfortunately our leaders don’t understand it.”

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