NEWS FEATURE: Israel’s non-Orthodox movements make a Jewish High Holy Days pitch

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _”There is more than one way to be a Jew”proclaim the billboards decorated with a multi-colored Star of David, which have appeared around central Israel in recent days.

The slogan is the theme of a controversial new campaign by Israel’s tiny Masorti (Conservative) and Reform Jewish movements to draw secular Israelis into their synagogues during this weekend’s Rosh Hashanah (New Year) holiday.

The campaign of radio spots, road and bus billboards and newspaper advertisements represents a new stage in the battle for legitimacy by the two movements among mainstream Israelis. But it has drawn fire from Israel’s Orthodox world and even encountered resistance within the bureaucracy of Israel’s state-owned Israel Radio network.

Israel Radio belatedly began airing the Reform and Conservative movement advertisements on Tuesday (Sept. 7) after initially rejecting them for broadcast as”too controversial.”The spots were broadcast only after Reform and Conservative leaders threatened to appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court.

Israel Radio administrators also insisted that the slogan”there is more than one way to be Jewish,”be removed from the final version of the radio spots. Israel Radio spokeswoman Ayala Cohen said that the slogan was removed because it”harmed the religious feelings”of the Orthodox Israeli public.”It was ridiculous to demand that we remove the slogan. But getting the message on the air was still a big victory for freedom of religion in Israel,”said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel’s Conservative movement.

Until now, most Israelis have heard about the Reform and Conservative movements largely in the context of the legal and legislative battles they have waged against Orthodox hegemony in conversions to Judaism, marriages and the conduct of prayer services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The current campaign, which is funded by a grant from a private U.S. foundation, is designed to move beyond the political controversies into social outreach, noted Bandel.”There was a desire to bring our message to people in a positive way, in a more religious way, and to explain to people just what these movements are about,”he said.

Bandel noted that a telephone survey conducted prior to the start of the campaign found average Israelis to be surprisingly open to the message of the Conservative and Reform movements _ which stress more flexible interpretations of Jewish tradition and religious law.

Some 44 percent of the survey respondents said they identified with the Reform and Conservative streams _ even if they weren’t formally affiliated. In comparison, only 23 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Orthodox. Some 13 percent to 16 percent of those questioned said that they would consider going to a Reform or Conservative synagogue during the upcoming holidays _ although only about 2 percent of those questioned said they regularly attend such a synagogue.

The new radio advertisements feature Reform and Conservative congregational rabbis inviting Israelis to visit their synagogues during the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days, the religious climax of the Jewish calendar year.

A newspaper insert into the major Israeli dailies was more provocative:”Mom and Dad you’re not to blame for being anti-Judaism … the Orthodox establishment has estranged you,”the advertisement stated.”But for your child’s sake, isn’t it important that you get to know Judaism a little better?” Orthodox polemicists have responded with their own slogans.”There’s only one way to be Jewish,”wrote columnist A. Margalit in the Orthodox newspaper HaModia.

In Jerusalem, the movements’ brand-new bus station billboards were besmirched with graffiti decrying Conservative and Reform Jews as”assimilationists.”The vandalism was allegedly carried out by activists affiliated with the the ultra-right wing Kach movement.

Meanwhile, Yair Sheleg, an Orthodox columnist in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, attacked the campaign for dwelling on”negative messages”against Orthodoxy.”The central error in the campaign’s current slogan … argues that those who have abandoned their links to Judaism are not to blame for their attitudes … that the alienation from Jewish culture and tradition stems from the horrors of religious coercion and the benighted thinking and behavior of the Orthodox establishment,”wrote Sheleg.

In response, Bandel said,”We tried to take a positive line. But in a public awareness campaign you always want to get attention. Fundamentally, we’re inviting people to come and to get to know another type of Judaism, other than Orthodoxy, a Judaism which supports tradition and religious law _ but not religious coercion.”IR END FLETCHER

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