Angry US rabbis divided over JFS

By Simon Rocker, January 14, 2010

The fallout from the JFS court case continued this week with a split emerging among United Synagogue rabbis.

A statement from the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue (RCUS) which last week attacked non-Orthodox movements over the case has been denounced as “misguided” and “aggressive” by the council’s own vice-chairmen.

Writing in today’s JC, Rabbis Michael Harris and Naftali Brawer have instead called for “all denonimations” to work together in order to reverse the Supreme Court’s judgment through a change in the law.

Neither of the two vice-chairmen was able to attend the council meeting where US rabbis agreed their statement. It described as “deeply regrettable” the decision by community leaders not to pursue an immediate legal change before the next election through the Equality Bill, and accused non-Orthodox movements of holding the Orthodox to ransom.

Non-Orthodox leaders have made it clear that they would only support moves to change the law in return for guarantees from the US that their converts would not be rejected by mainstream Orthodox schools.

But Rabbis Harris and Brawer, decrying the RCUS line, commented: “Far from ‘holding us to ransom’… the non-Orthodox are simply protecting their interests in a completely understandable way. 

“The only plausible way forward is for all denominations to work together for a change in the law on the understanding that in future, priority places at Jewish schools will be offered to anyone deemed Jewish by the rabbinic authority of any mainstream Jewish denomination — Orthodox, Masorti, Reform or Liberal.”

The Board of Deputies decided last week that, after consultation with the US and non-Orthodox movements, it was too soon to press for amending the law until the impact of the Supreme Court ruling had been further studied.

The judges — rejecting an appeal from the US’s largest school, JFS — ruled that Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a pupil’s parent is Jewish because this contravenes the Race Relations Act.

RCUS chairman Yitzchak Shochet, defending its statement, said this week that it “reflects the view expressed by the overwhelming majority of the RCUS and is widely endorsed by Orthodox rabbis throughout the UK”.

A senior Manchester rabbi, Jonathan Guttentag, called for a coalition representing Orthodox schools across the community to support the Board in lobbying for legal change.

“It is troubling — but perhaps hardly surprising — that there are non-Orthodox elements which are seeking to stymie this lobbying,” he said.

The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who is currently on a pastoral visit to Hong Kong, responded to disagreement among his rabbis with a statement: “Notwithstanding the misgivings of some people… I am firmly of the opinion that the idea that legislation can be rushed through is unwise.” 

He added: “There are many questions that need to be considered, and a process of consultation with all of the relevant parties, which has already begun, must be concluded.  Above all we need to see how the ramifications of this judgment and any remedy can be dealt with, if possible, as a united community.

“There are deep-rooted principles involved creating differences which I will be working with all of the parties to attempt to reconcile in an acceptable manner.”
The US trustees, who met on Monday, also issued a statement: “While we understand and sympathise with the RCUS’s desire to take immediate action, we must also responsibly consider the chances of success in moving so rapidly… There needs to be a considered approach if the Board of Deputies are to maximise our chances of successful legislative reform.”

Last updated: 2:49pm, January 15 2010