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October 5, 2012

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 5,2012 PAGE 17A person: reca By Saul Kagan NEW YORK (JTA)---As the founding executive director of the Conference on Jewish Mate- rial Claims Against Germany, I remember just how difficult the issue of negotiating with Germanywaswithin the Jewish world 60 years ago. In Israel in particular, it was a subject of enormous controversy, politi- cal and moral. Yet as far as we in the negotiating delegationwere concerned, we did not come just to seek financial help to assist the victims of the Shoah. For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, we came forward to advance legal and moral claims on the country that had perpetrated crimes against us, in this case the successor state to the Third Reich. For the Jewish people, per- secuted and homeless for two millennia, this was indeed a unique, moment in its history. Our organizationwas formed in 1951 following a landmark speech by West German Chan- cellor Konrad Adenauer that signaled Germany's readiness to address the responsibility for the acts of the Nazi regime. We chose our group's name very deliberately. We wanted to ensure recognition' that although material claims could be addressed, the moral claims of the survivors and indeed the entire Jewish people could never be resolved. Negotiations among rep- resefltatives of the Claims Conference, the State of Israel and West Germany began in March 1952. For these talks, the Dutch government gave us an old medieval castle called the Oudkasteel at the edge of The Hague. Two anti-Nazis headed the German delegation: Franz Bohm, a Frankfurt University professor of civil law whom American forces had freed from a Gestapo jail, and lawyer Otto Koester, who had been a leader of the Protestant Resistance to the Nazis. There were no handshakes, no banter that first day. The al~mosphere was official and chilly. We somehow had the feeling that we were not alone in this room; somehow we felt that the spirits of those who could not be there were with us. After that very solemn start, the talks engendered a proper working relationship in per- sonal contact and discussions. The German delegation would meet mornings with the Israeli delegation and afternoons with Claims Conference representa- tives. The Claims Conference and Israeli representatives would meet at the end of each day and coordinate positions. Among the three groups we created a foundation of friendly and civilized human relation- ships. We worked throughout the spring and summer, and you don't spend all those months together, night and day, without developing a normal rapport and relationships. At times we were deadlocked. Nachum Goldmann, represent- ing the Claims Conference, Courtesy Claims Conference Saul Kagan (r), founding executive director of the Claims Conference, talks to Nahum Goldmann, founder and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, 1958. would fly to Germany to meet Adenauer, Goldmann and For- with Adenauer and the two eignMinisterMosheSharetton would resolve the dilemma, behalf of Israel, the agreements For six months we wrestled laidthefoundationfortheensu- with trying to create the basis ing 60 years of seeking a small both for compensation and for measure of justice for Jewish the principle ofasmall measure victims of Nazi persecution. The of justice that had to be the agreementwasfor$821million. underpinningforalltheefforts. Since then, Germany has paid Clearly we never believed that $70 billion in compensation to ~ve could attain any sort of true Jewish victims of Nazism. justice, soanysortofpayments, Adenauer and Goldmann no matter the amount, would remained in touch, periodi- always be symbolic in nature, cally vacationing together in In September 1952 we signed Switzerland. the agreements by which West From 1952 onward, the Germany promised to enact ClaimsConferencehasworked legislation that would provide with every German govern- individual compensation to ment to press its demands and Holocaust survivors, provide toensurethatthecommitment funds to the Claims Conference that the German government to help Holocaust survivors had undertaken in Luxem- outside of Israel rebuild their bourg would not remain paper lives, and provide funds to the on the shelf of an archive. State of Israel. After six decades ofcontinu- Signed in Luxembourg by ous, in tenseeffortstofulfill, ex- Courtesy Claims Conference West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signs the agreement that would provide individual compensation to Holocaust survivors, Luxembourg, September 1952. pand and implement the basic principles that are contained in the Luxembourg Agree- ments, we should mark them. We don't celebrate necessarily. We mark them, properly and appropriately. When I look back now and think about being present at negotiations and the signing of the Luxembourg documents, I think not aboutwriting history but about learning from experi- ence to continue to energize our efforts going forward. At the Claims Conference, we knew at all times that there can- not be full indemnification for the personal sufferings of the survivors. We also knew there was no way that the material losses could be fully compen- sated. Sowe had to focus on the optimum that could be attained while continuing to pursue expansions. We have done this now for 60 years. But our mis- sion and our responsibi!!ty are by no means finished. They must continue for generations and generations to come because above and beyond our efforts to advance the demands of the survivors, there are lessons that have to be carried forward, beyond the Jewish world, in the hope that the more the world will learn what the Holocaust was all about, and how just prejudice can turn into hate and land in the crematoria of Auschwitz, the better it will be not only for the Jewish people but for the world at large. So we must continue. Saul Kagan was the found- ing executive director of the Claims Conference and served as the organization's profes- sional leader for 47 years. He remains a special consultant. By Gary Rosenblatt New York Jewish Week NEW YORK-,The issue of who can become a Jew through conversion is controversial and critical to determining the es- sence of the Jewish character, and as timely as the current headlines from Jerusalem. But as two rabbinic schol- ars-one Reform and one Conservative--show in as- sessing Orthodox rabbinic decision-making on the sub- ject over the last two centuries, the debate is hardly new. And in their recently published book, "Pledges of Jewish Al- legiance: Conversion, Law and Policymakingin 19th and 20th Century Orthodox Responsa," the authors emphasize that opinions have always taken into account the social context and conditions of the day as well as interpretation of Jew- ish law. Rabbi David Ellenson, presi- dent of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, ordained at "the Jewish Theological Seminary and president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, are old friends who conceived of the book 20 years ago. "We began to think about how these responsa spoke to the modern conversation, and how these were not just narrow legal opinions," noted Ellenson during a recent joint interview here. "The rabbis were philosophers expressing their attitudes toward the con- ception of Jewish peoplehood and charting public policy." Sitting next to him in E1- lenson's office, Gordis said a goal of the book was "for Orthodox readers to see the [wide] range of halachic inter- pretation" and "for liberals to see that no Orthodox poskim [decisors] were willing to sus- pend all concern of observance of ritual commandments." Starting with Ruth The basis for conversion in Jewish life evolved over time. The Torah does not mention or define it; when Ruth, in the Bible, famously joined the Jewish people, she did so through a simple and sublime statement, telling her mother- in-law, Naomi: "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people andyour God, my God." Since Naomi sought to dissuade Ruth three times, it became customary to discour- age potential converts, in part because observing Jewish ritu- a|s can be burdensome, and also to protect the person from persecution as a Jew. At times in Jewish history, proselytizingwas encouraged, butforthemostpartitwasnot, ruled that a potential convert many examples of cases and and the rabbis of the Talmud who denies even a single law decisions regarding conver- had varying attitudes toward should be rejected, sion over the last 200 years, conversion, best exemplified "Schlesinger's vehemencefrom Europe, the U.S. and by Hillel and Shammai. HiUel againstconversioninthemod- Israel, reflect the seriousness accepted the non-Jew whoerneracannotbeviewedapart withwhichleadingrabbistook wanted to learn the Torah fromthevitriolicjudgmentshe responsibilityfortheiractions. while standing on one foot-- passed against Reform in par- "I was deeply impressed "do not unto others what you ticular or from his opposition with the humility of the rab- wouldnothavethemdotoyou;to acculturation in general," bis, even when they disagree, that's the essence of the Torah, the authors wrote, which should be a model" for the rest is commentary. Now In sharp contrast, a bold our generation, Ellenson said, go learn," Hillel advised, decision by Rabbi Isaac Halevi adding that he felt a sense of Shammai, on the other Herzog (1888-1959), the sec- "sanctity" in reading the mate- hand, had sent the impatient ond Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi rialthatcoveredsomanyyears man packing, insulted that of Israel, is cited, in which he and points of view. one would seek to grasp the takesintoaccountthecircum- "They are keenly aware of Torah's vast knowledge in a stances, post-Holocaust, of theirownsociologicalmilieu," brief moment, the role of the State of Israel Gordis said of the rabbis, and Over time conversion be-in.contemporary J.ewish life. were able to conduct "passion- came a ritual procedure of A 1948 case brought to ate butcivildebateswhichare Jewish law, approved by a beit him involved gentile women context-based." din (rabbinic court of at least who had saved their Jewish Ellenson and Gordis said three), during which the con- husbands by refusing to obey a that in all of their conversa- vert pledges to keep the laws of Nazi demand to divorce them, tions over the years regarding the Torah. But doesthatmean placing the women in grave thematerialtheywereworking taking on every mitzvah?danger. They now sought to with, they never discussed The new Ellenson and settleinIsraelandbecomeJews, theirownviewsaboutapplying Gordis book--its completion kIerzog offered a redefini' Jewishlawtoconversiontoday. took so long, they explained, tiohof"forthesakeofheaven," But theyplan to write a more because their busy careers "got the accepted criteria for con- academic sequel in which they in the way"--demonstrates version, in light of the estab- will each pick a few rabbinic the wide range of rabbinic lishment of the Jewish state, texts, write personal analyses decisions over the centuries, at The authors note that the of them, and then engage in a times tacking toward leniency rabbi "never said the enormity pointed back-and:forth discus- or stringency, depending on of the human tragedy trumps sion, in print. the particular rabbis and the the authority of the Shulchan Ellenson, who grew up in a social conditions inwhichthey Aruch [the Code of Jewish Modern Orthodox synagogue found themselves. Law]," but he did approve of in Newport News, Va~, says For example, the book cites the conversions, he does not define himself as Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger "To join the Zionist enter- a halachic Jew, "but I take it (1837-1922), who sought to prise, Herzog essentially says, seriously." His scholarship has counter the Hungarian gov- is to serve heaven, whether or focused on Orthodox rabbinic ernment's push for Jewish nottheconvert'sintentionisto responsa, whichhesaysrepre- integration into modern life at observe the commandments, senti"a thick Jewish culture." the time, fearful ofwidespread as traditional definitions of the Gordis, scion of a rabbinic assimilation, notionwouldideallydemand," Conservative family in Balti- Schlesinger, observing that the book says. more, says he feels part of"the Hungarian Jews were giving Model of civil debate halachicsystem, writlarge,"to up adherence to Jewish law, Throughout, the authors'which he is "tethered," while he describes his co-author as more "flexible" about Jewish ritual and law. Theirworkhas majorimpli- cations for the current crises, here and in Israel, regarding conversions, and not only in the Orthodox community. Their study shows that one can always findasource to support his or her poin~ of view, either embracing or discouraging converts. But Ellenson and Gordis indicate how over time serious rabbinic leaders struggled to identify the key commitments in determining what it means to be connected to the Jewish people. The chief rabbinic conver- sion court in Israel today has taken the most stringent positions, to the point of annul- ling Orthodox conversions of hundreds of men and women. By contrast, the Sephardic scholar and Shas Knesset member Rabbi Chaim Amsa- lem has called for leniency for the large numbers of Russians, married to Jews, who have not only chosen to Israel but serve in the army to defend the country and its citizens. Ellenson and Gordis prove that this timely sociological approach--an attempt to avoid separating what it is to be an Israeli and what it- is to be a Jew in the State of Israel--is rooted in the long halachic tradition. Let's hope their solid and sober analysis will elevate the discussion and chart a path that rejects the notion of the rabbis as a stumbling block, andallow sincere men and women to cast their fate with the Jewish people.