By Judy Maltz
It was an unusual scene at the Israeli president’s house on Thursday morning, almost surreal. Gathered under one roof were roughly 100 Israelis from across the religious spectrum, all participating in a Jewish studies class led by Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis – not to mention a token secular kibbutznik.
And it was not just any president hosting this multi-denominational affair, but Reuven Rivlin – not exactly the friendliest head of state to the non-Orthodox movements.
By inviting Conservative and Reform rabbis to his home, Rivlin was clearly trying to make amends, but he almost didn’t pull it off. Earlier this week, the rabbi chosen to fill the Orthodox slot on today’s teaching panel, Uri Sherki, notified Rivlin that he wouldn’t be coming. He cited “technical reasons” as the official excuse for bowing out, but Sherki has made no secret of his dislike of non-Orthodox Jews (referring to Reform Jews as “heretics” in a recent interview) or of the fact that he was under massive pressure within his own community to absent himself.
His substitute on the panel was the far more progressive Benny Lau, who couldn’t resist a joke when it came his turn to speak. “Mr. President,” Lau turned to Rivlin as he took the podium. “You should have made me a sticker for my car that says ‘B.L.Y.D.M.’ – ‘Benny Lau, Your Default Man.’”
Neither could Rivlin resist going off script at an opportune moment. Acknowledging that the event was “not easy to build and put together,” the president lifted his eyes from his prepared statement and almost winked at the crowd when he added “to put it mildly.”
Leaders of the world Conservative movement took great offense last month at Rivlin’s decision to prevent one of their rabbis from officiating at a bar mitzvah service for disabled children that was meant to be hosted at his official residence. The Conservative movement in Israel runs a special bar mitzvah program for these children around the country. In a statement made more than 15 years ago, before he was president, Rivlin had referred to the Reform movement as “idol worship and not Judaism.”
This morning, he was singing a different tune. “One could disagree with the positions and opinions of members of the Reform or Conservative movements,” he said in his prepared statement, “but one could not deny their dedication, or the clear voice with which they speak in support of the State of Israel, here and around the world.”
The crowd gathered at the president’s residence included young and old, well-known and lesser-known faces. To be sure, the Conservative and Reform movements were well represented, many of their rabbis and top lay officials in attendance. By contrast, barely a handful of Orthodox rabbis stood out in the crowd.
The guests included Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. There was also Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three teenage boys kidnapped and murdered last summer, and Marina Polinovsky, a founder of the first Reform congregation in Israel for Russian speakers. There were representatives of the Noam youth movement, affiliated with Conservative Judaism, and of the Telem youth movement, affiliated with Reform Judaism. There were also members of the religious Scouts, though no representatives of the more hardline religious youth movement, Bnei Akiva.
The Master of Ceremonies, former Knesset Member Einat Wilf (Kadima), opened by sharing a response she often gives visitors who are trying to understand who is a Jew. “What I tell people who ask is that a Jew is someone who argues with other Jews about who is a Jew,” she said.
In addition to Lau, the other teachers leading the class were Meir Azari, who has served as the head rabbi at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s Reform congregation, since its establishment in 1991, and is considered a prominent figure in the movement in Israel: Chaya Rowen-Baker, the rabbi of the Conservative-Masorti congregation Ramot Zion in Jerusalem; and Dr. Moti Zeira, a historian and kibbutznik who founded Hamidrasha at Oranim College and is a leader of the Jewish renewal movement in Israel.
The event, devoted to the topic of Jewish unity, was meant to coincide with the traditional nine days of mourning that precede the fast of Tisha B’Av.
Sharansky, who delivered an opening statement, was determined to prove that dissent is nothing new among the Jews. He began by shattering the myth that Soviet Jewry was the one cause that succeeded in uniting Jews from all walks of life. “As someone who worked closely with activists in the movement, trust me that this wasn’t the case at all,” he said. “There were dozens of organizations, and they were all at each other’s throats.”
Echoing this theme, Lau noted: “We all know how to die together, but do we know how to live together?”
Before closing the event, Wilf asked the multi-denominational panel members to pose for a photo with the president. “We’ll need this as evidence that we were really here together,” she said.