Once again, an Israeli official has forced his personal religious preferences on the public.
Shockingly, two weeks ago, the mayor of the Israeli city of Rehovot, Rahamim Malul, forbid a bar/bat mitzvah celebration for children with severe disabilities, which was scheduled to be held in a Masorti (Conservative movement in Israel) synagogue.
The cancellation was because otherwise it would have meant that Orthodox families would have to set foot in a synagogue where men and women daven together, wearing tallit and tefillin if they choose. This was more important to Mayor Malul than the fact that these children had put in as much effort as humanly possible to reach this moment.
The Masorti movement has run the bar/bat mitzvah program for children with special needs in Israel for more than 25 years. It affords hundreds of families the opportunity to watch proudly as their sons and daughters reach the age of mitzvot in a public – and incredibly moving – ceremony. The Conservative movement had determined that it was appropriate, even necessary, to teach every child according to his or her needs, and that autism, cerebral palsy, and other conditions should not limit a child’s chance to join the community of adult Jews.
Many of us in Bergen County have had the privilege of attending these celebrations; no one leaves the service unmoved by the courage of these children and their parents.
The anguish of the families was heartbreaking. One mother asked of the mayor, “Why, Mr. Mayor? Evidently, you do not understand that autistic children are different from other children. For half a year they prepared, they rehearsed – and it was hard. How will I be able to explain the despair that we are experiencing?” And to her child she says, “I ask forgiveness for not being able to win this battle for you.”
How much longer will Israel permit its ultra-Orthodox minority to erase the rights of those who don’t practice Judaism the way they do? When will Israel ensure the same religious freedoms that we enjoy in this country? As heartbreaking as this incident is, it should be a clarion call to all of us to advocate for and demand religious pluralism in Israel, and to focus our support to institutions and causes that embrace this philosophy.