Israeli President Rivlin riles Conservative rabbis

Israeli President Rivlin riles Conservative rabbis

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the president’s house in Jerusalem on May 28. 
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the president’s house in Jerusalem on May 28. 

Israeli Conservative rabbis — and their American colleagues — are learning an important lesson.

Sometimes no mitzvah goes unpunished.

After the Orthodox mayor of Rehovot cancelled a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children arranged by the local Masorti synagogue, leaders of Israel’s Masorti movement, as Conservative Judaism is known in Israel, thought they had a compromise brokered by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who offered to host the ceremony in his official residence.

Now Masorti leaders are crying foul, saying the rabbi who trained the disabled kids for their group bar mitzvah has been disinvited from the planned June ceremony arranged by Rivlin’s office.

The ceremony, scheduled to take place at the end of the month, was supposed to have two co-officiating rabbis, Rehovot’s Masorti leader, Rabbi Mike Goldstein, and an Orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau, Conservative movement officials say. At the service, 10 children with disabilities, including autism, were to participate in a group bnai mitzvah ceremony.

But a strongly worded letter to Rivlin, signed last week by 24 Conservative rabbis and movement professionals, claims that Rivlin sent them the official ceremony program last week — without Goldstein’s name.

“It is painful to say it, but this is an act of cruelty in which disabled children and their parents are being denied a service that would help them,” according to the letter, which asserts that “the sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program, the worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.”

Rivlin’s spokesperson, Jason Pearlman, told a different story, saying the event program had yet to be finalized, and a number of possible options for the ceremony were still on the table. A statement put out by the president’s office in response to the letter criticized the “obstinacy” of the Conservative rabbis and accused them of “seeking to advance their agenda through the cynical use of children.”

“The final details of what was going to happen and who would do what in what order, these details had yet to be finalized,” Pearlman said.

But Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement, said the details of the event had been finalized at a meeting at the president’s residence on May 26.

“We had a meeting in the president’s house with the president’s people, two and a half hours, going from every place to every place, putting the program together by the minute,” Hess said. “Everything was set in stone.”

Hess says that if Rivlin agrees to hold a co-officiated service as previously planned, the ceremony can go on.

The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities has been taking place in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, under the auspices of the Masorti movement, for 20 years. The celebration was moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem after Rahamim Malul, the mayor of Rehovot, canceled the ceremony because it would be held at a Masorti synagogue. Malul, a former lawmaker for the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said that there were students with disabilities in the program who were uncomfortable going to a non-Orthodox synagogue.

Rivlin has made reconciliation between different sectors of Israeli society his central goal as president. But this isn’t the first time Rivlin has offended non-Orthodox movements. In 1989, after visiting Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, a large and prominent Reform synagogue, Rivlin — then the chairman of the Likud party — told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot that Reform Judaism is “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism” and called Reform Jews “idol worshippers,” and as late as 2007 he refused to address Reform rabbis by the title “rabbi.”

“It looks to me like he’s building his record, he’s expanding his record,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said. “Previously, he’s made these highly derogatory comments about the Reform movement. Now, he has not only added the Conservative movement to that, but he has deepened the impact of his loathing of our movements.”

JTA Wire Service