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Boston Jewry implores Netanyahu to back moderate Stav for chief rabbi

The prime minister is urged to help retake the rabbinate from ‘distrusted non-Zionist rabbinical authorities’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

With the short list of candidates finalized in the race for the Israeli chief rabbinate, a group of influential Boston Jews implored Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly support Rabbi David Stav, who is widely touted as a “moderate, Zionist” candidate.

“As he espouses values of tolerance and dialogue, we believe that Rabbi Stav’s election would usher in positive changes to the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry,” wrote the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston’s Rob Small (chair of the board) and Barry Shrage (president) in a letter dated July 16.

Also signed on the two-page formal missive are members of the board of directors of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (which recently merged with the Jewish Federation of the North Shore), and additional supporters from Boston, including members of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Wendy Kraft and The Times of Israel co-founder Seth Klarman and wife Beth.

Considered one of the leaders among those vying for Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the August 14 elections, Stav, 53, the religious Zionist candidate who since 2009 has been the rabbi of Shoham and head of the religious Zionist Tzohar organization.

Tzohar, which works under the auspices of and alongside the rabbinate, is considered a more liberal avenue for nonobservant or liberal Israelis in addressing life-cycle needs, including weddings and circumcisions.

Stav’s candidacy is extremely divisive and has caused an uproar in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. The rabbi has been verbally maligned by high-ranking rabbis, including Shas’s Ovadia Yosef, and physically attacked since announcing his candidacy.

In the Boston letter, the signatories expressed dismay at the current hard-line non-Zionist nature of the Israeli rabbinate and reminded the prime minister that decisions made by this body on matters such as conversion and marriage have ramifications for Diaspora Jewry and Israel as a whole.

“Those decisions are now in the hands of non-Zionist rabbinical authorities who are widely distrusted by most Israelis and American Jews, and who are tarnished by politics and resented as coercive. These rabbinical authorities have contempt for the religious beliefs of others and have alienated generations of Israelis from religious experience of any kind.”

‘Spiritual leadership that is isolated from the life of the people, the IDF, the workforce and the institutions of the State denigrates religion itself’

The letter continues to underline the importance of this decision, stating: “Spiritual leadership that is isolated from the life of the people, the IDF, the workforce and the institutions of the State denigrates religion itself and drives Jews away from Judaism at exactly the moment when hundreds of thousands are on the edge of return [those whose relationship with Israel has been strengthened through Birthright].”

Other candidates for Ashkenazi chief rabbi include two sons of former chief rabbis, Rabbi David Lau, the 47-year-old son of rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and current rabbi of Modiin, and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, 63, the son of rabbi Avraham Shapira, and current head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. There is also another candidate from the national religious camp, Rabbi Eliezer Igra, 59, who in 2012 was appointed to the high rabbinical court in Jerusalem.

The letter ends with a direct plea for Netanyahu’s support of Stav. “We encourage you to support the protection of religious freedom, acceptance and tolerance for all Jews — in Israel and around the world… As he espouses values of tolerance and dialogue, we believe that Rabbi Stav’s election would usher in positive changes to the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry. This is a historic moment of decision and you are in the best possible position to provide leadership at this critical juncture.”

The August 14 elections are decided by a 150-member committee, of which only two are women.

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