Chief rabbi says it doesn’t matter if Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life is a synagogue

David Lau says it’s clear victims were killed because they were Jews in a ‘place of clear Jewish character,’ adds: ‘I have a deep ideological disagreement with them about Judaism’

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Sunday condemned the killing of 11 American Jews in the Conservative Tree of Life Synagogue, but seemed to equivocate on calling the house of worship a synagogue, instead terming it “a place of clear Jewish character.”

The ultra-Orthodox Lau is an avowed foe of the more liberal streams of Judaism and was last year, along with Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, instrumental in pushing the government to backtrack on the deal for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

“I’ll say one simple thing: Any murder of a Jew in any corner of the world, because they are Jewish, is unforgivable, it’s a crime that cannot, under any circumstances, be ignored,” Lau told the Makor Rishon newspaper.

However, when pressed on the attitude to Conservative Jews of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, to which he belongs, Lau said that they were clearly Jews, but seemed to decline to acknowledge that Tree of Life is a synagogue.

An FBI agent stands behind a police cordon outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

His interviewer asked Lau to comment on the fact that “In the ultra-Orthodox media, they refused to refer to the Tree of Life as a Conservative synagogue, but as a ‘Jewish center’ in the best case.”

Lau responded that what the place is called doesn’t matter.

“They were killed because they were Jews. Does it matter which synagogue or liturgical tradition they pray in,” he said.

“We are talking about Jews,” Lau responded. “We don’t need to create issues at painful moments.”

“I have a deep ideological disagreement with them about Judaism about its past and the consequences for the future for the Jewish people for generations. So what? Because of that they are not Jews?” he added.

His interviewer asked: “But it was a synagogue?”

“Jews were killed in a place that for the killer was a place of clear Jewish character. A place with Torah scrolls, Jews in tallits, there are prayer books, there are people who went there to be closer to God,” he said. “Because of that the killer specifically went there and not somewhere else. That is why there is pain and anger.”

Authorities say 46-year-old Robert Bowers killed eight men and three women inside the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday during worship services before a tactical police team shot and wounded him. Bowers faces state and federal charges.

Dr. Karl Williams, chief medical examiner for Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, named the victims as Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.

Women lay flowers at a memorial on October 28, 2018, down the road from the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The suspected gunman reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he entered the synagogue and began firing. He engaged in a shootout with responding police officers and barricaded himself inside the building before surrendering.

Lau has in the past dismissed the concerns of US Jews, the majority of which belong to more liberal streams of Judaism.

Last year, after helping torpedo the Western Wall compromise, he dismissed the anger over the move, saying most American Jews did not care about the holy site, noting that 85% had never visited Israel.

The biggest issue facing US Jews was not the Western Wall or the conversion bill, but intermarriage and apathy about the Jewish state, he said.

Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson’s Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on Thursday, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)

Earlier Sunday, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay on backed the call by Deputy Minister Michael Oren to recognize the liberal streams of Judaism, in the wake of the shooting

In a tweet on Sunday morning, Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said: “The Conservative Jews of Pittsburgh were sufficiently Jewish to be killed because they were Jews but their movement is not recognized by the Jewish State. Israel must bolster these communities, already challenged by assimilation, by strengthening our ties with them.”

He added, in his Hebrew tweet, but not in his English-language tweet on the same topic: “I call on Minister Bennett not to suffice with condolences, but to recognize liberal Jewish streams and unite the people.”

He was referring to the fact that Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora affairs minister, in the hours after the attack flew to Pittsburgh in order to visit the synagogue, meet with the local Jewish community, and participate in the funerals of those killed in the attack

Opposition party Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, echoed Gabby and Oren in calling for recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism.

“If you are murdered because you are a Jew, then you are a Jew,” he said in Saturday night statement. “The Conservative and Reform are our brothers. They are our family.”

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to the media near the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“It is good that the minister of education traveled to Pittsburgh to comfort and strengthen, but the relationship with the majority of US Jews cannot be based on condolences and grief,” Lapid said. “We cannot bring back the dead, but we have a duty to fix our relationship with the living.”

Editor’s note: An earlier headline and version of this article stated that Rabbi Lau refused to refer to Tree of Life as a synagogue. The article has been updated to more accurately reflect his comments.

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