Rivlin’s ‘rabbi swap’ for bar mitzvah event angers Conservatives
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Rivlin’s ‘rabbi swap’ for bar mitzvah event angers Conservatives

President agreed to host ceremony for disabled boys after Rehovot mayor banned celebration in local synagogue

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin on May 28, 2015 (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin on May 28, 2015 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Leaders of the worldwide Conservative movement blasted President Reuven Rivlin Sunday for backtracking on a prior commitment to host a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children at his residence along with a representative rabbi from the Conservative community.

Rivlin’s initial move to host the event came after scheduled celebrations in Rehovot were canceled by the city’s mayor in late April due to the fact that the selected venue for the event was a synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement.

According to members of the worldwide Conservative Movement, the ceremony program at the President’s Residence was to be conducted by an Orthodox rabbi, rather than a Conservative one as the movement had expected.

“We were then utterly shocked to receive the ceremony program sent last week by the Executive Director of the President’s Residence to the Executive Director of the Diaspora Affairs Office, eliminating the plan to conduct the ceremony according to this special program, but rather to be officiated exclusively by an Orthodox rabbi,” a letter sent to the president by leading figures in the Conservative movement read. “The President’s Residence adopted the very same stance as that of the Mayor of Rehovot.

“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 and the sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program, the worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement,” the letter added.

A photo from a May 26 planning meeting in the synagogue of the President’s Residence, where a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children was to take place.  Left-to-right are Marianela Kreiman, coordinator of Masorti’s bar/bat mitzvah program; a staffer from the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs; a member of the President's Residence staff; and Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel.  (Photo by Ronen Ber-Avrahm.)
A photo from a May 26 planning meeting in the synagogue of the President’s Residence, where a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children was to take place. Left-to-right are Marianela Kreiman, coordinator of Masorti’s bar/bat mitzvah program; a staffer from the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs; a member of the President’s Residence staff; and Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel. (Photo by Ronen Ber-Avrahm.)

The President’s Office insisted Sunday night that it was making efforts to solve the dispute in a manner that would avoid further controversy, and blamed the “obstinacy” of the Conservative movement for the failure to reach a solution.

“Unfortunately, religious figures seeking to advance their agenda through the cynical use of children, refused to respond to every framework proposed by the President’s Office, and we are saddened by this approach, ” the office said in a statement.

“In recent days, frantic efforts were made by the director-general of the President’s Office, the director of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, and others, to find an agreed upon solution to hold the event in a way that would not perpetuate the dispute, including holding the religious service at a different location, before the children come to the President’s Residence to celebrate, or holding the event at the President’s Residence without any rabbinical involvement at all from any denomination. But these too failed due to the obstinacy of the Masorti movement to stick with the original plan to run the event themselves.”

The office said it invited the children “to a festive reception in a way that will place them, and only them, at the center of the event.”

The Conservative movement later refuted the President’s Office claims, saying the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which led negotiations over the event, had reached an agreement with the Masorti movement over the program, but the decision was abruptly reversed soon after.

“[It is not] ‘obstinate’ to reject the President’s suggestion that the bar mitzvah service … should be replaced by a “ceremony” in the President’s residence with no Rabbi simply because of the President’s loathing of the Masorti/Conservative movement,” read an official statement by the Conservative Movement. “To the contrary, the Masorti/Conservative movement accepted [a] compromise of co-officiation with an Orthodox rabbi for the sake of the children, despite the implicit, if not explicit implication by the President that the Masorti/Conservative movement is unfit to officiate over a religious ceremony on its own.”

The statement added that the proposal to hold the ceremony in the President’s house was not requested by the Masorti movement but was initiated by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which, along with representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, deemed alternative proposals by the President’s Officeto be inappropriate or inadequate.

The Conservative movement said an alternate suggestion by the President to hold the service at the Kotel was “unworkable because the distractions of being outside would have made it impossible for these children with autism to participate.”

“Finally, we reject the starting point of the President’s offered ‘alternatives’ because they are based on the noxious proposition that a Jewish religious movement, which as we stated, numbers among them Israel’s most zealous supporters is to accept, silently, the erasure of our identity and our contributions to the State of Israel and the world Jewish community,” the statement concluded.

Rehovot municipality and its mayor, Rahamim Malul, a former lawmaker for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, defended the cancellation of the April 30 event, citing the fact that the ceremony was organized by a public school with pupils from Orthodox families who opposed the selection of a Conservative synagogue and could not participate in celebrations for that reason. After the event was nixed, Rivlin offered to host the bar mitzvah ceremony at his residence instead.

Mayor of Rehovot, Rahamim Malul (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Mayor of Rehovot, Rahamim Malul (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Like Israel’s relatively small Reform Jewish communities, its Conservative communities have been waging a legal and public relations battle for equal treatment by the Orthodox establishment and tolerance by Orthodox Jews.

As recently as last year, in his capacity as a member of the Knesset, Rivlin opposed granting equal status to the Reform and Conservative movements. He also drew outrage in the past for calling Reform Judaism “idol worship” and refusing to address Reform rabbis as “rabbi.”

However, since becoming Israel’s head of state last July, Rivlin’s approach appeared to have softened, and he has sought a policy of inclusiveness. Last September, he told Conservative Jewish leaders that he respected and recognized “lovingly and genuinely, people who have chosen a different Jewish identity than my own.”

JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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