I’ve been having an exchange of letters with President Rivlin and his representative about the recent controversy related to the proposed B’nai Mitzvah service, which was originally supposed to be led by a Conservative rabbi. Here is the correspondence:
Dear President Rivlin:
In 2010 my wife and I made Aliyah from Sacramento, California. We now live on Rehov Harlap, within 100 meters of Beit HaNasi. I gave up a highly successful business in Sacramento, and we left our family and friends in California to live in our homeland, Israel. Our youngest child, our daughter, also made Aliyah around the same time. We sold our 300 meter suburban home and the three of us now live in a 50 meter apartment that is three flights up with no elevator.
Prior to making Aliyah I was President of Sacramento’s Conservative (Masorti) synagogue. My wife had been President of the local Jewish Federation. We were both active supporters of AIPAC and were active in many other ways in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. No one in either the Jewish or the general community ever questioned our Jewishness. No one ever considered us other than first-class and full Jews.
But here in Israel, because I am a Conservative/Masorti Jew, I am treated as less than a first-class, full Jew. My movement is treated differently than the Orthodox movement. My rabbi cannot preside at the wedding of my daughter. I am constantly told that I am less of Jew. Despite my commitment and my sacrifice, my Judaism is questioned.
Your recent refusal to host a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi is a painful, bitter disappointment to me. Since you became President, I have admired your work to reach out to Israeli minority citizens and to encourage all Israelis to feel equal and included. But to me, a committed Jew, you joined the rest of the established powers and said “No, you are not completely included as part of the Jewish people in Israel. Because you are a Conservative Jew, you are not equal.” Your message is a terrible blow. When you should have continued to lead toward an inclusive, equal, tolerant Israel, you instead reinforced an unequal, exclusive, painful Judaism in Israel.
I never miss an opportunity to encourage other Diaspora Jews of all streams to make Aliyah. I tell them that only in Israel does a Jew feel completely fulfilled, living according to the Jewish calendar and infusing all of life with Judaism. The statement that you made when you refused to participate in the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi undercuts my efforts and sends a message of exclusion. It sends a non-welcoming message to non-Orthodox Jews.
I urge you to apologize to those Conservative/Masorti Jews who were hurt and insulted by your recent decision. I urge you to vigorously support the equal treatment of all Jewish denominations and all Jewish people here in Israel. Make Israel an inclusive, supportive home for all Jews.
Thank you for your enquiry about which the President has asked me to respond to you. I want to make quite clear that the Bar-Mitzvah children, together with the parents and teachers of the Lotam school in Rehovot are still very much welcome and invited to celebrate at the President’s Residence together with representatives of the Masorti Movement.
Our door is open to all, and we believe firmly that what is important is the happiness and well-being of the children, and that they should not be embroiled in political or religious disagreements. This is has always been, and will continue to be the case.
The President’s Residence is not a religious institution, nor is it a house of prayer. It is our duty not to be involved in religious disputes, but to ensure that the platform of the President’s Office, is not used to fan the flames of rivalry between different religious factions.
Over the past year, the President has on a number of occasions met with open arms, and held positive and warm meetings, with representatives and leaders of the Masorti/Conservative Movement. Dialogue, as well as arguments, must be constructive, and not conducted under threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument ‘for the sake of Heaven’.
Public Affairs & Community relations Department
Office of the President
Thank you very much for your response to my letter. I understand that, out of necessity, it is a standard letter drafted in response to the many objections the President received regarding this issue. Unfortunately, it does not respond to my concerns.
Firstly, you write “Dialogue, as well as arguments, must be constructive, and not conducted under threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument ‘for the sake of Heaven’.” I believe that my arguments were constructive, and my e-mail did not include any “threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument ‘for the sake of Heaven.’” So I have no idea why that would be included in a response to me.
Secondly, you write that the children, along with representative of the Masorti Movement, are welcome at the President’s residence. That is very much appreciated, I am sure, but we know that representatives being welcomed is not the issue at hand. The issue is whether Masorti rabbis and, even more importantly, Israeli citizens who are Masorti Jews, are accorded completely equal status and treatment to Orthodox rabbis and Jews. We all know that we are not accorded such status and treatment. The refusal to allow a Masorti rabbi to conduct a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, whether in Rana’ana or in Beit HaNasi, is simply the latest and the most blatant and glaring representation of that inequality. And, as I wrote previously, it is the most hurtful. It reverberates to the core.
Thirdly, your e-mail goes to great lengths to stress that the President and the President’s Residence do not involve themselves in religious and political disagreements. I must, respectfully, say that this appears to me to be a very disingenuous argument on your part. Virtually every day the President calls out for equal and respectful treatment of our Israeli citizens, for our gay and lesbian citizens, for our religious minorities, for our Palestinian neighbors.
I wholeheartedly support the President’s efforts and respect him for them. That is what makes his conduct toward the Masorti rabbinate and the movement generally even more painful and insulting. When it comes to us, somehow he cannot call for equal treatment and basic fairness. Suddenly, his office and home are not the place for religion and politics. He cannot even allow a Masorti rabbi to conduct a B’nai Mitzvah service for disabled children, a Mitzvah if there ever was one. This is incongruent with what he rightfully does every day.
Finally, I will just recall last summer’s experience, when our entire family, including our then-10 week old granddaughter, was visiting us here in Israel. As we traveled around the country and repeatedly endured Tzeva Adom’s and ran for shelter, I do not recall those missiles distinguishing between denominations of Jews. If they didn’t, I don’t think the President or the State should either.
P.S. As I mentioned in my prior e-mail, I live within 100 meters of Beit HaNasi. If you or the President or any of his representatives would like to discuss this issue in person, I would be happy to walk over.