Reform Jews - Lior Mizrahi/Baubau - May 30, 2012
Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Baubau
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John Rich
The Jewish Federation's pro-Israel rally in Boston, July 17, 2014. Photo by John Rich

We’ve been hearing a lot about Jewish unity in a time of strife since this long, hot summer began and so much has happened - when three Israeli students were kidnapped and murdered, one Palestinian teen was also kidnapped and murdered, hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas, and anti-Semitism has been unleashed around the world.

As these events unfolded, at pro-Israel solidarity rallies in the U.S., there was much talk about standing together as one people. Many of these pro-Israel events rallies - like the one I covered last month in the spacious Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts - where American Jews sang, cried, and prayed for Israel - took place in Reform synagogues.

But this didn’t stop one Knesset member, who took a break from all this pesky brotherhood and hand-holding, choosing to shoot off some harsh and extremely un-unifying words at the Reform movement.

MK Shimon Ohayon, a member of the coalition’s Yisrael Beitenu party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and chair of the Knesset’s committee on the struggle against anti-Semitism, decided that the conflict with Hamas should not be an obstacle to join the club of recent public Reform-bashers. The club includes Ohayon’s fellow party member chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee David Rotem who said in February that Reform movement was “another religion” and “not Jewish.”

The club’s most prominent member is Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin. In his campaign for president, Rivlin stood by offensive remarks about the Reform movement made in the past, including a refusal to call Reform religious leaders with the title of “rabbi.” While there have been glimmers of improvement in his attitude since he took office, there has been no major public gestures of friendship made towards the movement.

Here are a few highlights from an interview with Ohayon published on the Hebrew language NRG website Wednesday, in which he made remarks that appeared aimed at mounting an argument against participation by Reform Jews in religious life in Israel, telling the local movement to “slow down” and accused it of sowing dissent and division by fighting for pluralism when it comes to issues like religious conversion, marriage and divorce.

-- He characterized Reform Judaism as bringing with it “a big sack of trouble, assimilation, and neglect of Jewish education.”

-- When he was asked whether he prefers that American Jewish children go to a Reform Jewish school or a non-Jewish school and get no Jewish education at all, he responded: “What is a Reform school? It’s “Sunday school” - not a serious activity. It creates “anti” in children. Because they don’t invest in it, and it is very very amateurly executed, it doesn’t work. The teachers there aren’t professional. There are no trained teachers. They just pull kids out of regular school and suddenly stick them in classrooms and expose them to Hebrew, Jewish music and songs in Hebrew. It’s completely cut off. When a child gets an Orthodox Jewish education, his entire experience is Jewish … if all of a kids’ friends are goyim, you don’t accomplish anything. Only “anti.””

-- Implying that this “anti” attitude extends to Reform Jewish political views, conflating religious pluralism with political leftism, he asked: “Where do you think organizations like ‘J Street’ come from? Not from the Orthodox stream, but from the Reform.”

-- When asked if he has ever been in a Reform synagogue, he responded: “It reminds you of a church, only it’s not a church.”

-- He said that the Reform movement hasn’t earned the right to participate in a conversation about Israeli religious life: “If you could come and show me the successes of the Reform movement, that it prevents assimilation, and strengthens the pro-Israel position, immigration to Israel, Jewish identity, I would say, “Let’s take a look at it.” But they don’t come with a good track record and they so they don’t have a right to to talk. I am more connected to the Jews of the former Soviet Union who lived under communism.”

-- He did allow that Jews connecting to Reform in the US was better than them having no Jewish connection at all. “But I’d be afraid of the consequences in that, because the Reform stance tolerates mixed marriage, and endangers the continuation of our existence. I worry - I’m against it.”

After reading Ohayon’s scathing remarks, I contacted President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs for his reaction. Jacob’s response was as negative and pointed as one might expect:

“It saddens me,” Jacobs said, “that MK Ohayon is trapped inside such an unenlightened view of the largest Movement in Jewish life. At this time when the outpouring of love and support for Israel is pervasive throughout our Movement such comments are insulting and pathetic. MK Ohayon would do well to upgrade his religious world view by heeding the words spoken by Rabbi Dov Zinger at the funeral of the three teens - "two Jews, three opinions, one heart." We need Jewish leaders who understand that what unites us is much deeper than that which divides us. Anyone of the almost 2000 North American Reform teens and young adults who travelled to Israel during this summer while rockets were flying could teach MK Ohayon about what it means to be an "Ohev Yisrael” (Lover of Israel.)” “

When Ohayon’s fellow party member Rotem attacked the Reform movement earlier this year, the backlash was similarly harsh from American Jewish leaders, with Jacobs going as far as to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein reprimand Rotem and depose him from his position as Chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

In the face of that firestorm, Rotem backed down the following week, offering a “full apology” for the insult to Reform.