Ultra-Orthodox Mayor Cancels Bar/bat Mitzvah for Disabled Children

Ceremony, which children have spent months preparing for, canceled due to mayor's refusal to allow it to be held at Conservative synagogue.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A child reading from the Torah.
A child reading from the Torah.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The ultra-Orthodox mayor of Rehovot has cancelled a special bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities that was scheduled to take place on Thursday at the Israeli city's Conservative synagogue.

Mayor Rahamim Malul, who has served as Knesset member for Shas, the religious Mizrahi party, instructed the principal of Lotem, a school for the disabled in Rehovot, to move the ceremony to an Orthodox synagogue, according to leaders of the Conservative, also known as the Masorti, movement in Israel.

The children had been preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs for the past several months at the Adrabah Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, an institution run by the Masorti movement in Israel.

Malul, who has since left Shas and joined the Likud party, told Conservative movement leaders that the rabbi of their synagogue in Rehovot would be allowed to participate in the ceremony at the Orthodox synagogue but that girls would be forbidden to wear prayer shawls and that certain prayers from the Conservative prayer book would have to be substituted with those from the Orthodox siddur.

In response, the spokeswoman for the Rehovot municipality said that the change in venue was meant to accommodate the parents of Orthodox children at Lotem, who objected to holding the bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies in a Conservative synagogue. “These parents complained to the municipality that holding the ceremony at a Reform [sic] synagogue prevents them from coming,” said the spokeswoman, Carmela Cooper. “The municipality subsequently approached the principal of the school and notified her that the ceremony could not be held in this format because it this is anti-religious coercion on other parents.”

Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

She added that the mayor does not object to parents acting on their own beliefs and holding bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies where and as they choose “but not as part of an official ceremony organized by the school that is supposed to be acceptable to all parents.”

The parents held an urgent meeting this morning, she said, and decided to postpone the ceremony until a consensus about the venue could be reached. The original plan was to hold the ceremony at 9 A.M., during school hours. On Tuesday, after being informed of the mayor’s decision, the parents voted to defy him and hold the ceremony at the Conservative synagogue as planned, but after school hours so that municipal approval for the event is not required. When it later emerged that parents of one of the children would not available to attend at this hour, the decision was taken to postpone the event until further notice.

The Masorti movement in Israel has been running this bar- and bat-mitzvah program for children with disabilities for the past 25 years in various locations around the country. Last year, the ceremony was held at the Conservative synagogue in Rehovot with no interference from the mayor.

Congregation Adat Shalom-Emanuel in Rehovot is one of the oldest Conservative congregations in Israel. Established in 1970 by immigrants from North America, it advertises itself as the only non-Orthodox synagogue between Nes Tziona and Ashdod.

Last September, it became the first Conservative synagogue in Israel to install an openly gay rabbi. That rabbi, British-born Mikie Goldstein, previously served as head of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an organization that advocates on behalf of the LGBT community in the capital.

“The mayor is using children as pawns in a game and holding them hostage in his own political playing field,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, in response to the mayor’s decision. “He is forcing his personal religious views on these children, and by doing so, degrades his city and the Jewish religion.”

He noted that in contrast to Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement considers children with disabilities to be eligible to serve as part of a minyan, or 10-person prayer quorum, and to read from the Torah as are all other children, once they reach bar- or bat-mitzvah age. “Thousands of children in Israel have already celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs through our program, but it is not children that interest the mayor,” he said. “How very sad and how utterly infuriating.”

Hess noted that the mayors of Be'er Sheva, Ra’anana and Kfar Sava have routinely attended the bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies for children with disabilities sponsored by the Conservative movement. “They feel proud that in their city such an important project exists,” he said.

Four children had been scheduled to participate in Thursday’s ceremony. Another six children in the program were to have participated in a separate ceremony scheduled to be held in June. It is not yet clear where the second ceremony will be held.

According to sources involved in the negotiations, it was the Orthodox parents of one child in the school who had complained about holding the ceremony in the Conservative synagogue, even though their son was not participating in project.

Recently, the city of Rehovot formed a partnership agreement with the Jewish Federation of Minneapolis. According to well-placed sources, that partnership could be in jeopardy now, as the mayor’s decision is likely to be considered an affront to non-Orthodox Jews. The Jewish Federation of Washington last year cancelled its longstanding partnership with the Beit Shemesh because of that city’s growing ultra-Orthodox orientation.

Rehovot is often referred to as Israel’s Ohio because of the electoral and socioeconomic diversity of its population.

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