Rivlin's Decision to Exclude Conservative Rabbi From Bar Mitzvah for Disabled Kids Draws Ire

World Conservative leaders send letter to president, calling his decision ‘an act of cruelty’; President's Office accuses movement of 'obstinacy.'

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Disabled children taking part in a bar mitzvah ceremony.
Disabled children taking part in a bar mitzvah ceremony.Credit: The Masorti Movement In Israel
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The leaders of the worldwide Conservative movement are furious with President Reuven Rivlin for withdrawing his agreement to host a bar mitzvah ceremony at his residence for disabled children from Rehovot with one of their rabbis.

Conservative movement representatives in Israel learned last week that the bar mitzvah ceremony would be presided over by an Orthodox rabbi alone – rather than jointly by an Orthodox and a Conservative rabbi, as had been agreed.

In a strongly worded letter sent to the president on Sunday evening, leaders of the worldwide Conservative movement wrote: “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.”

In response, the President's Office said that alternative options for the ceremony have been proposed but were rejected by the Conservative movement.

About a month ago, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Rehovot cancelled the bar mitzvah ceremony, which was originally supposed to have taken place at the city's Conservative synagogue. Mayor Rahamim Malul, who has served as Knesset member for Shas and is now a member of Likud, said he would only agree for it to be held at an Orthodox synagogue, even though the bar mitzvah training program for the disabled children is run by the Conservative movement. The Conservative has run this program for 20 years in various locations in the country, including last year in Rehovot with no interference from the mayor.

Malul ruled that the ceremony could not be held at a Conservative synagogue following complaints from an Orthodox parent of a child at the local school for the disabled.

“Indeed, the worldwide Conservative Movement, whose members lead most of the Jewish organizations in North America (Jewish Federations, AIPAC, Hillel and more) promote the democratic nature of Israel, and the modern, humanitarian and scientific outlook of the Jewish state,” wrote 23 leaders of the worldwide Conservative movement, known as the Masorti movement in Israel, in their letter to Rivlin.

“We lead the struggle against those who seek to defame or even to boycott Israel. Our love for the State of Israel is unconditional. But Israel must live up to her claims about herself. A modern, scientific, humanitarian, democratic state cannot deny a program to disabled children simply because of your loathing for our Jewish philosophy and practice, not in the ‘City of Science’ and not in the President’s Residence."

Under a compromise agreement reached two weeks ago, the ceremony was to have been held at the President’s Residence and officiated jointly by Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, the spiritual leader of the Conservative congregation in Rehovot, and by Rabbi Benny Lau from Jerusalem, known to be a progressive-minded Orthodox rabbi. The compromise was initiated by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Congregation Adat Shalom-Emanuel in Rehovot is one of the oldest Conservative congregations in Israel. Last September, it became the first Conservative synagogue in Israel to install an openly gay rabbi. British-born 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.

“In a meeting at the President’s Residence, with your staff and a representative of the Office of Diaspora Affairs, every detail of the planned ceremony was finalized,” the Conservative movement leaders noted in their letter. “At that stage, the parents were informed, to their joy and relief that their children would be able to have this unique program, designed to help children with great difficulties in verbal communication.”

They write that they were “utterly shocked” when they received the ceremony program last week and learned from it that the ceremony would be officiated exclusively by an Orthodox rabbi.

The President's Office in response accused the Conservative movement of "obstinacy" in the face of alternative plans that have been proposed.

"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," the office said.

"But these too failed due to the obstinacy of the Masorti Movement to stick with the original plan to run the event themselves."

Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements in North America had initially been concerned about Rivlin’s appointment to president because of derogatory remarks he had made in the past about Reform Judaism. Rivlin, who is not observant himself, had referred in a statement made 15 years ago to Reform Judaism as “idol worship and not Judaism.” Since assuming the presidency, however, he has reached out to both the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in an effort to mend relations with them.

Paraphrasing from the Book of Isaiah, the Conservative movement leaders conclude their letter to Rivlin with the following question: “Is it fathomable that the official residence of the president of the State of Israel cannot be considered a house of prayer for all Jews?”

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