Israel's Chief Rabbi Refuses to Call Pittsburgh Massacre Site a Synagogue Because It's non-Orthodox

In interview with Orthodox newspaper, Rabbi Lau calls Tree of Life ‘a place with profound Jewish flavor’

Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's deadly shooting, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 28, 2018.
\ AARON JOSEFCZYK/ REUTERS

UPDATE: Netanyahu rebuffs Israel's chief rabbi: Pittsburgh victims were killed in a synagogue

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi came under fire on Sunday for refusing to acknowledge in a newspaper interview that the massacre in Pittsburgh was carried out in a synagogue.

The country’s ultra-Orthodox newspapers, in reporting on the event, have also refused to acknowledge that it took place in a Jewish house of prayer because Tree of Life is a Conservative congregation, and they do not recognize the non-Orthodox movements.

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File photo: Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks at an event in Jerusalem, July 2018.
Emil Salman

In the interview with Makor Rishon, a newspaper popular in the Israeli Modern Orthodox community, Rabbi David Lau said that “any murder of any Jew in any part of the world for being Jewish is unforgivable.” But rather than acknowledge that the crime had been carried out in a synagogue, he referred to the location as “a place with a profound Jewish flavor.”

Responding on Twitter, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel asked rhetorically: “Really, chief rabbi of Israel? A place with a profound Jewish flavor? Perhaps a synagogue?”

Tomer Persico, a prominent Israeli scholar of religion, tweeted in response: “Chief Rabbi Lau refuses to say it was a synagogue. And that’s while Jews were murdered when praying.”

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“Even halakhically, it is a synagogue,” added Persico, referring to the fact that Conservative Judaism follows halakha, or Jewish religious law. “This is the face of the Orthodox establishment: petty, detached, archaic and hateful.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox newspapers all reported on the attack, but likewise, refused to refer to Tree of Life as a synagogue, preferring instead to call it a “Jewish center.”

An estimated 18 percent of American Jews are affiliated with the Conservative movement. Israel’s unwillingness to recognize the non-orthodox movements is a major cause of tension with Diaspora Jewry.